by: James Young

Achieve Growth + Perennial Connection by Learning to Build New Products


The product community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations. We developed the product community due to a pressing need for associations to gain new capability in how to develop new value for their membership communities.

This article defines the product community, addresses the many ways one can engage in the product community, reviews product community features, and addresses why associations need product communities.

What is the product community?

The product community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations.

For us, products are the things we do to attract, connect, and engage our membership. It is the value we create. 

Value creation may be a clever phrase, but it’s synonymous with product development, which (when properly designed and successfully executed) is synonymous with meaningful, longitudinal connection. 

Most associations do similar things: 

  1. Annual events to drive engagement 
  2. A steady stream of content or news (via a magazine, journal, podcast, or newsletter) to drive connection
  3. Learning or professional development to drive and prepare members for a rapidly changing future 
  4. Membership to drive community

How can you leverage this standard fare into new and exciting value for members? In part, it’s building and sustaining a culture of innovation. 

In the world of product development, this means getting out of our lanes, getting comfortable with ambiguity, and meeting the member where the member is. 

For additional context on the product community, here is our explainer video:

Ways to engage in the product community

The product community is a new concept in the world of associations.

We are a community in the purest sense: fun, idea-oriented, engaging, and designed as a peer learning community in which participants learn how to leverage existing, underutilized content or programming in order to create new products.

  1. Product Community Insights — Free weekly newsletter on association innovation. Sign-up here:Product Community InsightsThe first and only of its kind, we are the leading authority in product development for associations.By James Young
  2. Association Design Circle — Free first Friday networking coffee with association innovators. Sign up here for notices of our monthly topics and featured facilitators:
  3. Workshops and Courses — Half-day workshops to 3-month courses on practical topics like growth, productization, and revenue diversification. Go here for a list of upcoming workshops:
  4. Association Product Incubator — Bring a core idea, leave with a detailed roadmap and go to market strategy. Fill out our contact form to learn more:
  5. Community Cohort — Build exciting programs + products that engage your community + grow revenue. New cohorts are offered every January, May, and September. Review our fact sheet and FAQ for more information or go here to apply today:
  6. Tailored Cohort — Similar to the community cohort, but tailored for your particular association. Learn to leverage existing value, create new products, and transform your your culture in the process. Apply today:

Why the product community?

The product community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations.

It marries what associations do well (community building, purpose-driven work, etc.) with the best in product development (agile, member-driven value creation that drives growth).

Here’s why we think a product community would work at your association:

  • People want to be connected. The product community is a learning community. Our value proposition relies on focused dialogue, the usage of tools and activities to develop ideas, and learning to take these ideas to market with an engaged peer community’s input and support. Connection with focused purpose drives engagement. Executed in the right way, robust engagement drives revenue.
  • There is an unmet need. Here’s some provable generalizations: associations need new revenue, associations struggle to understand their current and future market, the association business model is broken. The product community channels the energy and drive of new ideas through a focused framework. The result? New products, more engagement, new revenue, new culture.
  • Associations are the perfect industry. Associations are unique; they are anchored in purpose, they are volunteer-led, and they celebrate community. They produce content and choreograph events. They are also constrained and don’t have time to waste. They  want focused action. Generating new ideas is never a problem; making the right investments and executing on those ideas is what the product community is about.
  • Innovation is not departmental. Great learning is sticky, social, and longitudinal. Product communities work as they channel the best ideas through passionate people from different professional and personal lenses. Product communities break down organizational boundaries in order to get the best ideas to market efficiently and collaboratively. While you’re at it, people get to know each other and earn trust.

Product community features

The product community is new approach to building new products, growing revenue, scaling membership, and distinguishing your association

Product communities help associations identify and translate their unique value into differentiated, market-friendly, and relevant products that are grounded in shared values. In the product community, you will:

  • understand your market and its needs 
  • identify and address external forces
  • strengthen or transform your purpose (mission)
  • determine shared values
  • develop strategies for key programs
  • craft a budgeted program roadmap for your aspirational goals. 

All product communities share the following features:

  • Facilitative co-creation • Successful product communities derive from open and inclusive dialogue guided by a facilitator. Our approach is tailored to your particular conditions and challenges. We do this by focusing on creating products that are relevant to your membership.
  • Evidence-driven • To make sense of your external environment, internal operating context, and to anchor the product community in evidence, we use tools such as: a maturity model, business model canvas, customer journeys, implementation readiness, alignment assessment, environmental scan, stakeholder analysis.
  • Differentiation • A product community is an outcome of a differentiated identity. Identity is driven by a clear value proposition (a promise of value to one’s members). It unites mission, vision, and values and anchors the organization in powerful metaphors, memorable stories, and sustained member engagement.
  • Executable framework • We believe in living documents that bridge identity (who are we?), vision (where are we going?), and strategy (how are we going to get there?). Our goal is to help you develop an executable process that is exciting and within your organizational capacity.

What differentiates the product community?

Come for the sprint; stay for the journey.

The product community does a lot of things. Namely, build capability in areas that associations typically underperform: creating new revenue through new products. 

This simple table outlines how adopting a product community approach is substantially different from standard association practice. 

Product communities enable associations to:

  1. Grasp the landscape through focused customer interactions 
  2. Allow the team to understand the customer 
  3. Experiment, quickly and cheaply, with different solutions while observing how the customer responds
  4. Solve the customer’s problems
  5. Keep the customer connected

Product thinking is key to shaping the best customer experience possible as it helps to both identify problems and solve them. If you’re interested, schedule a conversation today.

Traits of the ideal product community participant

Despite its inclusive design, the product community is not for everyone.

People with an innovative mindset are forward thinking, creative, open to experimentation, making mistakes and trying again.

They are collaborative and progress-loving. Here is a list of traits for people who will thrive in the product community.
  1. They have an innovation mindset. They consistently ask themselves: What’s coming next? How do we best get there? They balance immediate action with long-term vision.
  2. They are resourceful. Participants are serial learners and creative problem solvers. They don’t always have the answers, but ask probing questions and build coalitions.
  3. They collaborate across boundaries. Associations are typically organized by department, yet the world is much messier. Divergent perspectives sharpen outcomes.
  4. They love to learn new things. The most successful members of the product community constantly learn new ways to solve problems.
  5. They have a capacity for ambiguity. Innovation can be confusing and ambiguous. The ideal participant uses determination + collaborative support to find focus in the journey.
  6. They check their title at the door. Finding shared focus to develop and bring new ideas to market takes broad buy-in and distributed leadership.
  7. They experiment. The best participants experiment, share what they learn, admit mistakes, communicate regularly, contribute to the enterprise + justify their approach.
  8. They maximize business impact. Success in the product community requires more than collaboration. Driving the business forward is critical to growth.
  9. They are open. Associations are fast-moving and rife with change. Fires crop up and need immediate attention. Do you jump in and lend a hand or run for the hills?
  10. They are engaged, committed, and ready to contribute. Successful participants approach their work with decorum and full engagement. 

Are you ready to start a product community? Please let us know if you’d like to discuss.

Why associations need product communities

There are several ways of achieving growth. 

One is to create a culture of continual evolution of the association’s programming mix. Product communities enhance engagement, grow revenue, and transform culture. 

Microsoft Careers:

This is accomplished by socializing a growth mindset and driving association relevance by re-energizing the community, creating new opportunities, and evolving organizational culture.

To achieve these outcomes, associations need a steady stream of new products and services – built efficiently, in new ways, and more in tune with their market’s evolving needs.

Take the story of Marcia. She has been recently hired to lead a medical association with approximately 10,000 members. Like many associations, membership is down for reasons similar to other associations: 

  1. Traditional membership organizations tend not to draw younger professionals
  2. People want responsive value in an increasingly unpredictable external environment
  3. There is negative perceived value for existing benefits
  4. There is hesitancy to choose membership when for-profit alternatives and easily accessible content is available for free on the Internet. 

In working with Marcia, we learned that she struggles with four problems common to many associations:

  1. We thrive in community, but our community’s needs are rapidly evolving and we’re not keeping pace.
  2. We deliver lots of value, but we struggle to translate ideas into products in a focused and productive way.
  3. We need new revenue, but our business model is inflexible.
  4. We desire innovation, but we operate under constant constraint.

Most of all, Marcia wants to ensure that addressing these struggles is based in a new and refreshing take on community.

We Need To Re-Think The Phrase ‘Executive Presence’

The product community embraces the concept of innovation brokers, in which participants gain product development skills in a highly charged, creative environment and use this insight to create focused momentum in their own associations. 

The innovation broker connects different people around focused, high potential ideas. They rally, coach, provide guidance, and stimulate out of box thinking.

About the Author

James Young is founder and chief learning officer of the Product Community®. Jim is an engaging trainer and leading thinker in the worlds of associations, learning communities, and product development. Prior to starting the Product Community®, Jim served as Chief Learning Officer at both the American College of Chest Physicians and the Society of College and University Planning.