How To Use Transferable Elements To Develop A Strong Sense Of Community

October 14, 2011Comments Off

If you can identify and isolate the elements in successful communities, you can apply them to develop any number of online communities.

For years, we weren’t sure what those elements were. However, McMillan and Chavis’ 1986 article about Sense of Community changed that. 

There are four transferrable elements.

1)   Strong membership.

2)   Influence.

3)   Integration of needs.

4)   Shared emotional connection.

If you can implement these factors into your community, your community’s strength of community will rapidly improve.



  • Boundaries. Tight boundaries help the feeling of membership. A community for the top physicists in the world will be far stronger than a community for physicists. What skills, knowledge, interests, experiences or assets will be necessary to be accepted as a member? How can you raise this? 
  • Emotional safety. Invite members to talk about their most difficult issues. Initiate discussions related to the geekiest and most emotional topics. The discussions about whether an XG3265 TransistorWidget is marginally better than a HDF5342 TransistorWidget are perfect. They show people this is the community for them. Likewise, discussions relating to the use and fate of contractors employed to develop the death star, are ideal for Star Wars communities. Make sure your community is the place to discuss the geekiest and emotive topics within your community.
  • Personal investment. You need members to make four types of contributions to a community. Time, emotions, ego and resources. You need to create and solicit these investments. Initiate discussions on emotive topics, appeal to the ego of members (challenge them), invite members to participate something that will take time and effort.
  • Common symbol systems. Identify the words, images, ideas, signs that have unique meaning to community members, and use them in your community. You can have themed weeks base around the community, you can name the community after a symbol (quite literally in Element14’s case) or you can use symbols in your content.



Members have to feel they can influence the community, and feel the community influences them. A big mistake of branded communities is they don’t offer members enough influence. Members are attracted to communities they feel they can influence. This is our efficacy needs at work here. These are a few things you can do to encourage this.

  • Provide opportunities. Proactively provide members with opportunities to influence the community. Frequently call for opinions. Have a be more involved tab, recruit volunteers, and mention the opinions of members by name in your content – let members contribute their own content. Opinions columns, advice pieces, interview each other etc…
  • Feature contributions. Prominently feature the contributions of members on the community platform. If a member makes a great contribution, mention it in a news article and encourage members to respond.
  • Write about your members. Use your content to write what members are doing. Talk about their milestones. It might be a work achievement, a topic-related success or even a lifestyle success. If a member is getting married or has a child, congratulate them.


Integration and fulfillment of needs

What needs does your community satisfy? If you’re solely relying on information, your community wont achieve its potential. There are three key elements to this: 

  • Status of being a member. Being an accepted member should be a status symbol that members can embrace. You need to raise the profile of the community outside of the platform. Make sure it gets featured in relevant media. Set goals for the community to achieve, and achieve them. The more you raise the profile of your community, the more members want to join.  
  • Competence. You need to attract and retain talented and knowledgeable members. People want to be in a community with the best and brightest. You need to attract them (appeal to their ego – weekly columns, interviews etc…) and keep them engaged in the community. You need to ensure your community is the best fountain of knowledge for your topic in your industry. 
  • Shared values. You need to attract members which share the same values. The closer these values, the stronger the community. Write these values down, literally, write them down and then seek out members that have these values. If you attract members which don’t share the same values, you’re crippling your sense of community. You need to be proactive in looking for these members, not reactive. Identify sub-groups online and invite them to join.  


Shared emotional connection

Developing a shared emotional connection is perhaps the hardest and most important element of the four listed here. It comprises of several elements.

  • Regular contact. Members need to regularly interact with each other. The more members interact, the more they are prone to like each other. You need to drive and sustain a high level of interactions. This means you need to proactively do things that drive these interactions. Events, activities, challenges, universal discussions etc…
  • Quality of interaction. The interactions have to be meaningful. Exchanging information is fine, but limited. Introducing and highlighting (via sticky threads etc…) bonding-related discussions will improve the quality to discussions.
  • Experiences. Ensure your community has plenty of experiences. An experience doesn’t have to be an event (although events are the easiest experiences). It can be a number of events along a similar theme. It can be something very good or bad that is happening, it can be a campaign that your members are fighting for. It’s not too important what the experience is, so long as your community is having regular shared experiences.
  • Shared history. Ensure your community has an epic and explicit history. Write it down. Talk about the major events and activities that have taken place within the community. Make sure all newcomers understand the community they're joining. 

By introducing these relatively simple elements into your community, you should considerably strengthen your community.

If you want to learn more, enroll in the Pillar Summit’s Professional Community Management course. Applications close on October 29.

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