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!