As we have built Orbit, we have discussed with countless customers why they use our tools. Measuring ROI, understanding impact, finding and managing champions, operationalizing community teams, and seeing a single pane of glass for their community are all mentioned, among many other things.
There are lots of powerful uses for Orbit, but if we ask why any of that matters, in Five Whys fashion, the answer is almost always growth. Growth is essential to any thriving community. Growth prevents stagnation, but it also brings new members, new ideas, and new energy. More members can mean greater impact, and the more ambitiously the community can pursue its mission.
However, growth can mean different things. Most commonly, at least in the tech world, growth means “up and to the right!” It is related to exponential user and revenue growth, often at all costs. But community is all about creating value for and connections between people, so a more nuanced, human-centric view of community growth is necessary.
Community growth, as a concept, needs a clear definition.
Facets of growth
What are all the subtle and varied distinctions behind the concept of growth? It has many facets:
- Growth can mean getting taller, if you are a person or a tree
- Growth can mean expanding across physical space, like a town or like mold
- Growth can mean maturation or development, as in personal development or the way one grows as a writer or a musician
“ A more nuanced, human-centric view of community growth is necessary.”
At Orbit, we think community growth is all about facilitating increasingly meaningful experiences for community members. These can include having powerful conversations, discovering an opportunity to help someone, accepting a job offer, learning something new, showing off something you made, or participating in a thread where the perfect meme nailed the vibe.
So to drive growth, a community team should work on creating the context for these kinds of magical interactions. How do you do that? There are qualitative and quantitative aspects to this idea.
Increasing the surface area for magic
Entrepreneur and software developer Jason Roberts coined the idea of “Luck Surface Area,” which posits that you can actually manufacture your own luck.
"The amount of serendipity that will occur in your life, your Luck Surface Area, is directly proportional to the degree to which you do something you're passionate about combined with the total number of people to whom this is effectively communicated."
By investing in your passion and putting yourself out there, you increase the odds that something amazing will happen. For communities, there is a similar surface area for magic (or if you prefer a less mystical term, a powerful connection). In other words, there are tangible steps you can take to increase the odds each of your members will have a meaningful experience, thus driving your community’s growth.
Fostering community growth
There are three ways to increase the chances of something magical happening for your community: you can increase the number of active members, strengthen the connections between members, and improve the quality of contributions each member makes. All three lead to growth, but how do you measure these different facets in an effective way? In the Orbit Model, we use gravity. Gravity is defined as the rate at which member involvement is changing. You can think of it as the strength of the community's field of gravity, pulling members toward the center. The higher a community's gravity, the faster new members become engaged, and engaged members become leaders, and so on.
We think gravity is a good metric for growth because it incentivizes the right behavior to increase it. The change in member involvement is one of many ways we could define gravity, but we chose it because it aligns incentives. It encourages community builders to define what commitment means and to create ways to move members to higher commitments while keeping others where they are. It does not encourage adding big chunks of new members and is not susceptible to skew by small amounts of hyperactive members. In other words, it is hard to game. Gravity is universal, meaning that values across communities can be compared. It does not depend on community size, so it is possible to benchmark your gravity against others, too.
Aligning incentives is essential to growing a healthy community, but you should also keep in mind that growth is not always necessary, or a positive thing—it can threaten a community. Growth can come from the wrong source or it can come at the wrong time. A community needs to be ready to grow, with a plan in place for how to onboard and integrate reasonably-sized cohorts of new members. Premature growth can lead to frustration, chaos, a dilution of values, and even the departure of long-term, highly trusted members.
The Orbit Model and the concept of gravity can help you understand if it is the right time to grow. That determination is based on how well growth has been absorbed historically and the trajectories that recently added members have been taking. Once you are sure you are ready for growth, here are some ways to drive it.
INCREASE THE COUNT OF ACTIVE MEMBERS
You can increase the number of active members in three ways: attract new members to the community, reengage those who have faded away, and retain members who are currently active.
There is a caveat to adding more members though: you have to attract the right kinds of members—those who share the community’s values and goals. Otherwise, new bad-fit members run the risk of alienating existing members, driving down active members overall.
“ Aligning incentives is essential to growing a healthy community”
Here are some metrics that you might measure:
- Total Members
- Total Active Members
- Total Users active in the community
STRENGTHEN THE CONNECTION BETWEEN MEMBERS
More connection means deeper conversations and new opportunities for collaboration, networking, relationships, and more. In the Orbit Model, Reach is the measure of a community’s connectedness. To increase gravity, you could facilitate one-to-one intros between influential or high-love members, host mixers to foster introductions between parts of the community, or launch a member directory to help folks find others with common challenges or interests.
Here are some of the metrics you might measure:
- Reach of individual members
- Introductions facilitated
- Positive interactions between members
IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF CONTRIBUTION
As folks participate in increasingly powerful ways, the whole community benefits from the assets created, ideas shared, and relationships fostered. In practice, this looks like longer-form chat or forum discussions, more robust code contributions, guest blog posts, hosting meetups, or more.
To drive the quality of participation, you might focus on onboarding new members and making sure they know how to contribute, or by conducting regular check-ins with different segments of the community to ask them how they are doing and offer specific opportunities based on their presence and love.
Here are some of the metrics you might measure:
- Support requests answered by the community
- Informal or formal Champions identified
- Workflow or content created by the community
- Detailed community feature requests or use cases
A more holistic view of growth
What kind of growth makes sense for your community and your company? While many focus on top-line growth, I think most communities benefit from increasing connection and driving quality contribution. And most of the time, member growth will be a happy second-order effect of investing in those areas.
But I hope now, with these facets of growth in mind, and an effective way to measure them, you can have more meaningful and explicit conversations with your team about what is appropriate for your stage, and begin to hold each other accountable for community growth goals and how they impact the community overall. As a result, maybe you will get the chance to create some magic together.
Thanks to Bryan Robinson who contributed to this article.