The difference between an audience and a community in new media

In the marketing world, we toss around some language that can be confusing. Two of those words are “audience” and “community.” Guess what? They aren’t one in the same. In fact, they couldn’t be more different. Think of the differences between an orchestra who performs and the audience who listens. The orchestra works together, they listen to one another to create a beautiful result. Without that team work and willingness to support one another, the result would be lackluster. The maestro directs, he coaxes, he makes the orchestra the best it can be, that’s what a good community manager’s job as well. The audience on the other hand, is a gathering of people with at least one similar interest: music. The quality of the music has to do with the team on stage, not the size of the audience.

Why should you care if you have community vs. audiences? Mostly because an impassioned audience will allow you to do many things: recover from PR mistakes more quickly. Audiences complain about your company publicly, maybe on your Facebook page, maybe in a blog (Think: Dell Hell).  Communities are the people who stand up for you when there is flamer on your Facebook page (Compare Dell Hell with the Community’s response to Dell’s Flaming Notebook). Communities don’t care don’t care if you made a mistake, so long as you admit it. Audiences make sure you never forget your mistakes. Communities add value to brands and companies both in terms of valuation and in terms of increased sales. An impassioned audience cares less about price and more about how they feel about the product (think: Apple).

Interested in a community vs. an audience? Read on.

Audiences can be purchased: Think about buying an email list or a direct mail list. This is an audience. Its a total group of people who have a likelihood of appreciating your product and service. Having a large audience is important in the advertising world. That’s what you buy: access to an audience. You can purchase an audience fairly quickly and start marketing to the audience immediately. You can develop a portion of an audience into a community.

Communities must be developed: You can not buy a community. Creating a community of people who support your brand and its products takes time. Creating a community occurs when you tap into the passions of an audience and allow them to see your product or brand as part of their daily lives.  It takes interaction, committment and it takes the right platforms to do it. Social media is popular because there is potential for building a community, but simply participating in social media does not inherently give you a community. Events have the potential to create community, but simply attending or hosting an event does not create community either. With both tools its important to have 1:1 engagement. You might do so through creating unique experiences, you might do so giving your community to be part of the product development process. Developing a community can take years, its a long-tail process.

Audiences are automated: Emails can be sent, resent and followed-up on automatically. Auto posting RSS feeds on a Twitter account reaches audiences, but doesn’t create community.

Communities are personal. Creating community requires 1:1 engagement and outreach. It takes courtesy, respect, appreciation. Responding to a comment, tweet or post using the person’s ACTUAL name (even if you have to look it up) builds community.

Audiences are disengaged: Generally speaking, one reason a large audience is necessary in advertising is that the response rate is low. It takes a concentrated effort to get in front of the audiences you wish to reach and you must do so repeatedly and consistently. Once you’re off the radar, your collective success begins to diminish; they don’t miss you. That’s why consistency in running ads is paramount in success. You advertise TO an audience.

Communities are engaged: You communicate WITH Communities.  Communities respond because they feel like your listening. Communities are interested in what you have to say because you talk less about you and more about them.

Brands with Communities have Personalities: The reason you hear so much discussion about transparency is that people respond to people. They want to see a sense of humor and even imperfection. Brands who have thought through their voice and their willingness to be open have a higher likelihood of success in community building. Companies who think about what their audiences talk about have a higher chance of developing community.

Brands with Audiences have Reach: Reach is fairly easy to build and each communication is viewed as a “message” rather than an opportunity for discussion. Its the difference between a blog post and a newspaper article. Community builders don’t really give a flying flit about reach – they focus on engagement.

Audiences are Set it and Forget it: You create an ad, you run it, you measure,  rinse and repeat. It scales. Its easily repeatable. Running an ad doesn’t take any man power or additional resources outside of creating the ad and buying the time or space.

Communities Are Like Marriages: Communities require consistent feeding and caring. Every situation is different and therefore, each response and action is personalized. Relationships don’t scale.  Communities expect and accept apologies. Communities feel listened to, appreciated and validated. Members of communities might even feel singularly special.

Audiences operate independently: Audiences don’t know how they got on that mailing list and they don’t care who else is reading your ad. They don’t talk to one another and they don’t talk to you and your brand.

Communities work together: The essence of a community is dialouge. Community members talk to each other, even without brand intervention. Communities support one another. Support doesn’t mean messaging, it means finding out what’s important to your community and help them have that conversation.


This list isn’t anywhere near exhaustive – what other differences between audience and community would you add?