The difference between an audience and a community

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A product needs an audience (it’s not really a product without one). What’s more uncertain, however, is whether products require a community. And, indeed, whether a community is different to an audience, and to what extent.

Is a community a natural byproduct of an audience? Or is it something more, such that it requires special consideration in a digital marketing strategy?

In this piece, we’ll try to answer that question, and discuss why brands are focusing on communities to drive growth.


What are audiences and communities?

To know how an audience and a community are different, it’s first necessary to know how they’re the same. They both comprise groups of people who are interested in what you’re doing, and that pay attention to what you put out into the world. Beyond this, however, subtle yet significant differences appear, not least in how they’re interacted with. They’re also created differently; whereas they may look the same, they’re formed of very different ingredients, resulting in a vastly different anatomy.

Audiences tend to be impersonal, dispassionately assessed and cut from a mass market. Their age. Salary. Past buying habits. They’re examined and studied, and, to begin with, conjectural. An audience grows from who you hope to sell to, to who you eventually succeed in selling to. From your prospects to your customers. As a result, the interaction and conversation is one-directional; they’re the receivers of products and communications which may – or may not – prompt them to act.

This is largely to do with how audiences are formed. In the laboratory, at the planning stage. Identifying them first requires an act of speculation and surveyance, and a series of assumptions. The audience then grows from this. It goes from being potential to actual. Assumptions are tested, A/B testing undertaken, and strategy solidified.

Your audience may not in fact know they’re your audience. They may not even be aware of your product or brand. It’s tantamount to parachuting flyers into a city. You know who you want to read your communications – to be aware of what you’re offering, or, indeed, of your existence – but cannot be sure they will.

A community is an engaged group of people. They know of you, recognise your products, and talk to you. The relationship is reciprocated, and the communication bidirectional. Communities are groups anchored around a common belief, idea, or appreciation. In the case of you and your brand, you are that idea. You are that appreciation.

How to evaluate audiences and communications at strategy creation

An audience is the collective noun for your return customers and reliable buyers. People who enjoy the product such that they’d return and recommend. The relationship, however, remains detached. The two parties communicate in separate rooms, each projecting their communications across a chasm. The interaction is sequential and asynchronous. Not a conversation, but a step-by-step exchanging of formalised messages that precludes connection and familiarity. On the side of the company, these efforts are active; on that of the audience, they’re passive. The feedback they do or do not provide through the action they do or do not take.

A community, then, is the two parties joined together in the same room. It is the recognition of the individual. The role fulfilment of seller and buyer is elevated. There’s a name to face, which, in the case of the product or company, is a brand. Brands speak to and converse with their customers to support their engagement, and nurture their evangelism.

A community is a living and breathing entity. A thing unto itself that is separate from the product, but draws its life from – and gives life back to – the product.

Why are companies focusing on community

We each crave meaning. A structure of belonging. In a globalised world, this can be hard to find. The often repeated ‘find your tribe’ trope of marketing is a direct response to consumers’ growing need for community. Abstracted from the physical and local, we find connection in what we support and follow.

Your community will discuss. They’ll engage. They’ll interact with you beyond product or service delivery, and share a vested interest in the brand’s future.

Communities are to brands what audiences are to products; they instantiate them, and become the force through which they grow and succeed.

This is another reason why greater emphasis is placed on communities. Markets have become more speculative. We invest in companies before they release a product, in anticipation of that product. We plant our financial or social flag so that when momentum or success does arrive, we do not miss the opportunity.

It is for this reason that blockchain markets focus predominantly on community. Community is what gives life to and maintains belief in a product. Many have to believe an opportunity is significant, or that there’s a possibility of a future product, to attract more believers. Belief attracts belief. Shared fictions are strengthened by their proliferation. Communities are networked individuals similarly susceptible to the network effect: the more that inhabit a space – which may include an idea or an appreciation for a product – the more likely it is that others will be attracted to the same space.

This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the growing need for community. A single product rarely leads a company to exponential success. But a single product may catalyse belief in a bigger picture: that the brand responsible for the product will produce many more, each better than the last, to rival competitors or change markets.

For sustainable success, however, a balance must be sought. Audiences are the foundation; communities are the scaffolding for future expansion. And by creating a strong community audiences can be elevated, converted to brand or product evangelists that have cause to interact with you beyond the product’s delivery.

For guidance on how to build a community, and how community building should be accommodated in your digital marketing strategy, contact us today.

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