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Weaving communities from the inside-out or from the outside-in?

And what can we learn from the conversion mindset?

For several years I was part of a social venture called Holstee. Its intention was, and still is, to create products that help people lead a mindful life. A big part of our income came from online sales. So it was during that time when I learned about the conversion funnel.

The conversion funnel

Conversion funnel. Source.

The idea is simple: You try to reach an audience as big and wide as possible. A percentage of that will click on your link or ad. A percentage of that will check out your products. And a percentage of those will actually end up buying something. Along the way you offer incentives for them to stay engaged (sometimes called “bribes” in marketing language). For example, you might offer a discount code in exchange for their contact information. In short: reach a large audience and convert as many as possible into paying customers as you push them through the funnel.

The conversion mindset applied to community

I’m no longer in the e-commerce world, but I have noticed that a similar conversion mindset shows up in communities. The analogy is: Reach a wide audience and convert them step by step into more and more active members by providing clear pathways and incentives to engage. This approach is nicely visualized through a framework called the “Commitment Curve” which was first developed by Douglas Atkins at Meetup (below’s graph is from Carrie Melissa Jones’s website, which has a lot of useful info on it).

Source: Creating a Community Commitment Curve (Carrie Melissa Jones blog)

Weaving from the outside in

If I translate the conversion mindset and the commitment curve into our own model with the 3 circles, the approach is basically to weave people from the outside in: find a group and then move them towards more engaged roles. Build the experience to give people clear pathways to engagement.

Weaving from the inside out

I do see an alternative approach, which we call weaving from the inside out. The idea is that you start at the center, usually with a small group. Your role is not to convert them, but rather to connect them to each other and help them to come into conversation with each other. Ideally this creates a dense web of relationships, a core. Over time we invite more people to the group. As they choose how they want to engage, different circles of engagement form: from the most active at the core to the bystanders on the periphery. Those roles are fluid and people will change their commitments over time. People who were initially at the core won’t stay there forever, but others will step into steward roles over time. An example of a community building methodology based on this weaving from the inside out principle is micro solidarity.

Why does this matter? Depending on the approach my role & focus as community weaver changes

I believe both approaches have validity and most likely both approaches are useful at the same time. The obvious difference lies in timing: weaving from the inside out feels like how you start a group, and weaving from the outside in is how we integrate new members into existing groups, especially bigger ones.

Yet the two approaches have significant implications for my role as community weaver. When weaving from the outside in, my focus is on the inactive members, trying to “convert” them, pushing them towards the center. I see communities using different incentives to get people to be more active: badges, scholarships, access to a special event, learning sessions. This works, but I found it to be an exhausting task and the resulting engagement tends to be short-lived.

When weaving from the inside out, my focus is on the active members at the center. My role there isn’t to push anyone, but to help strengthen the core. My work is highly relational. The core incentive is relational. This engagement tends to sustain much better over time, but it’s also much slower. Yet, even when we weave from the inside, we’ll need new people to join from the outside. They’ll bring fresh energy, new perspectives and they help the group not go stale…

What do you think?

How do you make sense of these two approaches? And when have you found which approach to be more valuable? I’d be grateful to learn from you, thank you for sharing your thoughts in the comments.

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Thank you

This post was inspired by the community learning journeys co-developed with Michel Bachmann and the conversations and collaborations with Erin Dixon, Lana Jelenjev, Nettra Pan and Sita Magnusson. Thank you!

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Grüezi, Swiss community weaver in Amsterdam, co-founder Together Institute, co-author Community Canvas, fabian@together-institute.org | together-institute.org