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Crowds or Communities: What's the Difference?

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When interviewing Rachel Happe of the Community Roundtable for this week's episode of Marketing Smarts, I asked her, "What's the difference between a crowd and a community?"

I was thinking of the growing popularity of crowdeverything (design, funding, coding, sourcing, etc.). And I wondered how Rachel distinguished the "crowds" that companies tap for ideas and content from the "communities" that companies cultivate and manage as part of doing business.

To illustrate the difference between crowds and communities, Rachel described how a company might use different constituencies to "co-innovate."

At the top of the innovation funnel, she said, you need a lot of ideas, and therefore, you'll want to get input from a large network. That is where a "crowd" (a fairly large but also fairly unstructured group of people who may have a loose connection with your company and your products) will be most useful.

Once you begin sifting through the gathered ideas and narrowing your focus, the usefulness of a crowd rapidly evaporates. Rachel said that because you don't want to "tip your hand" to the competition and because you "need time and space to get it right," you will want to "bring it in to a smaller, private community of people you know have really good insight about the problem area, have experience, and have some kind of vested interest in solving the problem."

"You can't effectively build complexity with hundreds of people," Rachel cautioned. That means you'll want to work with an even smaller group as you refine your ideas and get into the nitty-gritty of the sought-after solution or innovation. When you move back to the larger community (to test what you've come up with and get feedback), you can rely on this smaller, focused community to be an "embedded group of advocates" who understand what you are trying to accomplish and have a personal investment in the success of the project.

So when do you need a community? When will a crowd suffice? As is the case with most questions we discuss here at MarketingProfs, the answer depends on the situation. If you are just trying to get a lot of ideas into the hopper, you might want to ask "the crowd." If you want to do something meaningful with the ideas collected---especially if you want to refine them to become  a solution or product---you should work with smaller groups drawn from a community of committed, interested, and knowledgeable folks.

In other words, you are not deciding between a crowd and a community, but as Rachel says, "You need all these different-sized groups, but just at different points."

If you'd like to hear my entire conversation with Rachel, during which, among other things, we discuss the 2012 State of Community Management Report recently published by The Community Roundtable, you may do so here. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes and never miss an episode!

(Photo courtesy of Bigstock: Crowd People)


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My name is Matthew T. Grant, PhD. I'm Managing Editor here at MarketingProfs. I divide my time between designing courses for MarketingProfs University and hosting/producing our podcast, Marketing Smarts. You can follow me on Twitter (@MatttGrant) or read my personal musings on my blog here.

If you'd like to get in touch with me about being a guest on Marketing Smarts or teaching as part of MarketingProfs University or, frankly, anything else at all, drop me a line.

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