“A sense of belonging is what keeps people in communities . . . The hallmark of a strong community is when its members feel that they belong.”

Jono Bacon

Within communities, interactions naturally segment into

  • One to many (announcements, speakers, updates)
  • One to few (group conversations)
  • One to one (private conversations)

Communities need each level of interaction – connecting the whole as well as the engagement of groups and individuals. The smaller the group is, the more intimate the interactions tend to be.

Thriving communities support and nurture interactions that create a sense of belonging. Belonging can increase or decrease with any interaction, but is most impacted in the “one to few” and “one to one” interactions. This is one reason why communities seek to develop influencers, champions, and advocates – as a means of scaling the “one to few” and “one to many” interactions that anchor a sense of belonging.

One to Many

Mass marketing does not build a community. Email blasts, events, and direct mail can create awareness and encourage people to connect. Guest speakers or bloggers can garner attention. But we don’t connect en masse.

A large community is a compendium of smaller communities – a community of communities. We see this at work in spiritual organizations forming “small groups,” political campaigns focusing increasingly on volunteer management rather than just media spending, and even companies operating with smaller, self-governing units (e.g. Gore Associates, Supercell).

An online example is Reddit. People often discover a “subreddit” such as the conversation space around the popular podcast Serial. By engaging in the subreddit, I become exposed to other people and subreddits. In the process of exploring, I get a feel for what types of interactions take place on Reddit as whole. If this is appealing to me and serves my needs, I may become a redditor – someone who uses the site as a means of learning, connecting, and being entertained. As as the case with most thriving online communities, an offline component emerges as well.

In this case the “subreddits” function as the “one to few,” the friending functions as “one to one,” and the homepage functions as the “one to many.”

communities within communityOne to Few

Too often, community builders envision their potential community as amphitheaters rather than a large building with many different sized rooms. From this perspective, the goal in “building community” is to “fill the seats.”  Strategies and tactics are used in order to “get people in the door.”

Have you ever wondered why the largest one-dimensional communities sometimes have the lowest level of sustained interaction? We see this dynamic within LinkedIn groups that do not have subgroups, events that focus on speakers and plenary sessions, and universities that minimize distinctions between alumni interests and cohorts after graduations.

Stating that “We’re all one big family” only works when we design for smaller groups within the larger group. Without spaces for “one to few” interactions, people will come and go but not maintain engagement. They may be periodically informed or entertained, but not experience a deeper sense of belonging.

Using the large building analogy, it’s extremely important to pay attention to the hallways, doorways, and sizes of the rooms. It doesn’t usually work to draw a blueprint. Rather, we must responsively design according to this principle, resisting the “one to many” pitfall of the amphitheater. When an organization seeks to build or gather a community, they often think in thousands when they would be best served to think in dozens of dozens.

The hallways are where groups learn about other groups, and people find other people. The doorways are the permeable boundaries that allow groups to find the balance between privacy and transparency.


One to One

When I joined Dwolla in 2012, I received a personal email from a Community Manager shortly after I signed up. I was thanked, asked how I planned to use the service, and reminded that I could reach out to him personally at any time to request help.

In the beginning stages of community, this is both important and doable. As the community grows, this becomes very difficult to do in a personal manner. The initial investment is extremely important because it initiates a commitment to “one-to-one” interactions. In the last few years, I have played that role in helping people set up a Dwolla account, believing it’s a much better way to make and receive payments.

Religious institutions often have volunteer greeters for the same reason. Receiving a “one-to-one” interaction as soon as I step through the door gives me a point of contact, a feeling of being welcomed, and a step towards having an experience of belonging.

As communities grow, having members naturally and organically provide “one-to-one” interactions is essential. This is why events need open or down time, online communities need profiles, and individuals who love to provide hospitality should be encouraged and thanked.