The tale of a community of hikers might go something like this: As the seasons change from summer to fall, the crisp air and foliage of Colorado draws in hikers from all over the globe to enjoy treks through the Rocky Mountain National Forest. A timid traveler from New York with little hiking experience, and a lot of nerves, arrives for their first overnight hike. With an abundance of caution, they spend the week prior to the hike becoming familiar with the altitude and area. Meanwhile, an advanced hiker from Zurich ventures to Colorado for the same multi-day trek. With over 20 years of hiking experience, and many prior trips along this trail, they begin their journey by hosting a community gathering for new-hikers. The new hiker eagerly asks questions that the experienced hiker is glad to answer. The curiosity of the new hiker combined with the knowledge of the experienced hiker drove value for the entire group.

These two hikers are a part of a community, yet they are on different journeys that overlap, diverge, and sit at different life-cycle stages. Great communities have distributed and diverse members, just as the ones described here. Their experiences and journeys shape their roles in the community. Within the community of hikers prepping for a multi-day hike; one is entering into a community with curiosity and a new perspective, while another is leveraging their expertise to lead and help pull new members in. All are unique in their levels of experience and time spent as part of the community, but each is equally as important to the success of the group. There are points of knowledge and insights to exchange. 

There is beauty in the variety of these journeys, and while there are similar pathways, no two community journeys need to be the same in order to be equal in relevance to the whole. Tracking and understanding the journey gives us a human-centric approach towards designing communities that are balanced and purposeful. 

What does it mean to track a community journey? 

Tracking a community journey is a way to understand the path that a member takes when entering and interacting within a community. Each member will have a unique pathway, from gaining an awareness that you are not alone through to exploring, initiation, participation, contribution, and building. These community terms are defined in the open-source framework called the Orbit Model, a way to better understand the roles that each member takes as part of a community. Looking closer, the Orbit Model shares that Explorers are folks who are not fully-activated community members yet, but are at least passively interested, and form a part of your audience. They might not join your community today but might in the future. Participants have navigated the onramp into the community and are starting to establish a track record of participation and product usage. They have made some lightweight contributions like writing documentation or volunteering at an event. Contributors have graduated from being Participants by taking on more time-intensive, higher impact roles in the community. They might moderate the forum, guide the chat room, give talks, or host small events. They are consistent, recognizable faces who embody the culture and actions the community expects. The inner circle of Builders are individuals who have a very high love for the community by taking on important challenges and playing a leadership role. They are known to many other members who look to them for guidance and help, and may head one or more large groups inside of the community. As community builders, we seek to understand these journeys: both the well-trodden paths and those roads less traveled. 

Why is it important to track community journeys? 

Our desire to understand how members ebb and flow through our community stems from the mission that many community builders share: to bring high-value to the members of our communities. One key driver that creates value for any community is a well-balanced distribution of member roles and journeys. A community with a healthy distribution of member roles and journeys means that among all members of the community, the various journey pathways and roles are represented in proportion to the responsibilities needed for sustaintaining the community. Putting this into practice, we can balance the member roles of explorers, participants, contributors, and builders by tracking who and how many of our members are in these roles. 

How do you know if your community has a healthy distribution of members? 

To visualize what healthy community distribution looks like, we can think of how the roles of our community would appear in a pie-chart showing the percentages of each type of role, or of each point in the journey. Our pie-chart may show a relatively equal distribution of members across the various journey-points, or it may show an unequal distribution of roles and journey points. A healthy distribution depends on the needs and structure of each community. 

" Tracking and understanding the journey gives us a human-centric approach towards designing communities that are balanced and purposeful."

Knowing if the distribution is healthy for your community can be answered by asking, how is our community structured? Is it one-to-many, few-to-many, many-to-many or in another format? Does the structure of this community lead to the greatest value for members? Then asking, what roles are needed in order for the community to operate smoothly under this structure? Which points of the member journey are represented? Can introducing members of one point in the journey to members who are at another point in the journey bring additional value to those members, and to the entire community? Each community will have different needs when it comes to what’s best. 

While each community member’s journey is unique, the points they encounter throughout their journey can often be associated with the role they play in the community. Using the roles definition in the Orbit Model as an example, we can match the pathway points of each member’s journey to the defined member roles in order to better understand how having a distribution of roles is helpful to your community. 

Those who are just starting out their journey with your community are in the role of Explorer. They are showing signs of interest, such as investing time or energy towards joining your Discord server or attending their first event. Blog content or lightweight events can help Explorers to learn, encouraging them to continue their journey as they move into the next role of a Participant. When members pass the initial entry to the community and are continuously active, then they are considered Participants. These members are familiarizing themselves with the norms of the community before starting to add their own contributions. Online community channels and events are great ways to engage with Participants. Community members who are increasing their investment of time towards the community, such as beginning to guide others through threads in Discord or hosting small events, are in a Contributor role. Members who have learned and grown in your community because of their consistency, contributors, and leadership in the community, are in the role of a Builder. Builders are not always at the end of their journey, but their experience means that they are in a position to offer guidance and help other members navigate.

" As community builders, we seek to understand these journeys: both the well-trodden paths and those roads less traveled."

The level and types of interaction between the community manager and each role varies based on whether the member is an Explorer, Participant, Contributor and Builder. However, it can help to pair the roles of Explorer and Participant, and Contributor and Builder together when looking for activities to resonate with each role. Opportunities for observing and lightly interacting resonates with Explorers or Participants, while an increase of one on one attention motivates Contributors and Builders. You can help to pull Explorers and Participants along the community journey by providing high level communication about the value they’ll find in being part of the community, and giving safe spaces for learning from the contributions of others. When engaging with Contributors and Builders, the level and types of interactions shift towards transparent, close connections and helping them achieve specific goals. 

The structure of a community is part of a community builder’s strategy for sustaining its success. How a community is structured varies per community. The community size, digital platforms for communicating, geography, and mission are all variables that shape the structure of a community. The diversity of roles and journeys allows the community to operate smoothly, with certain members taking on long-term responsibilities, others gearing up to shift their role, and others who are drifting away. All member types support a healthy ecosystem. 

Time is an important factor in the harmony between the distribution and structure of your community. Not all members will enter the community at the same time, and not all members will be naturally distributed in the ways that your community needs. It is unlikely that members who fulfill each role will perfectly present themselves in the early days of building your community. Fortunately, tracking our community journeys over time, serves as a tool to guide members into the roles and responsibilities that resonate with them, as well as benefit the community. When just starting out with building a community, the distribution of multiple member journeys or members who are Exploring vs Building may not be present. The members who are Builders will initially be the community manager and any other teammates, but will evolve as new members emerge into participants, contributors, then builders. By tracking community journeys, a community manager can assess the member participation and contributions overtime, and nudge action and activities to support a member's growth to new roles and responsibilities. 

A uniquely beneficial experience was created for the community of hikers by including a variety of members at different points in their journey. The one-to-many community structure, as we saw with the experienced hiker answering questions in front of the group at the start of their collective journey, supported the community. It filled the need for a distribution of members who are leading and exploring. The harmony between structure and distribution of roles created value for all. The stronger our understanding of community journeys, the higher the likelihood of healthy member distribution, and ultimately, of a high-value experience in our community.