Community Management

Audience vs Community | Part 1: What Makes the Difference?

In the 2021 CMX Community Industry Report, 86% of companies said that “community is critical to — continue reading
Posted by Taco Potze
January 21, 2022

Community building is hot right now but often misunderstood. Many organizations want to build online communities because they find out brands with communities have higher revenues and increased customer loyalty. But are they looking to build an audience or a community? And what is the difference?

In the 2021 CMX Community Industry Report, 86% of companies said that “community is critical to [their] mission” and 69% of companies said that they “plan to increase their investment in their community in the next year.”

Many organizations are turning to online communities for business reasons. Unfortunately, social media has contributed to an inflation of the term ‘community’ being used to describe any scenario in which people congregate online. Facebook for instance uses the term community to position its platform as a valuable instrument for a better society, even though it often leads to polarizing its users instead of bringing them together. There are lots of companies that throw around the term community, using it to describe their customers and audience regardless of whether or not there’s an actual deep sense of community amongst the people they’re referring to. Marketers love titles like Community Manager, while in practice their job usually entails broadcasting branded messages from a social media channel to an audience. The word community is thrown around without much thought for its actual meaning.

What defines a community (as opposed to an audience)?

Social psychologists David McMillan and David Chavis describe a sense of community as:

“A feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to being together.”

They argue that without clearly defined membership, an exchange of influence, fulfilment of needs, and a shared emotional connection, it’s fair to assume that the strength of community amongst a group is pretty weak and we are more dealing with an audience instead of a community.

But a community is more than just a feeling of belonging. In the context of business, it’s a structure for creating value. Here’s how it differs from an “audience,” according to David Spinks of CMX:

To build an audience, you help people.

To build a community, you help people help each other.

– David Spinks

This difference seems subtle but it is actually a massive change in mindset, which is crucial for creating a successful community. 

Passively consuming vs Actively bonding and contributing

Traditionally, businesses create all the value for the consumer, and consumer audiences are passively consuming information. Community-driven businesses create spaces for consumers to actively participate and contribute, building relationships and creating added value for each other. 

A community is by definition connected and gathering in a physical or virtual location. Community members share an emotional relationship and form a trusted network. A community strategy is about creating added value by enabling trusted connections and facilitating and amplifying valuable interactions. 

An audience consumes around your brand or interests, while a community connects, bonds, and interacts around it to give and receive value.  

No collective intention vs Shared purpose

Audiences often share a few characteristics and are based on a transactional relationship with a brand.

Community members share a collective intention and shared identity. Members of successful communities have common backgrounds, ambitions, interests, and a shared purpose they identify themselves with, which audiences lack.

To understand communities better, Open Social has categorized them into 6 community types, each with a different common denominator among participants. These types force us to take the member point of view and help us to better understand the needs and drivers of members and the common purpose towards which they are contributing.

An audience does not have a collective intention, while community members share values and a common purpose.

Top-down vs bottom-up

Building an audience typically means communicating top-down, one-way, with your target market, “from an ivory tower”. If you want to build a community, you need to facilitate and encourage bottom-up, many-to-many communication.

Top-down communication helps an organization or brand broadcast their message widely. It’s important to have an audience to reach with PR messages, promotional material, campaigns and other “broadcast messages”. But these communications don’t build active engagement, loyalty or a sense of investment and participation. 

An audience typically does not influence your brand or organization. In a true community approach, an organization would give up some control and proactively challenge and empower its members to influence your organization and its decisions. This means distributing responsibility and ownership amongst community members, allowing for more self-organized, flexible working methods with more freedom of action, activating and empowering members to share, contribute and collaborate, crowd-sourcing, and co-creating ideas, solutions and content. 

Letting go of some control could be scary and could require a cultural change for some more traditional organizations. But distributing responsibility and ownership to your community members, being open to critique and engaging in a two-way conversation with your clients is crucial for success, especially in times of disruption.

An audience is reached through centrally organized, top-down communication, while a community is built by facilitating bottom-up engagement and distributing responsibility and ownership.

The power of community: Scalability

Community unlocks the ability to scale value creation: By activating more people to jointly contribute towards a shared goal, you are increasing the capacity and impact of your efforts as an organization or brand.

Scalability is how a company like Duolingo is able to run 2,600 events every month with a community team of three people. It’s how 83% of questions asked by Salesforce customers are answered by other customers. It’s how a subreddit with 155,000 members helps Notion users exchange ideas for how to be more successful with the product. 

Outside of the Product or Support sphere, it is also how purpose-driven organizations like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is connecting the knowledge of over 50,000 members in their SparkBlue platform, serving as a centralized hub for community engagement and communication around areas of expertise and practice, to better serve their mission. It’s how Our Food Future is creating Canada’s first circular food economy, bringing together over 680 local nutritionists, farmers, businesses, government and citizens to collaborate on reducing food waste and creating more sustainable solutions to food systems. It’s how Greenpeace is empowering over 63,000 local volunteers to increase their global impact. They all empower their community members to build relationships and contribute to a shared purpose.

Many traditional communities, like professional or trade associations and development organizations, can learn a lot from these examples. I believe these more traditional organizations’ long-term strategies should involve changing their engagement model from a traditional, event-led model to a community-led model, thereby sustaining and facilitating deep and continuous interactions. These interactions are crucial for generating solutions to huge global problems and stimulating new ways of thinking. Not only to increase their impact by scaling and nurturing their global communities but also to live up to the expectations of new generations and respond to environmental pressures. 

No quick fix

Implementing a community approach should not be taken lightly or be seen as a “quick fix” to increase profit and retention. A community needs time, a driving force, patience and attention and is a long-term investment. 

As we’ve laid out some of the main differences between an Audience and a Community, naturally a question arises: How do you build a community?

For that, we dive in-depth in part 2: “How to build a community by drawing on your audience?” to be published on 27 January.


Thank you, Richard Millington, David Spinks and Marjorie Anderson for your inspiration.

Any feedback?

Do you find anything missing or any other feedback? Please do not hesitate to contact me or leave a comment!

Need help identifying your strategic community concept? Check out our Community Strategy Services.

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This article is part of the Audience vs Community series. Watch this space for “Part 2: How to build a community by drawing on your audience?”

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