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Building an Audience vs. Building a Community

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

How decoupling “audience” and “community” can lead to higher impact for your organization

In 2020, community is having a moment—and there’s a good reason for that. As we acclimate to interacting with others online more and more, brands are finally getting on board with the inherent value of human connection. And, as the field of community management becomes more sophisticated, more experienced professionals are getting better at showing the impact and ROI of the communities they build. Richard Millington of FeverBee once referred to the community sector as being divided into two groups—“True Believers” and “ROI Advocates”—and in this moment, both groups are gaining fresh reasons to get behind community as a powerful tool. It’s as if the natural progression of the community field, the tides of digital marketing, and world events are converging to amplify the role of communities.

But, any time something starts to gain some “buzz,” it’s worth examining how the terminology around it is being applied broadly or incorrectly. I like how Casper ter Kuile refers to this as “community washing”—over-utilizing the terminology of community to try to tap into the zeitgeist, without applying the practices of community building effectively.

In this post, I want to dig into a specific element of “community washing”: the false equivalency often drawn between community and audience. I want to explore why companies misuse these terms so much, and what the consequences are. Plus, I want to touch on what the opportunities are for companies to shift their mindset to achieve better results.

As Mac Reddin of Commsor has predicted of 2020, “Community will continue to be a broad term, but finally people and companies will fully grasp that an audience does not mean the same thing as a community.” I hope this post can help manifest this prediction, and help companies work more effectively with the practices that great community managers have honed.

Why do people say "community" when they mean "audience"?

Semantic debates can often feel like a stick in the mud, but I take an overall positive view toward this discussion—I want to posit that when brands draw a false equivalency between community and audience, this is actually a good sign. Why? Because if a company is opting to use the word “community” to describe their audience overall, that likely means that they see some value in connecting with their audience in a more personal way, building stronger identification with their brand for their members, and creating connections amongst their members based on shared attributes.

In other words, when brands use “community” synonymously with “audience,” they’re using the term “community” aspirationally, rather than descriptively. And that means that those brands have an opportunity to build a genuine community that backs up their words—and to start bringing some specificity to how they refer to it.

“When brands use "community" synonymously with "audience," they're using the term aspirationally, rather than descriptively.”

How to use "community" and "audience" correctly

Community and audience are intertwined concepts, but they’re not the same thing. Your community, if you have one, is a smaller, overlapping subset of your audience. (And, you don’t automatically have a community just because you have a subset of highly engaged audience members—more on that in a bit).

When we talk about audience, we’re talking about all the people we can reach with our message. Usually, audiences include multiple channels (think: social media, email list, a conference you spoke at, people who are stumbling across your blog, maybe even your potential prospects, etc). Those various channels probably all serve different purposes, too—email might be more about communicating important updates and selling directly, whereas social media might be more about building brand awareness and reach.

But, your audience might also include various levels of quality when it comes to how engaged your members are. Think about a musician playing in a venue: some people might be sitting near the front, hanging on every word, whereas some people might be sitting way in the back, completely engrossed in a conversation with their friends. Both are in the audience, but the quality of how they’re engaged is drastically different.

So, audience is quite a broad term—referring to a wide variety of ways we reach people, for a variety of purposes, and a variety of ways that they interact with us in return. On the other hand, when we refer to community, we should be referring to something quite specific that sits within the broader category of audience. Although it's not exactly right to consider community at "channel" in its own right (because it can tend to comprise multiple channels or program features), that's a good approximation to start with. To go deeper, there are a few touch-points that can help you describe the difference between your community (if you have one) and your audience at large:

  • Channels of contact:

Your community may include some, but not all, of your channels of contact with your audience. Most of the time, a community has a central home base, like a forum or homepage for accessing the features of the community program. (I won’t say definitively that there are certain channels that can’t be a part of a community program, but most of the time, if you’re referring to your Instagram following or email list as a community, you’re not quite on the right track. More on that in the next bullet).

  • Directions of contact:

A simple way that some think of the distinction between audience and community is that you talk to your audience, you talk with your community. With community, your primary goal is to elicit a response back (and eventually share the task of starting conversations) rather than just broadcasting your message to an audience who receives it.

You may be thinking: I ask for a response back on posts on Twitter and Instagram, so why don’t those count as part of my community? It’s important that in a community setting, your broadcasted message and the responses of community members can sit on an equal hierarchy. In social media, you’re broadcasting a message and providing a siloed discussion space that is deemphasized in comparison to your initial message as the channel owner. In a community setting, there’s space for the contributions of your members to have equal importance as the contributions of the admin or channel owner.

  • Membership and identification:

It should be clear to both you and your community members that they are a part of your community, and not just your audience. This should feel elevated and special. You should be able to identify the subset of audience members who are also community members, and they should be able to identify the moment they opted-in or were recognized as members. Ideally, there’s nomenclature or a home base that helps bolster this sense of identity.

  • Easily identifiable; finite:

If it feels hard or nebulous to describe what you mean when you say “community,” you probably don’t have one. Communities are intentional spaces and programs that take time and effort to create. If you have a community, you should be able to point specifically to where it lives, what it achieves, who manages it, and who’s a part of it. It should feel pretty concrete, more like describing a product or feature than like describing a brand identity.

Giving community a place of honor

To help illustrate what I mean by these distinctions, I want to zero in on an example of how clearly-defined communities with strong senses of identification and multidirectional communication can look, and how they differ from audiences at large.

Let’s look at a fitness program run by Alexia Clark. Clark has a vast audience on Instagram where she does short fitness tutorials, on her email list where she shares guides and tips, and in her paid membership, to name a few.

Members pay monthly for access to her workouts, and with their membership, they also get access to her community, whose home base is found in the Queen Team Facebook Group. In the group, members post looking for workout partners, share their progress, ask questions about variations, and commiserate about life. It’s something you opt into, and that has its own goals and features. It overlaps with Clark’s audience, but it’s not one in the same. To take this a step further, Clark often prompts her members to join or participate in her community over email, and community members regularly use the #QueenTeam hashtag to share their progress on social media as well. So, email marketing and social media have a close relationship with her community and the identity she has built there. But, social media and email marketing are not in and of themselves a community. By creating a co-branded community with its own special location and identifiable name that interacts with the rest of her marketing ecosystem, Clark places community on a pedestal. She creates an exclusive level of access and identification that’s distinct from just absorbing her message passively as an audience member.

Clearer terminology leads to better outcomes

Some reading this may be wondering if this is all just a semantic argument, or a matter of the same term being innocently used differently in different contexts. I’d argue; however, that if we can clarify how we use these terms, we’ll reach better outcomes using communities to build brands. I think that those using community and audience interchangeably are actually hungry for the outcomes that true communities can achieve, but are falling short of their potential to reach these outcomes by misunderstanding what community really means in the context of a brand.

“I think that those using community and audience interchangeably are actually hungry for the outcomes that true communities can achieve, but are falling short of their potential to reach these outcomes.”

If brands can start untangling these concepts, they can:

  • Find and work with the right experienced professionals to help them build true communities (v.s. relying on social media managers, email marketers, or marketing coordinators to try to adopt the skillset that community managers already have).

  • Start benefiting from the amazing synergy that can happen when a true community manager works with a social media manager, and other contributors, vs. these disparate functions being combined into a hybrid.

  • Provide an experience for their members that genuinely realizes the level of connection and insight that they’re aspiring to when they call their audience their community.

If you work for a brand that’s been using these terms interchangeably, don’t be discouraged. This is an evolving time for the community field, and I’m writing about this because it’s common, and, I think, worth examining. Remember, none of the info here is hard-and-fast, and terminology can be somewhat flexible—but the principles stand.

But, if I’ve convinced you, I hope you’ll join me in starting to use these terms a bit more specifically, and maybe even look into building a true community that mirrors the values you hold when you speak about your audience. If you need a hand getting started, check out ways we can work together here. Here are a few good places to start learning more about best practices in community building:

Lastly, you can get free resources on community building straight to your inbox —like a templatized guide to a community launch, a cheat sheet for community management job postings, and more—by clicking the button below:

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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