Building Campfires and Community

3 minute read

November 9, 2022

Building Campfires and Community

In the northern hemisphere, we’ve entered full autumn mode. And that means campfire season for many of us. Across cultures, campfires have deep significance for human socialization and survival. Around campfires, we pass down stories, spark conversations, share food, and cultivate opportunities to be present. In these intimate interactions, the complexity of modern life can fade away for a bit and we can focus on our friends, the burning embers, and connection. 

But what does that have to do with building an online community? I’m glad you asked. 

Simply put, campfires support the growth of individual relationships, and these relationships are the bedrock of community work. Building community is all about facilitating, accelerating, and supporting the individual relationships that together form a community. 

At campfires, we have time, proximity, freedom, and intimacy to connect meaningfully with others if we choose.

To create those conditions inside communities large and small, I use the concept of the “Campfire Principle.” I employ it any time I plan a gathering (online or offline). Simply put, this principle reminds us that we need to give people the time, proximity, freedom, and intimacy to forge individual relationships, just as we might around a campfire.

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 and feel seen (if they choose).

To illustrate, think about a large and successful event that you’ve attended or that you’ve planned.

  • How did participants meet and connect more deeply?
  • In what ways did the large event support individual connections? 
  • How did the leaders prioritize and encourage individual connection? 

Large events matter, but real community gets built around small experiences—or “campfire experiences.” 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.

Think about either a large event you host or your entire online community and its platform. 

  • How do people find each other and meet in small groups?
  • What avenues or opportunities do you provide for people to connect 1:1?
  • Are there unlikely ways that people could connect with each other that you can intentionally design? 

Consider these examples of campfire experiences inside of larger community experiences. Use them as a springboard for your own (and feel free to borrow these): 

  • The typical experience of entering an in-person gathering at a large convention center or hotel feels overwhelming, chaotic, and impersonal. To create a campfire experience inside this larger occasion, consider adding small group meetups and buddy programs prior to the event so that people can enter the official event together. 
  • Meeting individuals inside an online forum can be hard for participants, and it’s rare that these experiences evolve from one-off comments to ongoing conversations and relationships. Consider instilling elements of campfires inside your online forum programs and content by setting up an accountability or mastermind group program. 
  • How do you spend the first few minutes of your virtual meetings, as people are still settling in? What about the final few minutes before you close the meeting? Apply the campfire principle to these live meetings by welcoming a small group of people to join meetings early and stay late to catch up on personal news and changes. 

It might seem counterintuitive; but as your community grows, it will become more important than ever to ensure that the conditions and opportunities for small, individual connections are protected. What can you design to create smaller, more meaningful connections in your community as it scales? 

To learn more about campfire experiences and to solidify your foundational knowledge of community building, check out my course, Brand Community Foundations. Use code VANILLA22 for 10% off!



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Carrie Melissa Jones

Written by Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones is a community leader, entrepreneur, and community management consultant who has been involved with online community leadership since the early 2000s. As the founder of Gather Community Consulting, she consults with brands to build and optimize communities around the world.

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