group of people sitting around a campfire
PHOTO: Kevin Erdvig

Every leader who approaches us about building a brand community imagines their membership will fill an arena someday.

Teams at Salesforce, Twitch and CrossFit have achieved this, literally filling arenas with members gathered together as a community.

But a successful arena event is not the beginning point, it’s an end point.

While arena events can be fun — even thrilling — big spectacle events don’t create a successful community just by filling a venue. These events only happen after lots of smaller and more intimate experiences have connected members. That’s where we have to focus, because people feel connected to larger communities through individual conversations, private moments, and the vulnerability experienced in these more intimate experiences.

If you’ve ever attended an arena concert, conference, or rally and left feeling connected, it is probably because you experienced these smaller events within the big arena event. These intimate experiences almost always happen when we’re physically close to others in, say, a line, in our seats or even eating a meal nearby within the arena or conference venue. This is just as true in online communities, where powerful connections happen in private spaces.

To help leadership effectively connect participants at events or online spaces, we refer to what we call the Campfire Principle. We call it this because at campfires we have time, proximity, freedom and intimacy. Those factors give us permission to share private conversations that can grow into meaningful, vulnerable and memorable connections. Most importantly, campfires are small enough that everyone can participate, if they choose, and feel seen.

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The Campfire Principle

Within campfire experiences, participants have a venue to form relationships which, if nurtured over time, collectively create community. Campfire experiences are where community relationships actually begin and grow richer.

When you join an online community, an informed eye can recognize immediately if leaders understand this basic principle. Campfire spaces are missing if leaders have invested all their resources into building a fancy landing page and newsfeed, while neglecting to create a forum to join more specific and intimate groups, join a conversation about your specific needs, or discover more niche topics to explore.

Campfire spaces may be obvious, but more often are only recognized by trained eyes (now yours).

Imagine a telecommunications brand inviting your IT administrator to join a support community for your company’s new business internet package. If they log in and discover an invitation to “Ask questions and get involved,” without asking any qualifying questions, they’re treating the space as an arena. Sure, a community supporting an internet package is less sexy than ... almost anything we can imagine. But for some, such a support community can be a job-saver. Those participants are seeking campfire experiences to get just the right help when they need it from just the right people who understand them and their pain.

If instead, this brand invites participants to find a group for specific needs and user type, provides a way for participants to introduce themselves to those with similar needs, and personally invites them to a group call for collaboration with others in their organization, they are using the campfire principle.

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Build Community at Scale, One Campfire at a Time

If you’d like your community to one day fill an arena for meaningful connection, consider the many campfire experiences you will need to design before you get there. The only way to build community at scale (and avoid a mirage community) is to build intimate experiences using the campfire principle over and over again.