Guided Hike: The Magic of Small Groups

The 1/5/0 Rule and how to engineer small group experiences, no matter how big your community

🥾Too Long, Didn’t Hike

  • Small matters for large group cohesion and engagement

  • The 1/5/0 Rule is a structured check-in system for your community’s growth
  • There are many types of small group experiences you can engineer
  • As the leader, you still have responsibility for what happens inside ‘campfire moments’ even if you’re not there



What is ‘small’ and why does size even matter?

I’ve been to so many large events where there’s no way to not get lost in the crowd. The space isn’t designed for people to create those special little campfire moments and the big conference room is overwhelming in its noise.

There’s a reason why most people despise live business events. They’re designed with maximum hand-shaking in mind, not maximum connection (which should be the goal). Even if they try to take it small, they try overwhelming activities like ‘speed dating.’


Take that online and it’s the same experience. Lost in a sea of thousands of other members, there’s no meaningful way for me to connect to…anyone…so I just pop in, ask a question, get my answer, and bounce.

Or I don’t ask anything at all.

It’s all transactional.


Carrie Melissa Jones and Charles Vogl, in their brilliant book Building Brand Communities, have an entire chapter on The Campfire Principle and how important is it to create ‘campfire experiences’ for your members. Seriously. Go read it. It’s a really really really good book on community building.


We want to help inspire small campfire experiences in our communities no matter how big or small they are. Those experiences help your members create a strong sense of mutuality and belonging.

Without them, it’s all too easy to treat the space like a sweaty hand-shaking event with business cards flying like confetti.


The larger a crowd gets, the more important it becomes to design spaces where people can create a ‘campfire’ moment.


The 1/5/0 Rule

You might have heard of Dunbar’s number, the ideal “size of a cohesive social group.” No matter how the anthropologist Robin Dunbar looked at it, from offices to villages to your holiday card list—over and over again, the magic number turned out to be 150 people. Once you get past 150 societal complexity gets immensely more complex.


The rule can be boiled down to this: “Exceed 150, and a network is unlikely to last long or cohere well.” (source)


150 might be bad news for you all trying to build massive memberships.

But it’s actually great news!


Knowing this number now can help you follow the 1/5/0 Rule.


Here’s the 1/5/0 Rule in a nutshell.

  • 1 ‘community’ contains multitudes of micro-communities
  • 5 is the ideal minimum number of people in a ‘small group’ experience
  • 15 is the ideal max of a single small group experience
  • 50 is probably when you need to hire some community moderation help
  • 150, in general, is the point where new structures and strategies will need to be implemented to maintain the ‘village’ feel


Keep the 1/5/0 structure going and you have built-in checkpoints in your community growth.

1,500 > 15,000 > 150,000 > each stepping stone requires radically new strategies to keep your space feeling small, no matter how large.

And when I say ‘radically new strategies,’ I mean these checkpoints are to help you step back and realize what you did before won’t necessarily keep working.

A new approach may be needed.


The rest of this Guided Hike are new approaches you can implement in your communities!


Types of small group experiences

Ok, so we’ve established that following the 1/5/0 Rule is critical to the health of your community and keeping the vibe ‘small.’

Now…how to do it?

There are a few different types of small group experiences. This is a non-exhaustive list!


Small cohorts in large groups

There’s a huge difference between a 15-person mastermind vs. a 50-person mastermind. The same goes for a membership of 50 people and one of 15,000.

The larger the membership the harder it is to create an intimate and focused experience for your members.


One idea is to create small cohorts inside your large groups.

Think of it as the roots of a tree.


You can easily break up your larger group into accountability groups, special interest focus groups, productivity sprints, and more.


An easy way to do this is to give your members the ability to spin off their own little small groups, whether that’s in a private group chat or channel.


One client of mine has a community on track to be thousands strong.

To make sure a ‘campfire’ vibe is possible, they encourage their members to create what they call Study Groups.

Essentially they’re just private group chats that go unmoderated by the community managers. They created rules and guidelines for these study groups as well as helpful tips on how to kickstart the study group.


It takes the onus of customizing channels for hundreds of small groups off their shoulders but still gives an avenue for reporting activities that go against their code of conduct.


Small group discussions in live programs

Growing up I was a student in a progressive and secular youth group. As an adult, I became a counselor for it.

One thing EYG did super well was to break up students into dyads or triads (2-3 person convos) to discuss big questions. Once the discussion time was up, the students were able to have a more productive full-group discussion because they could think out loud and process in a more private setting.


It gave the students the confidence to speak up in the larger setting and gave the more quiet ones a chance to still speak their thoughts in the smaller setting. And it helped students get to know each other better. (as counselors we did our best to make sure besties didn’t always pair up with each other)


If you have live group discussions, consider adding a little breakout room moment each time, giving your members to connect in a smaller space. This is great for icebreakers, for processing a big question, and for getting folks different opportunities to engage based on their own needs/styles.


Key points on the small group discussions:

  1. Try your best to make them random when possible to help folks connect with new people
  2. Make them intentional—give people purpose in those small discussions. Give them prompts, ideas, or worksheets to work through together.

Intentional small spaces = more campfire magic.


Topical Channels

If you don’t have live events (either virtually or in-person), another way to create a small group discussion is through topical channels.


One of my clients has multiple channels in her Slack Group, such as “clients leads” and “swipe files.” She also created a pop-up private channel for everyone in the group who was attending a live conference in the Spring.

It gave everyone a chance to plan and connect before even getting to the event and helped alleviate the FOMO other members who couldn’t attend were feeling.


🔎Scavenger Hunt:

There’s quite a bit of research on why small group learning is so impactful.

If you want to go read more, click here.


Facilitating small group spaces

Great, you’ve followed the 1/5/0 Rule.

You’ve engineered ways for your members to light their own little campfires.

Now…how to facilitate them?


Constructing the space

Spaces matter.

If you’re meeting live, take a look around the space. How are the chairs set up? Are there places for people to be in small groups without feeling like they’re turning their backs on everyone?

If you’re online, what containers can you give your members?
Think about the ideas above:

  • Giving permission to make private conversations (Study Groups)
  • Creating topical channels
  • Making breakout room experiences in every live discussion

You have the power to engineer amazing spaces for your members.



Rituals are so important.

They help us transition from one headspace to another, whether that’s how we wake up every morning to how we notice we’re in a different space.

If you want to have breakout sessions in each live discussion, create a ritual in how you set them up.

  • Remind them of the rules.
  • Remind them how long they have inside the rooms.
  • Remind them of the question you want to ask.

Figure out your own ritual or routine to help your members settle into their small group experiences easier.


Acknowledge roles

As the community lead facilitator, you can’t be everywhere all at once.

When you’re engineering opportunities for campfire experiences, be really open and acknowledge you can’t moderate those spaces.

This is when you start trusting your members to take care of each other while also giving them the tools they need to report when something does go wrong.

Not being in a space doesn’t mean you don’t have responsibility for what happens inside of it.

It simply means you have a different role to play.


🔎Scavenger Hunt:

If you want to learn more about routines and rituals, head here>

-Trail End –

Trail Reflection Questions:
🥾Where could small groups exist in your community?

🥾What type of small group experience makes the most sense for your members?

Get on my bird list!