Once you have some engagement with your first members, it’s time to begin growing your membership and reach. Growing your virtual community can mean different things. It can include increasing connections between members, scaling activities, or increasing the number of members.
Many communities do not have a formal plan for growth but this is a crucial phase that deserves your attention. Growing your community takes time. You must be dedicated to establishing your brand and studying the trends and habits within your community. You must also engage current members in your growth plan.
Why grow your virtual community?
Having more members does not automatically mean a better community. Community growth must be carefully curated and new members must be driven by a connection to your community’s purpose and values. Your community will be ineffective and provide little value if it recruits new members who quickly become inactive.
Your community’s growth must align with its purpose. In some cases, 50 members are all that is needed to achieve your goal. In that case, you can focus less on growth and more on impact. As the community builder, you must also be prepared to manage the volume of growth generated. Having more members will increase your workload, particularly when new members join. Before you begin a growth effort,
reflect on key questions including:
- What do I hope to achieve in growth in my community?
- Will more members result in higher impact?
- How many members do I need in my community at this time?
- Can my team and I handle more members given our current capacity and resources?
When developing your growth strategy, think about the profile of the members you want to recruit (revisit the personas created when developing your strategy). How many members do you want to recruit, and how you will attract new members?
There are three types of community growth (from Feverbee)
The essential growth of all communities need to survive. New members are required to replace departing members. On a long enough timeline, all members will leave. New members ensure the long-term continuation of the community.
Replenishment growth of your membership should have a clear target number that roughly equals the number of members who become inactive each month. In many communities, replenishment growth is organic.
Deliberate growth beyond current numbers. Early in a community, expansion helps reach a critical mass of activity. Expansion can also help the community adapt to changes in the broader ecosystem (if the current interest is fading) or it might be driven to grow by the ambitions of members. Do not make expansion your community’s default growth setting. Use expansion to respond to extraordinary (or out of the ordinary) events or activities inside or outside the community.
Expansion must be guided by specific growth for a specific reason.
Growth that is not directly stimulated by the community manager. Organic growth is typically the result of a referral or mention of the community in other popular channels.
Organic growth is the ideal type of growth. It generates membership from trustworthy sources which means incoming members are likelier to add value or become active co-creators.
Two examples of how communities grow and decrease with maturity:
OuiShare overtime realised they want to focus on a core group of very active members instead of a growth in numbers:
- Began with 4 core initiators and around 15-20 people close by.
- After 3 years, 40+ active members.
- At 5 years they hit a peak of 70/80 members.
- Now, after contraction, they are around e 40+ members again.
Enspiral is an example of a community that decided to offer two different kinds of membership with different growth efforts:
- Circle of 15-20 people around the initiator at the beginning.
- Gradually grew, 5 years later was at a peak of 42 members, and about 200 people in the wider community including contributors (not all contributors are active).
- Now, down to 25 members and around 100 contributors.
Strategies for successful natural growth
- Ensure your
on-boarding process is stable and sustainable.The experience of a community member begins at registration and then flows into their first few days as a member. If you do not take care of new members and offer them chances to build connections right away, you may lose them.
- Engage power members to support you in welcoming new members into workgroups or at events. The faster new members bond with others the better. Existing members must also commit to welcoming new members and understand the value of community growth. Be transparent during the growth process and involve members as much as possible.
reconnect the community to its DNA. People need to have the same identity and feel like there is a long-term, common connection point.
“Once there’s a good amount of content on the platform, you can start to grow the community slowly. You don’t want to start adding new members like crazy because that would undermine the safe, high-quality environment you’ve created by curating the right people and building relationships between them.”CMX
Guidelines for community expansion
- Pace yourself. Allow trust to be built between the new members and the broader community.
- Timing matters. Choose the right moment to take on new members. Sandbox, for example, doesn’t have a rolling new registration but, rather, only accepts new applications once every six months. This allows them to prepare for the additional capacity needed to onboard new members at the same time.
- Will your growth have a financial implication? Depending on the financing model of your community there may be a cost associated with expanding.
- Try not to get carried away by the great feeling of new members joining. Do your best to focus on attracting the right members through the channels and activities you chose.
Tip: Pause growth as needed. There are moments when more growth is not sustainable because you lack capacity or the members are losing connection to each other. Be brave and hit pause on new memberships and growth if it will serve the community.
Healthy Social Density
People tend to join online discussions that provide the maximum benefit for their investment of time and effort.
Social Density is the number of social interactions occurring within your community platform or other communication channels.
When too many interactions are concentrated within too few channels, members become overwhelmed and struggle to understand where to best engage. When this happens your social density is too high. High social density can quickly become a frustrating experience for members and can drive them away.
Conversely, spreading the same level of interaction across too many different channels can make a community feel empty. In this case, your social density is too low. Low response rates to posts and lack of activity leaves members feeling bored and they may stop returning. Social density creates two challenges when it comes to your online community:
1.) A need to reach an optimal level of social density.
2.) Maintaining a consistent level of social density as your community grows.
Ideal social density occurs when the number of active participants within a defined social space is high enough to provide a constant flow of activity, but low enough that members do not feel overwhelmed.
Creating optimal social density
Identify niche topics within the community and create separate places for them. Such subtopics can help make the platform easier to navigate and can keep content from becoming overwhelming.
When you notice that conversations within a designated channel are going off-topic, redirect members to the correct space, or suggest opening a new thread for the emerging conversation. Before you create a new discussion or space, check-in with your active members to validate your plan. This creates an opportunity for a member to take the lead on the new topic of discussion.
Alternatively, when you notice a decreasing reply-ratio, consider closing down inactive spaces or groups within your community (only after informing your members of the planned shut-down).
- Continue developing your community to ensure you meet members’ interests.
- As your community evolves, you may need to add or remove functionalities, spaces, or components of your online presence.
- Do not launch new features, sections, or subtopics until there is a demand from your community.
- Monitor the usage of the new areas carefully.
Online communities often build more spaces for interaction than is needed creating difficulties with engagement and activity rates.
Assess your members’ behaviour carefully and regularly, and ask active members for feedback.
Healthy level of connectivity
In the 1990s the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships.
Dunbar proposed that humans can maintain 150 stable social relationships at a time. When this number is exceeded a network is likely to split or collapse.
But human relations are layered even further within this theory. Typically, each of us has an intimate circle of five loved ones, 15 good friends, 50 casual friends, 150 meaningful contacts, 500 acquaintances, and 1,500 people we can recognise on sight. While our connections may differ between each of these layers, a new space must be carved for any new entrants.
“It is as though we each have a limited amount of social capital and we can choose to invest it thinly in more people, or thickly in fewer people. But you can’t exceed these limits.”Robin Dunbar
Evolving community structures requires different phases of growth and leadership
While strong leadership is required in the beginning, it is important to evolve away from top-down leadership. A community in which every member contributes can achieve more.
Begin by distributing power and responsibilities among your members. Enable and support others to get active, foster connections among members, and put collaborative decision-making processes in place, and to start co-creating.
We will focus on
two models for growth and community organisation:
- Network Weaver
- Snowflake Model
Network Weaving: four phases of building a community
Important note: The terms network and community are used interchangeably in this concept, and the community builder is referred to as a weaver.
‘network weaving’ concept, June Holley and Valdis Krebs suggest actively managing a network can improve connectivity and ultimately strengthen the community. Using a simple visualisation technique, they analysed what it takes to ‘weave’ a productive network. They identified four phases:
- Scattered Emergence: Communities start as small emergent clusters.
- Single Hub-and-Spoke: A hub, or the network weaver, actively connects diverse individuals and groups.
- Multi-Hub Small-World Network: The role of the weaver changes from being the central weaver to being a facilitator of network building throughout the community.
- Core/Periphery: The end-goal of vibrant communities, where a stable structure with a network core containing connected diverse clusters with strong ties and a periphery with groups of nodes tied to the core through weak ties.
“A Network Weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and explicitly works to make them healthier (more inclusive, bridging divides). Network Weavers do this by connecting people strategically where there’s potential for mutual benefit, helping people identify their passions, and serving as a catalyst for self-organising groups.”June Holley
This paper by June Holley is a key resource when building networks for impact.
Decentralisation to become a periphery community
Decentralisation is the process of distributing or dispersing roles, responsibilities, and power away from a central hub or location. In some cases, decentralisation represents the endpoint of the community’s vision; other times it is a response to changing times and global demands.
When the Bosch Alumni Network was launched to connect all former and current fellows, grantees, and staff members of the Robert Bosch Stiftung on a global scale. The network was operated by a highly centralized structure in Berlin, Germany. Here, most activities were initiated and implemented by a small team. It quickly became clear that it was next to impossible to cater to a global network across time zones and with different thematic focuses. A year after the official launch of the network, they decided to kick-start a decentralization process to increase global participation and scaling of offers.
Over 18 months, 56 members were selected as volunteer regional coordinators to play a vital role in the process of decentralisation. During the pilot phase (2018-19), each of the 18 regions received a small budget to support emerging activities. In the second phase, they moved from being network weavers to network facilitators. By promoting self-organisation and mutual accountability, regional coordinators facilitate local and trans-local collaborations for mutual benefits.
(Read more in this case below.)
The Snowflake Model: A distributed approach to leadership
In the snowflake model, responsibility is shared across a range of interconnected leaders or teams all working towards a common goal. In this structure,
no single person or group holds all the power and accountability is shared.
The snowflake model is rooted in enabling others. Its strength stems from its capacity and commitment to develop a framework in which everyone is responsible for identifying, recruiting, and developing new leaders. Leaders develop other leaders, and so on. The model is effective for organising teams of supporters or activists. It encourages accountability and results and is designed for organic growth and easy replication.
In the snowflake model, the core leadership team ensures the whole community is moving effectively towards long-term goals. Local leadership ensures the community stays flexible and will test a group’s proposed strategies on the ground and provide feedback.
An illustration of the snowflake model in which a single leader is replaced with interconnected leaders:
Elements of the snowflake model applied for team structure
- Each member has a sustainable number of relationships and maintains strong connections (regular one-on-one and team meetings).
- Each individual in a team has a specific role with clearly defined responsibilities.
- While the team works together towards common goals, every task is assigned to a specific team member who understands their responsibilities.
- Teams add more people who then break off and form their own teams, and so on.
Tips for branding your virtual community
Branding is often neglected in community development. Developing a brand requires defining, articulating, and affirming your messaging and then communicating that message through various channels.
Is there a name your community members can give themselves? For example, Bosch Alumni Network, members often call themselves “Boschies”. Use naming to build a collective identity.
Look and feel
Know what makes your community unique. How can you reflect that uniqueness in the look and feel of your brand? Are you working on environmental issues and looking for a more earthy presentation? Is your community for buzzing entrepreneurs and in need of a more modern and trendy appearance?
Be genuine. Create a humble brand that feels accessible and open for growth and development. Ensure that your brand is physically and emotionally accessible for members.
Communicate the core characteristics of your community clearly and explicitly. Make it visible for everyone and help members incorporate those values and goals of the community.
Position your community externally to identify and reach potential members
Establish your community as a thought-leader
Share your collective knowledge externally to ensure others can tap into the learnings and expertise within your community. Blog posts, podcasts, and videos can leverage the expertise in your community while showcasing the work of your members and getting the word out there.
Identifying potential members
Your community may be linked to an organisation, a shared experience, or a cause. Identify potential members who have not yet joined your community through research, with the help of partners, or by encouraging existing members to extend invitations or make referrals.
Connect with other communities
Reach out to other communities and reach new members on social media and other sites. For example, cross-post your top content, events or activities on other channels. Ensure cross-posted content and activities are only partly visible and that interested individuals must sign up to get full access.
Consider the system
Think about the system that surrounds your community and identify organisations and other communities that can share your updates and events. Creating synergies with other communities can be key to success. This builds stronger ties between communities and attracts new potential members.
Once your brand is confirmed, it’s time to create brand awareness. Develop and distribute materials including:
- Informative materials, such as flyers or brochures.
- Stationery items, including notebooks, pens, postcards, calendars, stickers.
- Giveaways such as reusable water bottles or cups, wristbands, umbrellas, pins.
- Design bags or shirts with a catchy slogan.
- Create banners and roll-ups for events.
- Create a streamlined social media presence with templates for Facebook and Instagram posts.
Some people with larger networks may spread themselves thinly across their contacts. Others concentrate on a small group of strong connections. According to Dunbar, “what determines these layers in real life, in the face-to-face world… is the frequency at which you see people. You’re having to make decisions every day about how you invest what time you have available for social interaction, and that’s limited.”
While Dunbar’s network numbers tend to be skewed towards Western societies, they can be a useful exercise when thinking about communities and human nature.
Do the same principles apply to online communities and connections?
Research suggests that even online it is easier to have stronger relationships when you have fewer people in your community. This means that within our communities, members have a maximum capacity of possible meaningful connections. Keep this in mind when planning your growth strategy. If your community only has 25 members who know and trust each other, moving up to (or beyond) 150 members can change the quality of member connections.
Consider social density and Dunbar’s concept of social relationships when deciding the number of members and activities that are required for a healthy for a community.
In five years, the global Impact Hub (IH) community has grown to over 16,000 members worldwide with innovation and entrepreneurial hubs in a 100 different cities in 60 countries. During this period of expansion and increased membership, IH learned how to navigate challenges concerning member selection, how to foster organic growth of new hubs, integrate new co-founders into entrepreneurial activities; and to create a knowledge sharing culture that captures the learnings and successes of the community.
In 2017, the Bosch Alumni Network (BAN) was launched to connect all former and current fellows, grantees and staff members of the Robert Bosch Stiftung on a global scale. During the incubation phase the network operated with a highly centralized structure, with most activities being initiated and implemented by a central hub in Berlin. A year after the official launch of the network, we decided to kick-start a decentralization process to increase global participation and scaling of offers. For 18 months, 56 members were selected as volunteer regional coordinators to play a vital role in this process. In the second phase of the project, they moved from being network weavers to network facilitators. By promoting self-organisation and mutual accountability, regional coordinators facilitate local and translocal collaborations for mutual benefits.