Audience or Community

Audience at Nine Inch Nails The difference between an audience and a community is which direction the chairs are pointing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When we say community and we mean our selling demographic, that’s not the same thing. When we say community and we mean audience to absorb our message, that’s not the same thing. It’s important to understand this.

It’s okay to want an audience. When we’re trying to build awareness, we want an audience. We create things to get people’s attention. For some, the creation is advertising. For others, it’s face to face events. For others, it’s content (like this blog post). If you’re clever, you create in a variety of formats.

This builds audience. Audiences are those folks who gather to hear what you have to say. But that’s not a community.


The difference between an audience and a community is which direction the chairs are pointing.

A community looks to each other to sustain the relationship and some of the interactions. Communities don’t gather without a purpose, and so building an audience that you then convert into a community is certainly one method to get that experience going, but it doesn’t just happen.

Community happens when people feel they’re among like-minded others and when they feel their contributions matter. I consider myself part of the podcasting and media making community. I feel an affinity through PodCamp. Other groups of podcasters and media makers exist as well. I’m thrilled to be attending and participating in Podcasters Across Borders.

You can have community around products if everyone feels empowered through using them. I could see people gathering around Flip video cameras, for instance, insofar as talking about creative ways to use them. Will that work for all products? I don’t think so.

But again, if all you’re hoping to achieve through building community is to sell more products, that might not be the best way to consider the problem. Communities don’t sell product. Communities empower users of products or services, or people with like-minded interests to interact.

Communities Do Have Leaders

And yes, it can be a standalone focal leader, or maybe it can be a diversified bunch of leaders across various slices of the pie. For instance, US President Barack Obama’s campaign for election (and most campaigns) paid great care and courtesy to local leaders. Each area’s leaders were empowered, were given the reins, were given the sense that they controlled the passion for change that the larger campaign wanted to own as a message.

Is the leader always directly related to the larger movement? No, not always.

Gary Vaynerchuk has quite an active and passionate community around wine. He doesn’t make himself out to be the wine guy. He simply pushes a strong opinion forward and serves his community, who then has their own opinion on everything except for the fact that they all love Gary.

Never be afraid to be the community’s leader. Just be sure you’ve earned it. If you’re the product or service’s maker, and you’re trying to build a community around that, you might not be the leader. It might be your most passionate users/customers/clients.


Communities and Audiences Want Something

You have to feed the system to keep either an audience or a community alive. If the band doesn’t come out to play, the fans don’t stick around for too long. If the band doesn’t engage the crowd, you feel a bit more like an audience. Think about the difference between The Grateful Dead and Britney Spears.

At the bare minimum, audiences want recognition that the leader or focal point is grateful for their interaction. At the most, a community wants to own the experience every bit as much as they can. This is important to consider.

**Update: Due to Kathy Sierra and several others reminding me of a missed point, I’ll add something in.

A large percentage of people come to the community to absorb the rewards of that community without contributing back in. Meaning, for every million people reading Wikipedia, there are only 10 or so editing and adding to it. The same is true with many communities. Charlene Li talked about this in her slides from the Forrester days with regards to the ladder of participation. Meaning: some people come to the community to set up their chairs like an audience.

The difference between an audience and a community is which direction the chairs are pointing.

What say you, people that I call the community? What do people need to do to engage you? How do you move from being part of the audience, or just a customer into being part of a community? Is it always necessary?

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