Editor’s Note: This guide was updated in May 2021 using material from The Business of Belonging. Thanks to Carrie Melissa Jones and Evan Hamilton for their contributions to the CMX Social Identity Cycle.
How do you build a thriving, healthy community?
Let’s say you’ve already created your community strategy and determined your community’s business value. The next step is to design a social identity that makes people want to join, participate, and become invested in your community.
Identity is at the heart of community. Humans form much of our social identities around groups. When you build community, you’re creating a set of beliefs, expressions, and actions for members to adopt and engage in. A key to building thriving communities is to develop a compelling social identity, and bring in anyone who shares it.
The Social Identity Cycle is a simple framework that you can use to create a clear and compelling social identity for your community. As members adopt this identity, they’ll feel good about their participation in the community, leading to a cycle of healthy engagement.
This model is based on 10 years of experience building communities and advising organizations, and builds on concepts from some of the leading community psychology theories.
The Social Identity Cycle consists of three stages:
And the cycle continues.
As someone moves through the cycle over and over again, they become more invested in the community. But how do you move someone through these three levels?
Let’s do a brief overview of each stage of the Social Identity Cycle that will break down how a person moves through each stage.
When someone decides to join a new community, they decide that some aspect of their personal identity aligns to that collective identity. Over time, the member’s identity will start to reflect the community’s identity as they become more engaged.
Our goal as community builders is to create a strong community identity that appeals to new members. Over time, it can become a part of the member’s personal identity.
You can’t have a community without participation. Members must take action to move a community forward.
Participation doesn’t mean the member has to create content. Consuming is a form of participation too. As a member becomes more engaged, they’ll take actions that require more effort.
Validation is the last stage of an engagement cycle. This final step is critical! Rewards release dopamine, telling our brain that it was a good experience and making us want to participate again.
In behavioral economics, rewards exists in two norms:
Ideally, a community will provide both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. If someone is only participating for an extrinsic reward, they’re not helping to develop the fabric of a strong community. As soon as the extrinsic reward is taken away, the participation disappears.
For the Social Identity Cycle to work, your community needs a strong social identity. At the highest level, there are three questions that will help you define your social identity:
As an example, here’s what these questions look like for the CMX community:
How can you define your community’s social identity? Here are a few tips for designing an identity that keeps your members coming back.
Would you feel inspired to join a community for “people who ride bikes?” What about “people who ride racing bikes in Austin, Texas and are parents”? As an identity becomes more specific, it also becomes more meaningful to those who share it.
It’s human nature to look for community when we feel isolated. Is your community reaching an audience who wants to connect with others, but can’t? Then you’re on the right track.
Every community can’t serve everyone. Understanding your ideal member can help you create a safe, inclusive space for a specific group of people. This doesn’t mean your community won’t be inclusive! It means your members will share a set of values. For example, check out:
The Social Identity Cycle helps you understand the experience of a community member. By understanding how member experience your community, you can create content and programming to strengthen that experience.
To apply this model to your community, lay out every stage that your community member will go through as they’re initiated into your community. Then, map out the member journey through each level of commitment.
To better understand this concept, we use The Commitment Curve, which was popularized in community by Douglas Atkin at Meetup. He then went on to use this concept as the head of community at Airbnb.
The concept is simple: Over time, a member’s level of commitment goes up. In turn, so does their level of actions. Early on, members take low-effort actions. Eventually, they move up the curve and take high-effort actions. This is how we visualize the stages of commitment.
Here’s the example Douglas used at Meetup, which maps out the main actions that a member might take over the course of their membership:
One important caveat here: Members can, and often will, skip around on this timeline. They might jump ahead to be an active member right away. They will also fall back down the curve if you aren’t driving one of the four stages of the engagement cycle.