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What's the Difference Between Building a Community and Building an Audience?

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It always strikes me as a little misguided to hear marketers talk about their "audience."

First of all, unless you are a performer or an orator, the people to whom you are hawking your wares are not an audience except in a metaphorical sense.

Second of all, that metaphorical sense itself betrays a misunderstanding of how marketing communication works in the 24/7, surround-sound, socially enabled media environment we all inhabit.

If you are thinking of your current or potential customers as an audience, that implies either that you are broadcasting messages for their entertainment or that they have assembled with the express intent of hearing what you have to say. In both cases, you are mistaken because, on the one hand, your messages aren't really that entertaining and, on the other, no one actually seeks outmarketing messages.

A Community Is NOT an Audience


Because I think about audience in these terms, I was very pleased when, during the most recent episode of Marketing Smarts, I asked Becky McCray (small-town entrepreneur, speaker, and author of Small Town Rules) how small-town entrepreneurs go about building community and she responded with the following.
A lot of what gets labeled as community building online is a lot more like audience building. If you are thinking of it in terms of getting more people to listen to you, rounding up more followers, getting more "likes," you're thinking "audience."

She then went on to characterize community building, as opposed to audience building:
If you are thinking about connecting them, learning about them, hearing from them individually, and you're thinking of people, then you are getting a lot closer to community building.

There is much wisdom to ponder in Becky's words. Building community isn't about you and your product, it's about connecting the members of the community. Furthermore, building community means upending the audience metaphor and listening to the community. Putting it another way, you need to become the audience of your community.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, building community depends on relating to community members as individual people and not in the aggregate as an audience, set of followers, or number of "likes."

On this last point, Becky said, "As long as you are being swayed by the huge numbers of people involved in a channel, as opposed to the individual stories, then you're thinking audience instead of community."

Built to Last


Becky ultimately emphasized an important and much-overlooked principle of community building, "Smart community builders come to stay."

Thinking back to the audience metaphor, it's worth noting that an audience is always transitory. It's there for the show, and then it's gone.

Communities, by contrast have longevity. They are living, breathing entities that change and grow and, ideally, endure over time. True community builders therefore think and plan for this kind of sustainability.

That sustainability can be thought of in two ways: Either the community becomes independent of the builder and assumes a life of its own or the builder becomes absorbed in the community and lives on through it.

Both outcomes boil down to the same thing, and here is the main point: Unless the community is the main benefactor of your community building efforts, then you aren't really building community.

If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Becky, you may do so here or download the mp3 and listen at your leisure. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!


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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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Comments

  • by Elaine Leonetti Fri Nov 9, 2012 via blog

    Very good insight! I think most companies have been caught up in the number of people in their audience. They think numbers translates to customers. But, many will not become buyers even if they are engaged in the community. It would be interesting to know if other readers are tracking the percent of their community members that are customers (buyers).

  • by Matthew T. Grant Fri Nov 9, 2012 via blog

    That would be interesting to know, Elaine.

    Of course, it would also be interesting to see how community efforts benefit the organization even when many in the community are not customers.

  • by Steve Byrne Sat Nov 10, 2012 via blog

    Certainly a very compelling way to view it, and I have viewed it this way.

    Another way would be "What’s the Difference Between Targeting a Community and Targeting an Audience?" The thinking being that the marketer cannot build anything, she can only provide the method for the target to align with community, one-by-one, and on their own terms of interaction and connection. Just another way to view it. Nice post.

  • by michael webster Sat Nov 10, 2012 via blog

    I disagree entirely with this analysis: "If you are thinking of your current or potential customers as an audience, that implies either that you are broadcasting messages for their entertainment or that they have assembled with the express intent of hearing what you have to say."

    Anyone who uses tradeshows as an important part of their marketing/sales, tries to attract an audience.

    Your dilemma broadcast entertainment v. intent to hear is easily solved. Yes, people come to hear sponsored speakers at a tradeshow.

  • by HiSocial Sun Nov 11, 2012 via blog

    Audience is a quantity game and building a community is a quality game.

  • by Matthew T. Grant Mon Nov 12, 2012 via blog

    Thanks for disagreeing, Michael!

    You are correct to point out that people sitting in an audience to hear a talk at a trade show are indeed an audience. And, of course, if you are promoting a talk at a trade show, you are trying to build an audience (some of whom you hope to convert into customers, I presume).

    Moreover, building an audience (as opposed to a community) can be a real business goal. It is certainly the goal of trade show organizers (as opposed to the exhibitors themselves) and, frankly, it is the goal of businesses such as MarktingProfs.

    What I was trying to tease out here was the difference between audiences and communities. One such difference is that people in an audience have a relationship with the speaker/presenter/performer or topic, while people in communities have relationships with one another. To that degree (among others) building an audience differs from building a community and if you are doing the former you are not necessarily doing the latter.

    This leaves aside, of course, the question of whether or not your customers are, in addition to being customers, an audience (which they sometimes are) or a community (which they sometimes are).

  • by Dave Wieneke Mon Nov 12, 2012 via blog

    Of the the metaphors, I prefer audience over community, segment, or worst of all, users; here's why:

    Performers approach audiences with the goal of using craft to move them to respond. It's an active relationship, where the end result is between the audience members ears and hearts.

    Community is a far more neutral relationship. It also assumes a peer relationship that many firms have yet to earn. There is less vanity in performance - where results are stark and often immediate.

    Both approaches are useful - but I believe that the best artists and marketers move audiences...and in so doing build community behind their efforts. Communing is good, performing is what makes brands great.

  • by Steve Byrne Wed Nov 14, 2012 via blog

    Funny thing Matthew, you were focusing on audience v. community. In my read it was target v. build. I no longer think in terms of "building an audience". I think of targeting and engaging an audience. As for build, I also think of building community, building brand (in the minds of target), building database (for the trade show invitations and the like).

    That's it, building "an audience" has become building "a database" for targeted marketing efforts of all shapes and colors.

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