This talk is about using the Orbit Model to build high-gravity communities. My name is Patrick, I'm the co-founder and CEO of Orbit. You can follow me on Twitter patrickjwoods if you have any questions about this talk either during the conversation or later in the week as you're reflecting on the Orbit Model, feel free to ping me on Twitter, send me a DM, this is my email address as well if you have any questions about the Orbit Model or about Orbit in general. We're the creators of two things, Orbit the product and the Orbit Model. And this talk will primarily focus on the Orbit Model. You can follow along with Orbit Model concepts in two places, OrbitModel.com is a very visual breakdown of the concepts, it's very easy to navigate and understand, the GitHub repo here is actually the documentation for the Orbit Model, so what you'll find there is a deep dive into everything we're going to talk about today. It's a pretty granular look at all the different pieces and concepts and you can see at the end the repo, basically the evolution of thought over time, because we've been working on it for almost two years at this point. So feel free to follow along in either of those places.
So what is the Orbit Model and why do we have it? So the Orbit Model is a framework for building high gravity communities. And we're going to talk about what these concepts like high gravity mean, throughout the conversation today. And a high gravity community is one that excels at attracting and retaining members by providing an outstanding member experience. So when we think about communities, gravity is kind of the top level concept and a successful community is one that is attractive and successful at retaining members over time.
So why did we create the Orbit Model in the first place? Where did this thing come from? So we're going to do a quick history lesson for those of you who are interested. First, we want to talk about Elias St. Elmo Lewis of the National Cash Register company. Mr. Lewis here, is actually credited with creating the first version of the sales and marketing funnel, all the way back in 1898. So before we talk about the Orbit Model, let's talk about some of the models that brought us here. 1898 is when Elias St. Elmo Lewis first coined this idea of a funnel to measure sales. Believe it or not, the National Cash Register corporation was a pioneer in professionalizing the sales process. And Lewis here was actually inducted into the advertising hall of fame posthumously in 1951, for his contribution to the field.
To go all the way back in time, 1898 is when our notion of the sales and marketing funnel was first coined. While many inside of companies today use the idea of a funnel to describe a measure of lots of things that are processed, whether it's product onboarding or sales, or marketing, whatever, the funnel as a concept was born in the world of sales or salesmanship, as you can see in the diagram here. And what's interesting is that before we started Orbit, my co-founder and our CTO, Josh, Josh and I spent a year consulting with dev Relic community teams, and we had conversations with hundreds of leaders and frontline folks, building communities, building teams, and throughout those conversations, we realized that the funnel is historically the only mental model companies were using to assess the success of their programs. Like it's the only way and it's kind of like that old aphorism, when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And while a hammer can be a very effective tool, not everything needs to be pounded into a piece of wood.
And so what we realized is that the funnel as a concept has been the sole commercial metaphor since 1898. It's like the only way, if you've ever been in a meeting of almost any type, the funnel probably came up as a way to measure how things are going. But a lot has changed since then. Of course, the funnel as a concept, isn't inherently an evil thing, it's not a bad thing. It's actually super useful when it's applied to the appropriate context. So it turns out the funnel is great for measuring things like linear or binary processes. So think about like a product onboarding with five steps that everyone needs to go through to have a great experience, funnel's a great way for measuring that. Or an enterprise sales process, where at the end of that process, there's either a purchase or not a purchase and it's very binary, a funnel is great for measuring those processes.
But if you know anything about community, communities are neither linear nor binary, there are a lot more chaotic and unpredictable than that. And so what we found is that the funnel as a metaphor, as applied to communities was causing a lot of internal tension in the companies we were speaking with because it's sort of an inappropriate map of the terrain.
And so the Orbit Model was really created from the ground up based on first principles of how communities expand over time. This little comparison here sort of breaks down some of the conceptual differences between the funnel and the Orbit Model. The funnel's about conversion, the Orbit Model's about adoption, it's about value creation, it's about pulling people in versus pushing people through a predefined process. And we really think it's inclusive of the entire life cycle of a person in your community and in your own Orbit. Where the funnel is useful for like a one-time measurement thing, it's like, did they purchase, did they not? Really, communities are a long-term game with an almost unbounded time horizon. And so the Orbit Model really seeks to understand these kind of first principles about how communities are different than other processes inside of an organization.
So we've been thinking about this stuff for awhile, actually going all the way back to 2016, you can actually see the very first version of what would become the Orbit Model on a whiteboard at keen IO, which is the company where Josh and I met. And then all the way back in 2019 and a little over two years ago today, Josh and I wrote the first blog post and shipped some Airtable templates, really unpacking the idea of why the Orbit Model maybe better than the funnel in some contexts. So since then we've had around 20 contributions or contributors to the GitHub docs.
The Orbit Model docs have more than 600 stars, which is pretty cool. And we've even had a translation to Chinese created by one of our community members. And so the Orbit Model is a concept that is ever evolving, it's something that we're learning about all the time and adding to and updating, but it's something that we've been seeking to improve upon for many, many years now. And I look forward to the discussion, the conversations with you all about how to improve it and tweak it even further.
So to dig in, the Orbit Model has several objectives. Some of those impact your community members and some of the objectives impact your team. And so for your community members, for folks applying the Orbit Model, it should lead to things like faster activation, more targeted programming, smoother onboarding, higher retention. And then on your team, it should enable things like more clear metrics and reporting, simpler prioritization of your programming, scalable programs, and then common vocabulary as well. And this last one's pretty important because what we found is that by introducing concepts like gravity, love and reach, which we'll dig in today, it'll give you and the folks in your company, a more comprehensive way to talk about how things are going in the community, as opposed to simply things like how many people came from the meetup. So hopefully that's pretty helpful.
So there's a lot to the Orbit Model. There's a lot of detail to dive into as you'll find on the repo and the docs. So we'll try to keep it high level today and introduce some of the main ideas. So this is a visual representation of the Orbit Model, it's really, first and foremost, a canvas for you to think about your community. And there's a number of concepts that you'll see here. First is that there are four levels, there are four Orbit levels, essentially; advocates, contributors, participants and observers. And the four levels really are indicators of a person's engagement and activity level across your community. But the idea is that Orbit levels, if you understand the distribution of them gives you a way to prioritize and segment your community and deliver programming specific to people's relationship, to the core, which is your team at the center of gravity there.
We'll dig into love and reach momentarily, but love is basically a measure of the member's activity in your community and reach is a measure of their sphere of influence. And if you understand a person's love and their reach, you can really tell a lot about their current relationship to your community, as well as their potential for growth. So we have this simple formula that love plus reach equals gravity. And this idea is to be clear, not terribly, this isn't calculus, it's more conceptual than it is mathematical. But it's this idea that if you're increasing the love and reach of your community, the attractive force of your community will expand. So as your community engages with you and each other, the love goes up and as their actions extend out to their own networks, their reach increases. And then at the end of the day, you can quantify your Orbit's retention and growth equaling to gravity.
So let's start with love. So what is love? Love is a member's level of engagement and investment in the community. Someone with high love is highly active and plays key roles in the community like contributing, moderating and organizing. So what is love? Well, it turns out you can measure it as well. So these are life lessons too, feel free to tell your spouses and your partners that you learned today, how to measure love. I'm sure that will go over well.
So in the Orbit Model, a member's love is inferred by the quantity, quality and recency of activities that they've completed. So the Orbit Model is all about activity, like who's in the community and what are they doing? And so if you're going to measure love, there's like five steps to doing that. So first is to define your activities. What are the ones that are reported to your community? What are the verbs that people are doing out in your world that are really meaningful for your community and for the growth of your community? So, activities are verbs like joined the Discord server, answered a question, hosted a meet up. What are the ones that matter? By the way, we have an Airtable template, at template.orbit.love. If you want to take apart these concepts and play with them, kind of in a sort of test environment, the Airtable templates are a great way to do that. So first step define those activities.
Second, you could assign weights. So this is the idea that, somebody re-tweeting your tweet is nice, but maybe isn't as nice as hosting a conference or hosting a meetup or giving a conference talk. And so you might want to weight your activities typically on a scale from one to three. We've noticed that if it's not a bouted number, it can get kind of confusing. But this is the idea that you want to understand, not only the frequency of activities but the quality, and here quality equals weight essentially.
Then you want to record those activities. So when someone does something cool, you want to keep track of that, so you can measure it and add it up over time. And then you can basically calculate love. Love is essentially the sum of activity scores decayed over time. There's some math here. And basically the key takeaway is that if you understand who is the community, what are they doing and when, you can really start to understand how active they are in the community and start to assign those Orbit levels. So basically saying, here's our group of most engaged members, here are folks who are not quite as engaged, all the way up to the Orbit for observers, where folks are maybe new to the community and they're starting to dip their toe in the water for the first time.
So once you have done this exercise, even if it's just like, sort of at a very high level, you can start to have discussions internally around how to engage with the members of those communities. So thinking back to those initial outcomes for the members and for your team, you can start to ask questions like, who were the highest loved members? Who's ramping? Who's gone dormant? Do we have activities in place for members with each degree of love? And then at the team level, you can start to ask questions like, how is it changing over time? What changes in love can we attribute to our work as a community team? Like, so when we did an event or we did office hours, or we did a swag promotion, did that change the shape of the love in our community? And then you can start to ask questions like, how does love compare across locations or customer segments? So you might say maybe the love is really high in New York, and maybe that's because you've done a lot of events there versus Oklahoma City where you haven't done any events. And so you can start to triangulate the love of your community, and cross-referencing that with other data that you have about your customer base.
So the idea here is evolving your vocabulary in the conversation from, again, those questions, like how many registrations did we get from the meetup, or how many people attended the Zoom webinar or whatever, and really leveling up the conversation and thinking about how is this impacting the community over time? How is it changing? And how do those activities actually impact things like love?
The second concept is reach. So reach is a lot simpler, reach is a measure of a community member's sphere of influence. Takes into account their reputation, their credibility, degree of connectedness. A simple proxy for this is your number of Twitter followers, number of GitHub followers. If you have access to like their number of blog subscribers, or newsletter subscribers, you can add that in as well. But it's the idea that if love is about the person's activity in the community, the reach is almost like their potential energy for drawing more people in to your orbit. And so reach is pretty cool because it's, people haven't already, when they show up, they might show up with a lot of Twitter followers to your community, but you can also think about proactive ways to increase the reach of community members as well. And this comes in the form of simple things like retweeting their tweets, or including their tweets in your newsletter, for example, but it could also mean things like asking them to give a talk at the extra meetups or give a talk at your conference.
And so another thing you could do when you think about the Orbit Model in general, and reach in particular is ask yourself and your team, how can we find folks with maybe high love and low reach and give them a platform for spreading their perspective and their ideas and taking the love that they have inherently and giving them more reach to share it more broadly?
So the outcomes of all this, well, there's a lot of them. The idea is that once you have your community segmented and understand Orbit levels and everybody's love and reach, you can start to design and offer mutually beneficial opportunities that increase both as we were just talking about. So you might ask, do you want to give a talk at the event? Do you want some swag? The answer to that question is always yes, as it turns out, everyone wants swag. Do you want mentorship or training? So maybe someone is engaging and leaning in, in an Orbit floor, and the thing that's keeping them from having higher love is sort of like product proficiency and so maybe you can help them level up there. Can we hire you? Is another one. This is a common thing that happens in communities with high love. So that's kind of the idea, is that you could use this data to then design specific programs to achieve your strategies, to achieve your objectives based on specific data about folks in the community.
So on the roadmap for the Orbit Model, this is, as I mentioned, a project and a process that is ongoing many years in the making, I think a lot many years to come in the future of editing and revising because communities are fun and interesting and challenging. And so we realized that we need an input from the community to continue to make this thing a successful and useful concept. But in the meantime, a couple of things are happening, we're continuing to update the model based on its use across around 4,200 users of the Orbit product, who we're tracking around twenty-five million activities across their communities.
And so, the Orbit Model is this sort of concept that exists on GitHub and kind of in our brains, but we actually have applied it inside the Orbit product itself, which is pretty cool. And so not only is the Orbit Model an idea, some words on a website, but it's actually the underlying math is being applied at a scale of around 25 million activities tracked so far. So what we're trying to do is take the ideas for the Orbit Model, put them in the Orbit product and then go back and update the Orbit Model itself based on how the data is actually used and how people are actually applying the Orbit Model at this scale, which is pretty cool. And so along the way, we continue to incorporate those ideas into the product.
If this stuff is interesting to you, this is our Twitter handle, it's just @OrbitModel. I invite you to give us a follow there. And if, as you're perusing the documentation on GitHub, if something's unclear, or you have an idea that you think should be fleshed out a bit, feel free to open a pull request, we've had a number of contributions on the doc so far, but our hope is that this continues to be a community effort and that we can take the best thinking from all of you and incorporate it into an idea that really helps us move the field of community building and community management forward.
So, that's the Orbit Model. If you want to apply it at scale, you can consider joining more than, like I said, 4,000 users who are collectively managing around 5 million community members today using the Orbit product. And I'll just give you a quick overview of what the Orbit product is, if you're not familiar. Really the Orbit product is mission control for your community. So it helps you understand your community members no matter whether you meet across those platforms. If you think about what we talked about momentarily, a moment ago, with the Orbit Model, tracking activities across many, many channels can be quite difficult. The Orbit product makes that relatively simple by plugging in integrations and seeing activity across any channel where your community hangs out. This gives you the chance to see your whole community at a glance. You get to ... you quickly with a [looksie 00:17:53] new and notable members, people who have a lot of Twitter followers, or people who are really active in your community, we show you some behavioral segments like new and exciting members versus those who are fading away and give you essentially at a glance what's going on across your community.
And that also means you get lots of reports. People like reports, bosses like reports, companies like reports and so Orbit automatically generates lots of reports for you to understand how activities trending across channels, active versus new versus returning members across every channel you've integrated, as well as things like, how are your Orbit levels changing over time, which we think gives you a lot of quantitative data to talk internally and make decisions about how the community is working and how your work as a community builder is powering other parts of the business. So Orbit is free to try. You can try it at orbit.love, feel free to jump in and give it a try and connect some of your integrations and see what's going on out there and start applying the Orbit Model at scale. So with that, if there are questions I want to get to those.
Yeah okay. So the question is, does Orbit help us track what stage our communities are at on the Orbit Model? Great question. So inside the Orbit product, there's a report that you can actually pull. We automatically calculate the love and reach of every person in your community and we plot that on a graph. So you could actually see over time, the distribution of Orbit level 1, 2, 3, and 4, as you grow over time. So it's actually pretty cool. For example, you can come and plug in for example, if you have a community Discord server and a Twitter account that's important, you can plug in both and Orbit will automatically generate some reports showing you the Orbit level over time, and then the love and the reach of each individual community member. So maybe that's what you're asking, but that all happens out of the box, based on the activities that folks are doing across all your integrations.
So another question was, how can we log offline events in the Orbit Model? So I would answer in that two ways. If you're talking about the Orbit Model, just theoretically, you can track that however you'd like, use the Airtable templates, things like that. Using the Orbit product, there's actually a way to track any events, there's a button called add activity. And so on the integration side of things, for example, if you were using the GitHub integration let's say, activities happen automatically with the integration, so like someone does a pull request, stars a repo, those are all logged automatically on the timeline of a community member. But you could also add one off or ad hoc activities for community members. So let's say you've just had a great conversation, I think Rosie does this a lot, I think Erin does too, where you just had a great coffee chat with someone, you can actually log that as an activity just manually. So you can log those activities. And if you had, for example, a spreadsheet of a hundred people attended a meetup and you didn't log that online, you can actually just upload a CSV with those activities' timestamps, so you can actually see that inside the product. So hopefully that answers the question. Cool. It looks like it did.
All right. So we've got a question from Michael here. What do you feel are a few examples of the most important metrics to track for measuring community love? So love itself is a metric, interestingly enough, and the inputs to love are the recency, frequency and quality of activity across the community. So the Orbit Model, sort of the foundational, I guess, thinking about the Orbit Model and the Orbit product is a very activity-based worldview. You want to understand who's out there? What are they doing? When did they do it? And on what platform? And what was the quality of that contribution? To zoom out a bit, this is different from maybe a traditional CRM, which is like more of a database of like, where does someone work? What's their job title and stuff like that. We think for the future of community builders, you actually want to understand who's out there and what are they doing.
And so, love as a metric takes into account those activities. So, that's why it's important to have things like integrations set up and running, because if someone is answering a lot of questions in your forum, you want to know that, and that will make their love go up. If someone hasn't been active in a long time, their love might start to go down. And so really I think at the baseline, the most important metric is really just understanding who's doing what and with what frequency. And if you start to understand that as sort of a first order of business, you can start to plot out like, who's leading in and who's needing some more attention. So hopefully that answers that question.
David asks, what if reach is not an inherent goal of a community member? That's okay. If it's not their goal, then they may not be interested in giving a talk at your meetup. But what we found is that for most communities, attracting new members, retaining their existing members is a concern. And one way to do that is understanding the inherent reach of the community members themselves. And so that's why it's another component of the Orbit Model is that, if you're thinking about what makes something high gravity and makes something attractive, an attractive force, love is a big part of that. But the reach of the individual community members is super helpful as well.
All right. Another question here. Is there a way to measure and track the Orbit scores for specific folks as a cohort like our Ambassadors? This is a great question. If we're talking about the product here, then I think the answer is kind of and coming soon. Most of our users would use tags today inside the product to organize groups like champions or ambassadors or things like that. And then you can actually report out on basically like, recency and frequency of activity on a tag level basis. So I'm happy to have that conversation more, I think it's a pretty specific product question, but we're happy to have that in the Discord talk. More specifically, how to do that on a cohort basis. That's a great question.
Is it possible to change the value for different activity types? I've seen it's possible for importing activities from a spreadsheet. So activity waiting, it's a rabbit's warren of complexity. I think it's the metaphor. Happy to have that one-on-one in Discord too. And in general, the API lets you tweak the weights, the CSV import lets you tweak the weights and the one-off, if you add activities manually, you can tweak the weights. I think as of today, the automatic activities that are imported from integrations, I don't think we can tweak those yet, but I think that's on the roadmap. So check the [Canny 00:24:55] board ideas.orbit.love has all the features that are upcoming. You can also request a feature. We take that stuff very seriously and our product team is all over that. So feel free to suggest that to @ideas.orbit.love, and we'll make sure that, that gets a proper hearing. But yeah, today you can tweak the weights on some of the activities but not all of them.
All right. Arthur asks, what are some common mistakes that you see in early founders of community centric startups make, when starting from day one? Okay, great question. Maybe the first is, starting a community, quote, unquote, whatever that means, without a north star as to why they're doing it. This is happening more and more I think, especially for early stage companies. What we've seen over the past year is that investors really, even at the earlier stages, especially the earlier stages, we're starting to ask founders, what's your community strategy? How many people are in it? Almost as important as what's going on with their products. And so what that's led to, sort of unintended consequences is many founders saying, okay, we're doing a community because the investor said we have to do one. And without any sort of regard to things like do the people potentially in the community want to be in a community at all.
And so, what we recommend and Rosie talks about this a lot, I think we've got some blog posts around this, is like, step one is understanding and learning about your people. And before you launch a community, whatever that means, it's taking the time to do the research and the discovery. I recommend people essentially do community discovery the same way they did product discovery and put similar level of rigor into understanding the nuance and the opportunities in your space as it relates to the potential of community. So, what are people missing? What are they lacking? Why would they want to get together and be a community? The failure case here is that the community or the so-called community is very self-serving to the company, to the founders and not actually empathetic to what the potential community members actually need or want. So I think that's a really common one.
If you've got that, I would say one mistake that we made at Orbit was not leaning into things like events and meetups and conversations early on. I think we've had a lot of good luck with the tool called Gatheround formerly known as Icebreaker, which is a way to get community members together, to hang out and talk. And I think there's a watershed moment in early communities where the shape of the conversation shifts from one to many, the company or the organizer talking to everyone, to everyone talking to everyone. And especially in product centric communities, that can take some time to get going. One way to bootstrap or jumpstart that process is to get those people talking one-on-one in like a Gatheround event, and really trying to lower the psychological barriers to those conversations. So, yeah. There's a lot of common ones. If I had to sum it up, I would say the most common mistake is doing a community without any regard to the underlying rationale for the members of the community and not understanding what value is going to be created as a result for those community members.
There's another question, in your opinion, is there a difference between a user of a product and a member of that product's community? If so, what differentiates it to you? Okay, good question. So we think about this taxonomy that can be applied to almost any community type. And the challenge with the word community is that it can mean a lot and it can mean nothing. So like, the Kubernetes community is a community and my local fencing club in San Francisco is a community, but they don't really have anything in common at all in terms of scale or intent or anything like that, yet they're both called communities.
So we wrote this blog post about the three Ps, this is sort of a taxonomy for understanding what type of community you have or you want. And so it's not perfect, but I find it useful. And so, you can think about communities as communities of products, of practice and play. So communities of product are very clearly like, you're here to talk about the product and to get help to level up on that product. Communities of practice, think about the On Deck Fellowship or a Slack group that's specifically for CTOs. You're there to talk, not so much about a product, but about an idea, about a discipline, to connect, to network, to skill up, things like that. And products of play, this is like, NBA Talk Shop, something like that, or a sneaker centric community, or people getting together to watch a basketball game. These are communities, but they have different expectations than products and practice.
So when we think about it, it's less for me about, is a person using a product or not, and more about why are they here in the community? And very tactically for Orbit that means, our Discord server for example, why is someone here? Are they here to get help with Orbit and talk about integrations or the API? How to use it more effectively to build programs? Are they here to talk about how to build a community, how to get resources and budget and manage their stakeholders and creative ideas for swag, stuff like that? Well, the reality is we have both today. Early on, the Orbit community was a dozen of people on a Slack group, talking about pretty much exclusively the product because that's why we were all there. But over time, I mean, we've got north of 700 people I think, in the Discord now. And so, we've got founders, we've got investors, we've got community builders, we've got creators, we've got crypto folks, a lot of pretty interesting people in the Discord talking about all sorts of stuff.
And so I think, to come back to the original question, I don't draw a distinction between product user or not, it's more about how do we design programs and experiences for people based on their rationale for being here. And you can actually plot, if you look at the three Ps blog post Rosie shared in the discord, you can actually plot your community based on those three types and say like, yeah, today we're like 90% product and 10% practice, but we want to change that over time to get more conversations going. So I would reframe the question and think more about that taxonomy and think about how you can build programs and experiences for people based on why they're showing up.
All right. Another question here. What if the community is active on a platform owned by someone else? For example, they have their own forum? It seems like we need to draw some from those platforms to the platforms we own- seems to break the community. Okay, this is a good question. So this is the situation where this idea that community is less of a place and more of an act or more of an orientation. And so sometimes your people who you would consider currently or potentially in your community are somewhere else, in a forum that they own or maybe a forum of your competitor owns or something like that. And I think the question here is a good one.
What I would say is, you want to start ... kind of mentioning the prior question, it's like understanding your people and asking yourselves, do we need to own this conversation or is the best thing we can do to create value for these people to go and interact in the places where they are. And I think this is kind of a key distinction between Orbit Model and community thinking, compared to more traditional, like a go to market thinking. We talk about go to community strategy here, a lot on Orbit, and this is the idea that the question in a go to community strategy is less about how much value can we capture from people for our own purposes and reframing that to the question of how much value can we create for people.
And I think that question, if you turn it around and think about it that way, it may be the case that the best way to create value is to go to those forums and hang out and have conversations and share resources and share ideas. And I think that's terribly satisfying from a business standpoint, because you may be very active on the competitor's forum for example, but I think our first principle is that if you are doing that and you're a known entity in the community that is out there consistently driving value for everyone you come in contact with, the second order of benefits of that will at some point crew back to yourself or to the company. So it's a bit of a philosophical answer to your question. I don't think it makes sense to go and try to poach members of a community and bring them to your thing.
With that, thanks so much for coming out today, thanks for the questions and the conversation at the Discord and I'm looking forward to see you all online at the rest of the conference. Thanks again.