Interventions involving groups of laywomen, men and adolescents to promote health are increasingly popular, but past research has rarely distinguished between different types of intervention with groups. We introduce a simple typology that distinguishes three ideal types: classrooms, clubs and collectives. Classrooms treat groups as a platform for reaching a population with didactic behaviour change strategies. Clubs seek to build, strengthen and leverage relationships between group members to promote health. Collectives engage whole communities in assuming ownership over a health problem and taking action to address it. We argue that this distinction goes a long way towards explaining differences in achievable health outcomes using interventions with groups. First, classrooms and clubs are appropriate when policymakers primarily care about improving the health of group members, but collectives are better placed to achieve population-level impact. Second, classroom interventions implicitly assume bottleneck behaviours preventing a health outcome from being achieved can be reliably identified by experts, whereas collectives make use of local knowledge, skill and creativity to tackle complexity. Third, classroom interventions assume individual participants can address health issues largely on their own, while clubs and collectives are required to engender collective action in support of health. We invite public health researchers and policymakers to use our framework to align their own and communities’ ambitions with appropriate group-based interventions to test and implement for their context. We caution that our typology is meant to apply to groups of laypeople rather than professionalised groups such as whole civil society organisations.