Orbit Levels

Orbit levels are a practical tool for grouping community members according to their level of involvement, i.e. their love. Orbit levels help us build targeted community programs that meet members while they are, while creating clear pathways for those who wish to move up and in.

The ratio of members between orbit levels is important to both growth and gravity, because members at successively inner orbit levels are the ones attracting and training members who are further out. If the ratio is out of balance, e.g. there are too many new members for the experienced members to handle, gravity will decrease and any growth is likely to retract.

A member's orbit level determines where they orbit inside of the community's field of gravity. Newly exploring members sit up near the top and experienced leaders revolve near the center.

Field of gravity with orbit levels

Orbit levels are used to personalize member experiences, recognize & reward participation, and design focused community programs. They're useful as a shared organizational vocabulary. When communicated to members and associated with privileges and benefits, levels can be used to create powerful incentive programs.

About orbit levels

The Orbit Model offers 4 orbit levels as a standard configuration. Each orbit level has a corresponding number, with 1 used for the most highly involved members. This is done so that all Orbit Model users think of "Orbit 1" as their inner circle even if their community has 4, 5, or 10 levels. Like with anything in the model, feel free to customize levels to your needs, both in name and number.

Orbit 4 - Exploring

Orbit 4 contains newcomers and passive observers. These members may subscribe to newsletters, read content, or join the forum just to observe. Whether you consider them to be true "members" at this point or part of an audience is up to the community.

Orbit 3 - Participating

Orbit 3 contains members who have begun to attend, create, and interact—not only consume. These members have navigated the community's onramp and started to recognize and get to know other members.

Orbit 2 - Contributing

Orbit 2 members have established a track record of active participation, and also started attracting participants and explorers. They are putting time and energy into the community, even if it's not for their own immediate benefit.

Orbit 1 - Leading

Orbit 1 members are active contributors, organizers, and leaders. They play a central role in attracting other members and directing the community toward accomplishing its goals. Without these members, the community would struggle to stay focused.

Here's a table to help you compare and remember the orbit levels:

Orbit LevelNameCharacterized by
4ExploringNewcomers and passive observers
3ParticipatingCasually involved regulars
2ContributingActive coordinators and volunteers
1LeadingTrusted leaders and advocates

👉 The popular Discourse forum software has a built-in concept called Trust Levels. The level names are New, Basic, Member, and Leader. The attainment is milestone-based: reaching the Basic level requires entering at least 5 topics, reading at least 30 posts, and spending a total of 10 minutes reading posts. Privileges like moderation and administration are granted with higher levels.

Steps

Four levels aren't very many when you consider how much involvement differs from one member to the next. Steps are sublevels within each level, designed to sharpen the understanding of the members in that level. In the standard configuration, each level has 3 steps inside of it.

StepCharacterized by
IIIMembers new to the level
IIMembers comfortable at the level
IMembers setting the standard for the level

A member's step can be a function of their duration at the level, or dependent on reaching new milestones within the level.

Determining orbit levels

To use orbit levels, we need a system to decide how to place members in each level. There are two primary signals that we can use to place members:

  • the commitment level of their activities
  • the frequency of their participation

These are the two components of love: commitment and presence.

Sometimes only one of these signals is needed. For example, in a community where the progression of activities is explicit, a presence signal is not needed. If a member hits a milestone by doing a particular activity, say hosting an event, they are placed into the corresponding orbit level.

In practice, most communities don't have an exact hierarchy of activity types. For example, a chat community where all activities are chat messages. In these situations, presence is needed to decide the orbit level. Most modern communities that have a variety of chat and non-chat activities are able to benefit from both signals in determining levels.

Table of activity weights and milestones

The activities page describes the concept of activity weights. The weight of the activity indicates the commitment level. If a community is using the standard 4 orbit levels and 3 steps, that makes it convenient to have a 1-12 scale for weights. The higher the weight, the stronger the pull toward the center of the community and the inner orbit levels.

Here's how to read this table. A member is placed into an orbit level IF they have done an activity of the associated weight OR reached the associated presence milestone.

Orbit LevelActivity WeightPresence Milestone
Exploring III1...
Exploring II2...
Exploring I3...
Participating III42 days in a week
Participating II5   ...for 2 weeks
Participating I6   ...for 3 weeks
Contributing III77 days in a month
Contributing II8   ...for 2 months
Contributing I9   ...for 3 months
Leading III1030 days in a quarter
Leading II11   ...for 2 quarters
Leading I12   ...for 3 quarters

The presence milestones in the table are structured so that gaining entry into the orbit level is done by reaching the milestone once, and progressing up the ladder of steps is done by repeating the milestone again.

Both activity weights and presence milestones provide important ways to customize the model. In some communities, being present multiple times a week represents leadership. In other communities, it might not be much of a signal at all, and only place a member into the Participating orbit level. We recommend that community leaders sit down and think about what activities, weights, and presence milestones make the most sense for their community, and then start using and tweaking their orbit model configuration.

For online and hybrid communities, we find that 1 year is a reasonable standard for how far back to consider a member's activity for the purposes of determining their orbit level. If the community runs on slower cycles, 5 or 10 years may be appropriate.

Holding orbit levels

Once a member is in an orbit level, how do we know when they should fall back down? Knowing when they should go up is easy - we only need to know if they reach the next step or level's milestone.

Deciding when levels should go down is trickier, as some members will ultimately not continue to meet the milestones of their current level. Especially if orbit levels are public, the experience of awarding an orbit level only to have it changed a week later isn't great.

A simple way to deal with this is to award higher orbit levels immediately, but only consider orbit level downgrades every 1 month, 3 months, or year depending on what's right for your community. This ensures that orbit levels change in a predictable way when going down, and avoids situations where an orbit level goes up and down rapidly due to the member being right on an edge.

Teammates

In product communities, there are usually community builders who work for the company behind the product. It's their job to work full time on the community. There may be others at the company who casually participate. A common question for orbit model users is: "should teammates have orbit levels"?

Our answer is yes, with a caveat. Putting teammates in orbit levels is helpful to seeing how much company engagement there is in the community, and by whom. Strong participation by company employees in a product community is a must-have for gravity and growth. The community want to know the company cares about them, and it's not just one or two of the same faces.

The caveat is that teammates should be removed from the gravity calculation and other types of community reports. Teammates are hired to work in the community, their often heavy amount of participation can skew the numbers, making it look like there's more member engagement than there actually is.