These are the two universal (and often unconscious) questions people ask when deciding whether to join a community. They’re the two fundamental social needs that should be met if you’re going to successfully recruit potential members.


At Meetup, we found that Member Profiles were one of the most highly trafficked places on the site. Once someone has decided that they want to join a Beagle-lovers Meetup or practice their Spanish, their first concern is “am I going to get along with the others?” Or, as some people would put it: “I want to check there’s no weirdos there”. A community is predicated on sharing. Getting a fix on whether the others are enough like you to make that possible is important.

What’s even more important is to enable a feeling of belonging. Without this, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to build a strong and sustained community. Finding ‘like-others’ is, of course, critical to enabling belonging.

I first discovered this when I interviewed members of cults and cult-like organizations while trying to deconstruct why and how people commit to things. This may be a surprise, but people join cults not to conform, but to become more individual (‘The Great Cult Paradox’). Like all of us, they are looking for others with whom they can be themselves. We will change companies, join a clique of jocks or geeks in High School or change churches because we want to find a place where we feel at home. We’re all looking for a place where the others are enough like us that we don’t have to compromise who we are, we feel safe enough from criticism to express our true selves and thus self-actualize.

Harley riders admitted to me that it’s only when they’re riding out with their brothers can be themselves. They may be dentists or management consultants by day, but when they slap on their tattoos, don their leathers and ride out with the others, that’s when they become their true selves. It may be taboo not to feel like your beautiful home, your lovely family and your career is who you really are. But whether they were someone on the lam, an architect or a cop, they all admitted that when they’re with others who recognize that deep down they’re a rebel do they feel who they really are. They become themselves. They feel more individual.


So what does this mean if you’re designing a Community Platform or if you’re a Community Manager or Leader? Do as much as you can to clearly show what the membership is like…and equally, not like. It will hurt the community if people join who are not like the others.

1. Showcase the existing members.

Have rich member profiles and mini-profiles. Make your Member Page attractive and enable potential members to examine rich profiles in detail and skim mini-profiles to check that they share interests, goals, values or…they get their kicks from similar things.

2. Showcase what they do.

Enable potential members to see not only what members are like, but also what they do. Showcase photos and videos of recent activities or key posts that enable them to get an idea of how they’ll be interacting with each other.

3. Highlight pre-existing relationships.

There’s a high chance that if a potential member already knows someone within the group, they are likely to fit in. Meetup has social connections feature that shows how you’re linked to existing members of a Meetup Group. If you have joined the site by Facebook Connect or already attend other Meetups, friends and fellow members will be highlighted and rank ordered on the member’s page. And they rank those members on the Member Page accordingly.

4. Have an explicit Purpose/Mission/Goal statement

Being very clear not only about the benefits of joining but being explicit about who should and who not should not join is one of the fastest and best ways a prospect can assess whether the community is for them. It should enable them to answer for themselves whether they share the same goals, want the same things, share the same values, and are the same kinds of people as the other members.


Once the first social need has been answered: “Yes, these are people are like me”, the next natural question we tend to ask sounds slightly neurotic…but it’s a type of social anxiety we all feel: “Yes, but, will the like me, will they accept me or am I going to be left dangling, awkwardly nursing a drink alone or having my posts and questions unanswered?

The first few days or weeks after someone joins is critical. They’re effectively ‘in the airlock’, neither truly in or out of the community. They will quietly and quickly make an exit if they’re not made to feel welcome or can’t connect happily with anyone else.

Welcoming a new member with a personal message works wonders. Moonies had a term for this that I find helpful: ‘Lovebombing’. They would bed new members into their organization by pouring enormous resource into ensuring the vulnerable new member felt they truly belonged by celebrating everything they did and appointing buddies to help with every new task.

Lovebombing the Moonie way may be overkill. But it’s a good way to think about how you should treat new members:

1. Welcome new members personally

An auto-generated welcome email is never enough. If you’re the leader of a new community, welcome them personally. If the community has grown this won’t scale so appoint a member of the leadership team as the ‘welcomer’. Or highlight new members on the site so that existing members will feel compelled to drop them a line.

2. Highlight pre-existing relationships

The same feature mentioned above serves two purposes. It can reassure new members that they’re already known and liked because there are people they already know. Joining a community is a bit like showing up at a party alone where you will probably know no one. Technology now enables us to show that that may not be true and that in fact you already know quite a few people at the party (remember the joy when you spot someone across the room you already know). What’s more, encourage those members to reach out and welcome the new member.

3. Ask them to do something.

Asking a new member to do an easy task (such as introducing themselves to the group, uploading a photo etc.) pushes the member into engaging with others. It also gets them to make an investment (albeit small) in the community, predisposing them to do it again if they get a good response.

Asking them to do something also acquaints them quickly with the intrinsic…but not necessarily apparent…benefit belonging: engaging with others. It’s too easy for new members to make the leap and join, but never experience the real benefit of the group because they’ve not engaged with it.


It goes without saying that a community won’t grow without new members. But it probably is worth saying that it will grow strongly as long as you get the right new members: ones that share goals, values and needs with the rest of the group.

So having these two questions in mind as you design a community platform or lead your group is critical for effective community growth:

1. “Are they like me?”

2. “Will they like me?”


Yes, a huge one. And yes, a lot. Yet I’ve recently heard people using the two terms synonymously. This is a mistake, because if you don’t understand that the goals and the means of the two types of organizations are very different, you’re unlikely to succeed in building either.

In short, the differences are these:

  • The goal of a movement is to effect significant social change through the means of mobilizing millions to take action.
  • The goal of a community can be to learn something, do something, and yes, change something, but normally on a smaller scale and through the means of a smaller number of people with more intimate relationships doing a multitude of stuff together.

Here’s a rough summary of the differences with a brief explanation of each following:

Here’s a brief explanation of each of the differences:


Movements exist to make significant social change, often when the government is unwilling or unable. Equal Rights for Women, Civil Rights for Blacks and, more recently, Equality for LGBT are examples. I’m on the Board of AllOut, which is a global movement for LGBT equality. It will not rest until the ghastly statistic of 76/10 is 00/00. That is, the 76 countries where it’s illegal to be gay and the ten countries where you can be executed for being gay change their culture and laws for the better.


Most successful communities are explicit about their goals or purpose, which tend to be about learning something (e.g. Spanish) doing something (e.g. hiking) or supporting each other (e.g. dealing with diabetes). They can also be about change (e.g. eating healthier) but it tends to be change on a smaller scale: to meet a personal goal (like losing weight) or improving a local environment (e.g. cleaning up a river).


The huge goals of a movement are achieved by mobilizing huge numbers of people.

It’s only when significant numbers of politicians’ constituents or companies’ customers demand change does intransigence turn into reluctant compliance. For example, when AllOut presented half a million signatures gathered within three days from around the world to the Ugandan Parliament in April 2011 did they decide to abandon debate of the infamous ‘Kill The Gays Bill’.

It’s not just about huge numbers. It’s also about Action. Your goal when running a movement is not for members to have ‘conversations’. Your goal is for them to take action together. Signing a petition, making donations, having house parties, marching en-masse. These are actions that effect change because a multitude is leveraging their mass by doing the same thing at the same time.


When you’re amongst ‘like-others’…others who share your values, worldview, interests or needs…that’s when you can get support, pursue your passion or make some change more effectively than simply doing it alone.

‘Conversations’ (you can probably guess I don’t’ really like this word) can help deliver the benefits of community. But your goal should be to increase the numbers of members who do significant stuff together and contribute content. Read here for more about this.


It’s power. Millions of people acting together with common cause can make history because of the leverage of a multitude. Few governments or companies can withstand the power of well-organized population acting in concert for a justified cause. And few things can make an individual feel so powerful: being part of something bigger to make a change that could never be achieved alone.


The Big Benefit of community is Belonging (beyond the benefits of learning, doing and supporting.) Read here about the ultimate benefit it confers: self-actualization, which it does by creating a safe space amongst like-others to become yourself.


There tends to be less interaction amongst members of a movement than a community. How can a million ‘good friends’ talk, do and meet together? That being said, strong grass-root action groups often fuel the most successful movements, where close ties are made between members who talk and meet often. It’s been noted that the American Civil Rights movement was largely mobilized by local Churches. Even today, online movements find sustained strength by acting both locally and globally.


Without rich and frequent interaction via forums, chat, video chat or meeting up face-to-face, communities won’t deliver their benefits. Read here about the importance of interaction and intimacy within communities. And about how relationships and friendships grow as a result of rich and repeated engagement between members.


Movements tend to bring together people who share a common cause or activist agenda.


Most communities exist because of shared interests or needs. Members tend to be unified by, say, their passion for zombies or desire to learn how to knit. These commonalities may evolve through frequent interaction to share a desire to become friends, colleagues or even partners.


Modern movements…that is, those organized online…tend to have little interaction between members. The focus is to act together vs. with each other. However, local or sub-groups within a movement can obviously build the cause’s strength as well as give the opportunity for more intimate relationships between members. Obama’s 2008 election that used these techniques also employed many local events and house-parties.


Successful communities are the ones that have many members with strong ties to each other. Read here about how rich and frequent interaction leads to a feeling of mutual responsibility and support, which leads to strong social glue.


I’m going to say it: size does matter when it comes to movements. At AllOut we’ve grown from 2000 to 1 million members around the world in 18 months. Leveraging that motivated population has helped us achieve huge milestones in a short time.


You can have a successful community with four people or forty thousand. Although once you get to above c. 150 people (the Dunbar number…the number above which it becomes increasingly difficult for an individual to know who everyone is and how each person relates to every other person) ties are likely to weaken. Read here about what happens then and about how to maintain intimacy and satisfy needs as your community grows.



What happens between the moment of birth and spawning (when the community is mature-the subject of the last post)? Communities go through recognizable life-stages as they grow. You should be aware of them because you can anticipate and meet the community’s needs by both providing the right tools at the right time and tasking yourself with the right leadership actions appropriate to each stage. And if you’re building a community platform, it’s smart to be aware of what stage needs what tools, when…crowding a new community with tools it doesn’t need can confuse the user experience.

Above is a simplified diagram of the stages and what they need.

Below is a bit more of a description.



At this stage it’s unlikely that you have a real community on your hands…yet. You’re in the build phase and all you need are tools for basic interactions because relationships between members are only beginning. Your goals are to:

  • Define the purpose, goals and membership profile of the community (who should belong and who shouldn’t).
  • Focus on recruiting doers and contributors (content writers, meeting organizers, etc.) who can quickly fill the community with desirable content and make connections.
  • Make the community look attractive by showcasing that content with photos, board postings, video and activity feed
  • Promote the community
  • Make new members feel welcome
  • Encourage interaction between members
  • Avoid the ‘empty restaurant’ syndrome by encouraging activity and showcasing it on an activity feed and by showing a rising member count.



Now the community is taking off. Relationships are being formed between members so more sophisticated tools are needed. Organic growth is happening because existing members are recruiting others (provide those ‘viral loop’ tools that make this frictionless) and the content is growing and making the community look useful and active. So you need to promote less but manage the relationships more (policing and dispute management) and you’ll need member management metrics and tools.

There’s a growing sense of group identity as experiences are shared and group stories and myths emerge…so make sure they are being documented in video, photos and narrative. You probably need help running the community too so time to appoint members to roles such as ‘welcomer’, ‘event organizer’ etc.

What characterizes this stage is:

  • More sophisticated interaction tools
  • Tools for members to recruit others
  • Leadership team and roles
  • Strong sense of belonging and group identity
  • Shared memories in photos, video and story form
  • Member-management dashboard and metrics
  • Member blogs



Now you’re humming. Time to recruit a larger management team as the community grows rapidly. It’s also time to offer more sophisticated interaction and event tools as people will have formed friendships and want to interact via video and face-to-face at meetings and outings. Now is also the time to anticipate spawning: the tendency for groups to hive off from the main community to maintain a sense of intimacy and/or more narrowly satisfy their needs as the membership grows larger and more diverse. Poll the members to see if they want to form sub-groups or local groups.

This stage is characterized by:

  • Rapid organic growth
  • Strong identity
  • Strong sense of belonging
  • Sophisticated interactions
  • Talk shows, live and recorded video interactions and live events.
  • Potential for spawning into sub-groups and local groups
  • Larger management team.



At this point the community may have grown large enough for you to encourage spawning to maintain cohesion and strong relationships. The original community might decline in numbers a bit as sub-groups form but no-matter. You’ve still got a growing base that’s feeling bonded and having their needs met albeit in newer, smaller groups. You may be getting tired and a little burnt out. Don’t’ worry it’s normal. Good to recognize it and time to figure out a succession plan so you can start over with a new group or retire to the pub.

Or, if your community is mission-driven (its goal is to improve the lives of others or change the world in some way) time to consider whether you want the community to become more of an activist organization: set a big goal, raise donations and sign petitions. More on this in subsequent posts where I’ll discuss Movement-Making.

What characterizes this stage is:

  • The community is large…maybe too large
  • It’s likely to spawn smaller communities that maintain a sense of intimacy and more narrowly satisfy the needs of members
  • But you will have anticipated this by identifying those needs by forming sub-groups and the potential members and leaders fill them.
  • You may be getting tired…time to think of succession or a different role.
  • Indeed, your original community may adopt a different role…that of an activist organization for example.



This is a picture of the world’s oldest social platform.

Actually it’s a picture of a frame of bees and comb from one of my beehives and it’s only about two years old. Honeybees have been around for about 185 million years and have clearly created a very successful and complex social structure of mutual interdependence on this platform. There are many lessons that bees can teach us about community (and even democracy) But let me tell you a story of what Queen Victoria (for that is what I named her) did in May and how you should expect the same thing to happen to your community…if you’re lucky. By the way, you can see her in that picture. She’s the big one.

Vicky had been doing her job well. She really only has one: she’s an egg machine. Contrary to popular belief, bees don’t operate on a Medieval Monarchical system. Her life is more that of a slave. She lays about 1500 eggs a day until she’s exhausted and dies. Her doing her onerous job well, plus a mild winter and warm spring meant that her colony was growing fast. I was walking towards the hive to do what is called a ‘split’. This is something a beekeeper does to prevent what actually happened when I got within ten feet of the hive: they swarmed.

In a way I was lucky. It’s rare to see one happen. It’s an awe-inspiring and slightly frightening sight to see 30,000 bees stream out of the hive in a writhing, noisy, black cloud. Had I come half an hour earlier, I could have prevented my loss of those bees and my favorite queen. So I simultaneously cursed my extra time in bed and cooed in wonder at the sight. Below is picture of them swarming out of the hive.

Swarming is a perfectly natural thing for bees to do. In spring, if a colony is growing fast, it will decide (we’re not quite sure how) to subdivide and thus increase the amount of bees and colonies in the world.

So this is a story of community subdivision as a natural consequence of growth.

Back to the bees for a minute to complete their story and then I’ll attempt to draw an analogy to human communities.

The queen and half the colony will swarm out of the hive to find a new place to live. The bees left behind will collectively say to themselves “Bugger, we’ve got no queen!” (or something like that) and immediately make royal jelly to give to some of the eggs and thus make a new queen in about a fortnight. Or, more likely, the colony will have prepared in advance and have already grown some new queens in preparation for the old queen to leave.

Here’s a picture of the cluster they made thirty feet above the original hive in a tree. This is just a temporary place where they hang out for a day or two while the scout bees find potential new homes (your garage wall or a hollow tree). They will all vote on the best one and fly off in a big cloud to start over in their new hive.

So what’s this have to say about human communities? What is likely to happen if your community grows is there will come a point when it simply gets too big. Meaning that it will have grown beyond the point where people feel they know everyone, beyond the point where they feel such a bond with each other that there’s a close identification with the group. What nearly always happens is that the original group has grown so large that people will want to maintain the sense of intimacy they enjoyed so much at the beginning and so will break off and create their own, smaller groups.

Another reason and way that large and growing communities spawn is that breakaways will form that more narrowly satisfy the needs of its now many and diverse members. For example, the largest Meetup in the world is the one started by Meetup’s CEO. Scott started the NY Tech Meetup with about six other people about a decade ago. There are now 25,000 members in NY alone and many others around the world. At that size, it can’t really be called a community any more. How can you know and feel an intimate bond with twenty five thousand of your best friends?

However, it’s spawned over six hundred other NY Tech Meetups that cater to more specific needs. There’s a NYTech Video Meetup, a NY Mobile Meetup and even a NY Jewish Tech Meetup. The members have mostly remained in the original Meetup to keep in touch with the NY Tech scene, but have come to depend much more on the smaller children of the original for information, friendship, connections and even future business partners. I’m working with a healthcare community platform right now where exactly the same thing has happened. The Cancer community has spawned the Breast Cancer group, the Carers of Cancer Patients group and so on that enable a feeling of intimacy and belonging to a group of others with almost exactly the same needs.

The trick is to do what I didn’t do with my bees. If want to hold on to all those members who are likely to ‘hive’ off into smaller or more specific groups, manage that act of spawning by finding interested members (maybe via a survey) and a potential leader and encouraging them to form a new sub-group under the patronage of the old. Some community platforms such as Ning enable you to form sub-groups and local groups within the original.

What I’m suggesting you do is a ‘split’. A split is when a wise and conscientious (clearly not me) beekeeper inspects his bees and notices that they’re getting a little crowded. This smart beekeeper takes five or six frames of comb that have eggs young enough for the attached bees to rear a new queen and puts them in a new hive. He now has two communities of bees instead of one…and twice the honey.

Be a smart community-keeper by anticipating the swarming instinct of your members and encourage an ‘artificial’, or managed swarm that both increases your communities, members and the needs that are satisfied… and rewards you with whatever your equivalent of extra honey may be!


I’ve been working with a big online content brand where the very smart and well-informed people who work there often use the terms ‘Social’ and ‘Community’ interchangeably. I’d like to propose that they’re not the same. The type of behaviors that you see in a highly functional community are not the norm on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

And this is important because if you have the same expectations of those platforms as you might of a highly functional community…such as intense loyalty, material contributions and participation by it’s members and proselytizing…then you’re likely to be disappointed.

Here’s my summary of some of the differences:

Strictly speaking you do see community behaviors on those social platforms if you take the rather limp definition of community found in most dictionaries: something along the lines of “a group of people who share something in common”. On Facebook we often share the fact that we’re already friends in the real world, or friends of friends, or are family and we can conveniently share our latest activity, pictures or videos. Or on Twitter we might share someone’s worldview or like their content.

That’s fine. But I’ve found it useful to use a more exacting definition of community. One where members join because they get support, get to change something, learn something or do something together. And as a result, they’re highly committed to the community and prosletyze it to others.

Here’s a member of a community that I talked to last week that’s hosted by this brand. Listen to the benefits she gets and the emotional commitment she has to the community:

“There isn’t a community like it in the U.S. I was relieved I didn’t have to walk alone. I hoped to find understanding…I found it. I’ve made some very good friends…we truly support each other. It’s not just support…we’ve moved on from that to true friendship. It’s all about trust and having a safe place”

This community is about health…so you’re likely to hear the benefits of true community expressed this way. But we’d hear the same kind of sentiments used by members of Meetup groups about extreme frisbee, fashion, or hiking when we’d gatecrash them around the country…just expressed in not quite such emotive terms.


Please indulge me. This is a short rant about the term ‘Social Media’. I hate it.

I hate it because it implies that the tools people use to conduct their daily social and community lives, such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Meetup et al are simply another channel to be exploited by Brands and Companies to sell more stuff.

Indeed the only people who use the term ‘Social Media’ are the people who sell more stuff: Advertising and Marketing Agencies, Brand people and the people who work in the channels those companies have traditionally used to pitch ‘consumers’: The Media. (And let’s retire that other out of date and frankly insulting term…they are people goddamnit not consumers).

The people who actually build the likes of Facebook, Ning and Foursquare never use the term ‘Social Media’. They call the things they build “Social Technologies”, “Social Platforms” or “Community Platforms”.

You may be saying: “Who cares? Let’s just figure out how to use it.” Or “Atkin, you’re getting your knickers in a twist about a semantic nicety. Get over it”. And you’re probably right. I think I’ve lost this battle anyway.

However, within that semantic nicety lies an important truth. The people who build these platforms know what they’re doing. They’re building, literally, a neutral platform on which people engage in simple and complex ways with each other. These platforms are answering important and frivolous social needs that are universal, eternal and part of the human condition.

So, if you ever try to use these platforms like a channel…a media for your message or offer…you’ll screw it up. As a very large packaged goods multinational did a few years back when it tried to use Meetup like just another media and make the same kinds of offers there as they would on Print or TV. They very quickly learned their lesson and recognized the social needs of community members with a social response instead.

Even if you know all this because you’re one of the evolved and smarter breed of marketers who ‘get’ social technology, please don’t ever use the ‘M’ word. Subconsciously you might drift into old habits. Or, more likely, a less evolved person standing near you will think it’s OK and screw things up royally with lazy, old school, default thinking.





The Commitment Curve is an excellent tool for modeling how to ramp up people from low-barrier-to-entry actions to increasingly difficult ones. The idea is to move your members from lower investment/lower reward actions (like completing their profile) to higher investment/higher reward ones (like attending an event) that yield higher levels of commitment. It’s a tool used by some activists to rapidly build and mobilize large numbers of people to create social change. I explain how it works here.

In short, it can also be used to ensure your user experience doesn’t ask too much, too early of the user (like being asked to run an event immediately you’ve attended your first). Instead, the idea is to ramp the user up escalating levels of commitment by making ‘asks’ of increasing-but appropriate-levels of investment of time, energy and emotion.

Here’s the List of Community Features plotted on The Commitment Curve. You can debate which ‘ask’ demands more or less investment by the user- like making a blog post vs. attending an event. But you get the general idea. The point is, if you’re going to ask people to show up to events, you might want to ask them to do things lower down on the curve first (like participating in a forum) that demand less investment before the bigger ask (but higher reward) of attending an event.

The other thing to bear in mind is that lower investment actions tend to predispose people to make higher investment actions. Because they literally become more invested in the community and are inclined to do more, especially when asked.


If you you’d like to be able to answer “Yes” to each of the questions in the Community Checklist, a good start would be to look for a platform that has the following features. Or, if you’re building a platform for your cause, brand, movement, magazine or blog then you should consider building or licensing this functionality.

I’ve presented it as a matrix so you can use it when building/finding a platform. You can use it as a Feature Checklist for your community. And I’ve used TuDiabetes.org, which is on the Ning platform, as an example. It’s a very high-functioning community that uses many of the available Ning features.

A brief description of the feature and why it’s important follows. And I’ve clustered them into broad groups: ‘Interaction Tools’, ‘Content Tools’, ‘Do I Belong? Tools’ and ‘Organizational Tools’. Many of these tools occupy more than one category, of course, but you’ll get the general idea.


              COMMUNITY TOOL TuDiabetes.org
 Do I Belong? Tools 
Member List
Rich Member Profiles
 Content Tools 
Resource Pages
Blog/Member Blogs
 Interaction Tools 
Live/Recorded Video
Local Groups
Event tools
Organizational Tools
Leadership Structure
Member Dues
Event Fees
Activity Feed
Mobilization Tools
Member Categories


Here’s a bit more detail about each feature.

‘Do I Belong?’ Tools

These are the tools or features that potential recruits can consult to see if this community is right for them. Specifically:

a) Will I fit in? Do the other members look OK or there lurking axe-murderers? Is the membership a bunch of people I could get along with? Or (even) will they reject me?

b) Why should I bother joining? Will I get something out of it? What are the benefits I can expect? What are the goals of the community?

Also, they’re the kind of tools where existing members can use to double-check that it’s still the right place for them. And to help keep the community on track with it’s goals and purpose.

1.    Purpose

A good, clear and succinct Purpose should have several ingredients (covered in more detail here):

  • Declare the goals of the community
  • Describe the benefits of belonging
  • Be clear about who should join and who shouldn’t
  • Be clear about its values.
  • Be clear about what’s expected of the members.


A Purpose has at least two ‘purposes’:

  • For recruits, it tells them why they should join, what benefits they’ll get, and whether they are a good ‘fit’.
  • For existing members it is the lodestone that keeps the organization on track. It keeps the focus on the goals, makes decisions easier about who should join/stay, reminds members of the values, and describes what’s expected of them.

I favor making the Purpose of the community fairly obvious so potential recruits can find it easily. Many relegate it to the ‘About’ section of their site.

2.    Rich Member Profiles

These should walk the line between being burdensome to complete, and give enough of a clue about what this person is like so that:

a) A potential member can see what kind of people populate this community and whether they’re likely to get on with them, learn something from them, have fun with them etc.

b) Existing members can check whether this is a person they can have a relationship with, providing a gut check before they send them a message, friend them, follow them etc.

3.    Member List

A list of members that potential and existing members can scan and find people they want to connect to, or dive and ‘sample’ what the membership is like. A one sentence ‘headline bio’ of the person a la Twitter and Quora is helpful too.

Content Tools

People join communities for a reason…often to “Do something, learn something, share something or change something” as Meetup claims on its homepage. Make sure you have as many ways to post content as are needed by your members and to provide rich and varied forms of consumption. Ideally, much of this content will be posted by your members, thereby relieving you of the burden and, of course, creating a sense of ownership by members.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

1.    Resource Pages

This is the bare minimum. There should be a place where people can find useful links, download informational pdfs etc.

2.    Forums

Both a source of content and a means of interaction, Forums are the classic place that people can glean tips, useful member experiences and advice.

3.    Blog

Whomever is running the community should probably have a blog. It can be a way of bringing alive the Purpose of the community beyond a simple mission statement. It helps develop a voice and personality for the group. And it is a useful tool to impart critical information to the members in a much less invasive way than the ‘all-member’ email blasts that are sometimes necessary.

4.    Member Blogs

These do much of the same job, but of course vastly increase the amount of content plus involve the membership in a way that creates a real sense of ownership of the community.

5.    Photos/Video

These are of course a rich form of content that enable members to share experiences, record in a vivid format group events, and document what the community is up to. It’s often what potential recruits will consult first to get a fast read on what the community is about and whether it’s for them. Pictures and video also just make a community’s home page look interesting, vital and engaging.


Interaction Tools

As I’ve said many times on this blog, without interaction there is no community. Getting people to engage with each other is critical. Without it there will be no stickiness. They need to have venues and tools in which they can learn from each other, hang out with each other, offer advice, give tips, mobilize or simply have fun. And there needs to be a way for people to find, connect, message and form deeper relationships with each other.

The bottom line is that when people form relationships, loyalty is created. Relationships are the glue that binds the community together beyond the utility that a community may offer (learning Spanish, practicing belly dancing etc.).

Forms of interaction should be made available that range from low investment to high investment. More on this in the next post when I’ll plot them on the Commitment Curve.

1.    Forums

They really can’t be beaten. There are more sophisticated tools now available (see below), but the sheer simplicity, familiarity and low barrier-to-entry of a chat room/forum means that anyone, no matter how tech literate they are, can read, comment and participate, feel like they’ve contributed, maybe learn something and certainly felt the presence of other members of the group.

2.    Messaging/Friending/Following

If the community is working well, people will inevitably want to reach out and connect with specific members and form a deeper relationship because of a shared interest or need. Messaging allows a ‘no commitment’ way to introduce oneself (and of course is an ongoing useful communication tool). Following is a low investment/low commitment way of keeping in touch with someone’s activities without necessarily having forming a two-way relationship. Friending can actually mean something and enable a two-way relationship if you choose to build the right tools.

3.    Live/Recorded Video

This is really the next-big-thing in terms of member interaction.

Being able to see body language, facial expressions, hear voice intonation…especially when it’s live…is the richest form of communication bar meeting up face-to-face. It’s how we’re wired to communicate after all (writing and especially typing came very late in human development!)

Google Hangouts is just one of many ways these tools are being used. Yackit (full disclosure…I’m a co-founder) enables 4+ people to have a live topic-based conversation that can be watched by millions if you so wish. Asynchronous video conversations (such as on the VYou platform) are another way to go. All are probably further up the commitment curve (see the next post) than traditional forums and blogs/commenting but I predict are going to take off very rapidly given the opportunity for rich and vital interaction.

4.    Sub-Groups

As a community grows, inevitably offshoot communities will spawn that more narrowly satisfy people’s needs and shared interests. For instance, the original NYTech Meetup (now 24,000 members strong) has spawned hundreds of Meetups that cater to those who have a particular interest in video tech, tech for Brands etc. If you can, enable your membership to satisfy more narrow needs whilst staying within your larger community. Tudiabetes.org has 467 sub-groups that cater to Women with Diabetes, those suffering from Neuropathy and so on.

5.    Local Groups

Similarly, as a community grows, people who live within the same geography my want to come together, meet and run events. This is to be encouraged! Face-to-face contact is rich and can be the basis of strong enduring communities. There are now Tech Meetups all over the world (NY Tech Meetup was the first and is the largest). Smart Car lovers have a lively community at the heart of which are 247 sub-groups, most of which are local chapters of enthusiasts who get together and organize local events.

6.    Event Tools

Getting people together face to face to share in an event is an important engine of enduring relationships and a long term, sustainable community. Meetup is the platform for anyone starting a community predicated on, well, meeting up. Its event and membership tools cant’ be beaten (more full disclosure…I used to work there and am a ‘Meetup Fellow’.) But other platforms have rudimentary event-organizing tools that can be sufficient.


Organizational Tools

These are the tools that enable the creation of a successful organization. Once you get beyond five or six members, you’re likely to want these things.

1.    Leadership Structure

This can be as simple has having one person organizing or running the community or as sophisticated as having assigned roles for a leadership team. As a community grows it’s highly likely you’ll need a Membership Director, an Event organizer, a financial person, a Greeter of new members. Whatever the roles, look for a platform that enables you to create a leadership organization.

2.    Rules

Every functional community has rules of some kind that set the norms of behavior of its members. You could try and get by without them for a time, or evolve them over time but at some point you’re likely to need them.

3.    Membership dues tool

This is optional. But some communities benefit from having membership dues not just because they provide an income for the community to finance activities, staff etc. but because can be a useful ‘gate’ into the community that accepts those that are likely to be contributors and committed enough to part with even a token amount of cash.

4.    Event fees tool

Not unlike membership dues, charging an event fee up front can increase the chance that people actually show up. Many communities make these fees refundable when you do show up which lessens the headache for the organizer who’s gone to the trouble to organize a venue, transport etc.

5.    Activity Feed

This is often used to give a sense of vitality and action within the community plus give a sense to members of ‘the others out there’ who also belong.

6.    Mobilization tools

If your community is a non-profit that’s fighting for some cause, then tools that enable petitions to be signed, donations collected, house-parties organized and so on is a useful option.

7.    Member Categories

Categorizing members into groups with badges and status can be done for many reasons, at least one of which is to create a hierarchy. If your egalitarian soul shrieks at such an idea, remember that people often love the idea of earning status within a group. The whole trend towards gamification is predicated on this. The truth is that smart community leaders have always known the power of belonging to ever-more exclusive inner-circles based on merit.

8.    Chapters

If you’re community grows to the point where smaller local groups become necessary that ‘chapterization’ can be an option. Using a platform with local group functionality can be a way to do this.




I’ve taken the Community Checklist I wrote about earlier on this blog when making a distinction between fans/followers and real community members and turned it into a feature list. It’s a list of features that you should look for when starting a community and are looking for a good platform or are, in fact, building a community platform for your cause, blog, magazine, TV property, brand, movement or whatever. The Feature List is in the next post.

In the meantime, here’s the Checklist again.


The Community checklist

If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, you’ve got a good community on your hands.

  • Does it satisfy a real need? Do its members learn more, have more fun, get more done or get support?
  • Does it have a clearly articulated purpose?
  • Is it clear about who belongs and who doesn’t?
  • Is there interaction between members?
  • Are there enduring relationships formed between members that go beyond the original reason for connecting?
  • Do they contribute, do they participate, do they work together to achieve the common purpose? Being an audience is not a community.
  • Do they feel responsibility for each other and the community at large?
  • Are there roles, responsibilities and jobs performed by the membership?
  • Is it self-policing? Do people censure or eject unruly or unreasonable members?
  • Are there guidelines, rules, or norms of behavior?

To be really sure that you’ve enabled a real community ask the following questions of your members.

  • Do they identify with the community? Does it reflect, in part, who they are as an individual?
  • Do they have a sense of belonging?
  • Can they be who they really are without fearing rejection?
  • Do they have a sense of confidence, safety, even protection?
  • Do they feel part of something bigger than themselves?
  • Do they have a sense of purpose and meaning?



The most powerful agent in creating Loyalty is Belonging. There will be more justification for this assertion later in the blog, but in the meantime I would argue that the main ingredients of a successful community all create a degree of loyalty that is hard to match by any other means. Ingredients such as:

-An emotional bond with others in the group

-An alignment between your own values and those enshrined in the community’s worldview

-Therefore an alignment with the values of the others in the group

-Shared experiences, memories, rituals and goals

-In some cases, solidarity in the face of a threat.

And I’ve not included the most obvious sign of, and outcome from, a successful group that leads to unbelievable stickiness: mutual support.

From the hundreds of interviews I’ve had with members of all kinds of communities…brand communities, cults, religions, bands of activists, knitting groups…I’ve found that you can tell you’ve got a successful community on your hands when you see evidence that its members are helping each other out. And this is often in ways that have nothing to do with the main purpose of the group. Here is a typical quote taken at random from a member of a Meetup that explains what I mean:


“We have such a diversity of members from all backgrounds and professions, from plumbers to dentists, tree surgeons to television directors, car dealers to accountants.

From this, if you’re ever need advice with something (e.g. a blocked sink, what’s the best second hand car to buy, or how do you do a tax return) there is always someone in the group who can help out – usually in exchange for no more than a beer or a smile.

We’ve got a great community.” Matt – Poker Meetup, UK.


Why is mutual support a good indicator of a high-functioning community? It suggests the community has developed to the point that a feeling of mutual responsibility exists between its members. And mutual responsibility normally occurs when there has been enough social contact between them via face to face meetings, video chats, commenting on blog posts, and so on, that they’ve developed a familiarity with, an affinity for and a resulting sense of responsibility to each other.

Generally, you can track the following stages of community development that result in mutual support and stickiness:


Interaction = Bonding = Mutual Responsibility = Mutual Support

= Strong Social Glue


The richer the social interaction (meaning not just liking and commenting here and there, but attending events, working with others on some goal of the group and so on) and the greater the frequency of interaction tends to result in stronger bonds. And this leads to a sense of mutual responsibility and the resulting mutual support.

This has been tracked by sociologists of religion amongst those organizations where frequent interaction has been built in as a membership requirement. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) work hard to ensure Sunday isn’t the only day when you engage with other members. Whether you’re in Manchester of Manila, virtually every day is assigned to some kind of church-related social interaction undertaken by members of the Church (there is no paid clergy except for a few leaders at the HQ in Utah).

This is Peggy, a Mormon who also runs her own marketing agency. She marvels at how good her church is at keeping people. She describes how rich and frequent the social interaction is that leads to mutual support and an enviable degree of loyalty:

“I mean a missionary can convert a member, but how do you keep that member involved?  Because the church becomes your life.  And when you’ve got a bishop checking on you, and his two counselors checking on you, and two home teachers checking on you, and two visiting teachers checking on you, plus you’re given a church job to be a home teacher if you’re a man, a visiting teacher if you’re a woman.  Plus, you’re probably given a job to teach a primary class or a youth class or an adult class on the Sabbath.  Plus you’re maybe assigned to the activities committee to plan a ward activity.  The church becomes your family.  The church becomes your social life, as well as your spiritual center.  Because the church is brilliant at marketing.”

Which brings me to important finding. You can ‘legislate’ for mutual support to happen versus just waiting for it to occur. And the organizations that do that, together with organizing themselves in a way that ensures frequent and rich social interaction, get incredible levels of commitment.

You can make it a goal. Don’t just wait for it to occur.

When you join the Marines, you join for life. As a grizzled old veteran once told me “there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine. You’re a Marine. Period”. The Marines would argue that they’re the most cohesive, absolutely loyal-to-each-other force in the military. From the first day, the idea of mutuality that’s enshrined in ‘never leaving a fellow Marine behind’ is reinforced in everything they do. “We have a ritual in the Marine Corps early on that if a person falls out of a run, you just circle until the guy captures his wind, and he becomes ready to go back in. They don’t leave him behind” as a young lieutenant told me. The grizzled veteran thumped the table as he said: “In combat, we are notoriously famous for never leaving a Marine on the battlefield. We are the only service that does that. Others say they do, but they don’t. We will do whatever it takes to go back and carry our wounded and dead off the battlefield. That ethos, if you will, is bred in you from the outset”.

A convincing argument has also been made that the success of the Christian religion in beating out its competitors in the first three hundred years of its existence (it was just one of several Mystery Cults in the eastern Mediterranean two thousand years ago) is owed to the fact that the value of mutual support was at the heart of its ideology. Rodney Stark in an excellent little book called ‘The Rise of Christianity’ suggests that the religion might have remained one of the minor cults had it not been for its response to two major plagues throughout the Roman Empire in 165 A.D. and 251 A.D.

Unlike the conventional reaction to a devastating plague…leave your friends, family and neighbors alike to succumb to the disease while you run for the hills, literally…Christians were invoked to tend for the sick. Modern medical experts have calculated that even the basic kind of nursing care likely to have been administered by the early Christians would have increased survival rates by two thirds compared to non-Christians. The increased survival rate naturally increased the ratio of Christians to non-Christians following the plagues (from 0.4 percent of the population before the plagues to roughly one Christian to four pagans following the second). This significantly increased the religion’s influence within the society (not to mention the perception that Christians miraculously survived the devastation) and was ultimately declared the State Religion by Theodosius in 380 A.D.

Now, I’m not suggesting you have to start a religion or crack military unit to create a successful community. There are plenty of examples of regular everyday communities that make mutual support an explicit goal. Healthcare groups, for example. Whether you look at the more famous examples such as the AA or Weightwatchers, or local cancer survivor groups or even hiking or yoga groups they all tend to make mutual support their core purpose.

And even in the world of business there are communities that ‘legislate ‘ for mutual support. Thrivent is Mutual Fund Company with more than $60 billion in assets. It baked Community into it’s offering well before the founders of Facebook and Twitter were conceived. They make mutual support an explicit goal  “Our community is who we are, so their goal is our mission – helping our members with financial security and caring for others. We like to think about it as security, generosity, community” says Stacy Eckes-Borys. And it’s not a hollow ‘caring for our community’ claim that you see in most corporate mission statements. Well over 40% of their 2.6 million members participate in volunteerism through the company. More of this interesting case in this article I wrote for Forbes.

So, whatever the purpose of your community, whether commercial, religious, military or just for fun, try and engender the circumstances that favor mutual support: getting people to interact with each other so they form bonds and develop a sense of mutual responsibility. Then you’ll have an extremely sticky community on your hands.