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.
Introducing the CMX Social Identity Cycle
The Social Identity Cycle consists of three stages:
- Identification. The person identifies with the community and is attracted to the social identity of the group.
- Participation. The person takes some sort of action to participate in the community experience.
- Validation. Participation is rewarded, making the person feel good about their participation and strengthening their sense of shared identity.
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.
Stage 1: Identification
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.
- Arielle joins the Yelp community and has an aspiration to identify as a “tastemaker,” being the person who knows about all the cool spots. She becomes a power member of the community, and a Yelp Elite member.
- Bart is an environmentalist and identifies with a Reddit community focused on that topic. He grows as a member of the community, launches a subreddit focused on deforestation, and becomes a moderator.
- Doug learned about the Harley Davidson community and its identity appeals to him. He decides to buy a bike. Eventually he becomes a power member of his local Harley Owners Group and a leader, organizing rides for the local community.
Stage 2: Participation
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.
- Arielle joins Yelp. For a while, she reads reviews. Over time, she starts taking greater actions like commenting on reviews and writing her own. She eventually becomes a Yelp Elite member and attends Elite events.
- Bart first signs up for Reddit and starts to read the posts that other users created in the environmentalism subreddit. Over time, he starts to write his own posts. Eventually, he decides he’s ready to participate as a moderator.
- Doug initially gets interested in Harley Davidson and starts to look up pictures online and read blogs about the community. Then, he buys a bike and goes to biker bars where other Harley owners spend time. Finally, he becomes a leader and starts organizing new experiences for the community.
Stage 3: Validation
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:
- Extrinsic rewards. The exchange is transactional, following market norms (money, gifts).
- Intrinsic rewards. The exchange provides rewards following social norms (respect, sense of belonging, reputation).
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.
- Every time Arielle finds a great restaurant on Yelp, she impresses her friends. When she becomes a Yelp Elite member, she gets tangible rewards like swag and invites to events. But she also feels a sense of importance as a leader in the community.
- Once Bart starts participating in his Reddit community, he’s rewarded for his contributions through karma, an extrinsic reward Reddit users give each other. He also gains a feeling of respect. As a moderator, he feels pride in his role and is given more authority in the community.
- Once Doug gets his Harley, he feels a pride and sense of belonging as a member of the community. As a leader, he earns the respect of the community, which is the greatest reward of all.
Defining Your Community’s Social Identity
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:
- People. Who are we?
- Purpose. What do we believe?
- Participation. What do we do?
As an example, here’s what these questions look like for the CMX community:
- People: We are an ambitious, empathetic, and innovative group of community professionals.
- Purpose: We believe community building is the future of business, and some of the most important work in the world.
- Participation: We gather online and offline to exchange knowledge, support each other, and build thriving communities together.
How can you define your community’s social identity? Here are a few tips for designing an identity that keeps your members coming back.
When in doubt, get more specific.
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.
Look for the people who feel isolated.
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.
Define who doesn’t belong.
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:
- Young Entrepreneur Council: Founders must have $1 billion in funding or revenue
- Ethel’s Club: A social club for people of color.
How to Apply the CMX Social Identity Cycle
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.
The Community Commitment Curve
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.
For a step-by-step guide to what this looks like, check out the 10-step process Product Hunt used to build a thriving community from scratch.