By Colleen Leahey
October 17, 2013

FORTUNE — Recently, “community” seems to be the most overused word in the vocabularies of marketers and content creators. Its meaning remains confusing, but three executives in a variety of industries clarified its definition — and explained how to effectively build and engage a digital community.

At Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C., HSN (HSNI) CEO Mindy Grossman, President of Disney/ABC Television Group (DIS) Anne Sweeney, and Instagram (FB) director of business operations Emily White dove into the subject heads-first, talking about the evolution of online communities and how to best create them today.

In 2005, Disney closed its first deal with iTunes, and Sweeney remembered realizing the accessibility opportunities her division’s shows suddenly possessed. This past year, she launched WATCH, a platform that allows certain Disney and ABC subscribers to watch programs on any device. Such technological developments help scale the shows’ viewer bases, but they don’t necessarily create community. Social media, instead, allows for a conversation around the programs. “That’s the community, the gathering effect,” Sweeney explained, referring to social clouds surrounding shows like Scandal and Pretty Little Liars.

MORE: Complete coverage of the Most Powerful Women Summit

To create even more meaningful conversations, while also helping the bottom line, Sweeney’s division thoughtfully approaches partnerships. For instance, Revenge worked with Target (TGT) and Neiman Marcus last year to produce products. The brands exclusively created the “Gift of Revenge,” the only commercials played during last year’s November 11 episode, and viewers could follow the mysterious storyline online and purchase the advertised items. “You’re hosting the party initially,” explained Sweeney. “But if you’re good at it, you truly become a part of that community.”

Grossman agreed, citing how HSN uses great storytelling to push its products. (During Fashion Week last year, the company partnered with Conde Nast brands like Allure, Lucky, and Wired to strengthen its fashion and technology story.) Grossman also emphasized the need to listen to the communities her company creates. “If you invite a community in and ask for feedback, you better be responsive,” she said. HSN has several platforms that allow for customers to submit feedback and contribute to the company’s product development. “We’re not just a receptacle for feedback.”

That shift from audience-community to a collaborative-community is right up White and Instagram’s alley. The company’s users built its voice, White said. In its early days, it created an environment of beautiful but selective images. The simplicity of the Instagram product allowed the community to expand without feeling like the company was controlling its growth direction.

White currently is focusing on monetizing Instagram, which means advertisers will soon be part of the community mix. That disruption presents a challenge, but her previous experience at Facebook prepared her. Early at Facebook, advertisers pumped out information and refused to let users comment on it for fear of the negative. “But smart ones came back,” she added, “and said community is about engagement.”

Regardless of the type of community a company’s building, control is difficult for it to give up. “There’s not a generalized best practice,” said White. “It depends on the situation.” But transparency is the first step. “[Communities] want to interact with you,” Sweeney agreed. “You can’t hold everything back if you expect to have a relationship.”

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