Thriving communities are great at making space for interactions between members at 3 different levels:
- Big group - Who are we as a collective and what do we do together?
- Small groups - How do we sort ourselves?
- One-on-one - Who here do I want to start a relationship with?
Whether you’re just starting a community, are looking for ways to plan programming or address issues with an established group, this can help you think through your group’s decisions.
If you're a community leader, it is your job to define what your community stands for. The more you do that, the more your people will feel welcome and the better things will generally go. You can do that by writing out your code of conduct, sharing your values and mission with your group and verbally reinforcing who you are every chance you get (and you should). But the most powerful way to convey to your members who you are or aspire to be as a collective is by designing a big group experience that's a reflection of it. What can you do that will allow your people to not just know about what you're building, but also feel it in the experience of belonging to your group?
In an online community, this means having a virtual place where everyone gets together. If your community was a small town, this would be your town square. This experience can also happen at big annual conferences or town halls where everyone is invited. Every big group experience should be designed to reinforce why we're here and what we have in common as a whole.
If you're just getting started gathering your community, all you have is the "big group" experience, even if you don't yet consider it big. At the earliest stages it is even more important to have each touchpoint be thoughtful and reflective of what you're creating.
Consider this as you design the big group experience:
What have been some memorable big group experiences you’ve participated in?
Ideally, think of experiences totally unrelated to the community you’re currently building: Field day in elementary school, family reunions, sports games, think broadly.
For each of the experiences you identify think through these questions:
- What made it memorable?
- What were some little things that happened that made you feel like you belonged to the big group?
- If it was a memorable, but negative experience, why? What could have made it better?
- What would the version of that big group experience look like in your own community?
When we held in-person events at Techfest Club, it was introducing small groups that took what we were doing from an event series to a community. We started by identifying volunteers within the community who wanted to host a dinner. The dinners were themed and it was up to the hosts what they wanted to talk about and who they wanted to gather. Anything they had in common was fair game for a topic.. whether it was that lived in the same neighborhood, worked on B2B SaaS products or had artsy side projects.
At the dinners, attendees were able to meet each other and directly connect around something they had in common, without the distraction of a big event and without the potential awkwardness of a 1-on-1 meeting between complete strangers.
Small groups are the glue between the big group experience and the one-on-one relationships that fuel belonging within a group of people. The relationships started in small group settings are more likely to turn into long-term friendships or partnerships.
If you have a growing community, finding volunteers and inviting them to gather small groups is an important part of building ownership and increasing participation. If you have a well-established big group experience, the culture of your community should be able to be translated to the small groups.
This is what to consider as you’re designing your small group experiences:
- Who already shows up consistently and adds value to the big group?
- In which topics, issues or activities are people looking for more depth? (ask them)
- Are people already naturally splitting off into groups? What are they doing?
The more I study and participate in successful communities, the more I become convinced that the primary motivation for joining is to connect 1-on-1 with others like us. We all just want to make cool new friends we can nerd out with.
Communities seem to be a way we can ease into these new relationships.
It has probably always been this way, though a lot more of it happens online now. For example, I bet most your friends are people you went to school with, or worked with, or played a sport with, are related to, or somehow shared a community with at some point.
Most relationships have a similar origin story. First you're at the same place at the same time, then you get familiar after seeing them a few times and getting to know them within the safe space of a group, maybe recognizing that you have something in common. After trust has been established within the group, you might plan to hang out or communicate 1-on-1, exchange emails or phone numbers. Is that in line with your experience of making new friends?
In your community, this doesn't mean you have to explicitly encourage people to connect 1-on-1 (though you can!). You can more subtly think about structures you can put in place so that the 1-on-1 connections are more likely to happen naturally.
Here are some questions to consider to boost 1-on-1 connections:
- Do people feel safe in your community? Are rules and consequences clear for people who abuse the privilege to reach out? (By sending spam or making unwanted advances, for example)
- How are 1-on-1 connections already happening in your community? What are ways you could encourage and normalize those?
- Within the big group or small group experience, is there a structure you can add that naturally encourages people to connect?
Though actual communities are messier than this simple structure might suggest, I encourage you to think of the 3 levels whenever you're working on something new. Can you encourage people to connect 1:1 after a big event? Can you reinforce your big group's values within the small group experience?
Thinking about your community at these distinct levels will help you diagnose problems, plan for the future and make decisions.
This is the first article of a year-long project I’m starting to learn more about and teach others what I call community-centered entrepreneurship.
If you’re interested in building profitable businesses that increase people’s sense of belonging and center your community’s (and your own!) needs and fulfillment, I’d love for you to subscribe below! I’ll write to you once a week with an article or two like this one. It’s free.