Why having a community is better than having an audience

The word community is on everyone’s lips today. It seems that every company, start-up, association, group has its own community. If this was true, it would be nice. If all those who claim to have a community had it, organizations (profit and non-profit) would probably be closer to customer needs today, citizens would show more confidence in them and innovation would once again happen inside companies and not outside them.

Yes, having a community means above all creating relationships between members and the proposing organization and co-creating value for both.

However, today, this still doesn’t happen very often. Organizations frequently call “community” their followers, a Whatsapp group, the members of a loyalty program (how horrible!), the subscribers to a more or less exclusive club, but also the members of a cooperative or an association that no one ever knows or sees. Basically, the term “community” is used to indicate an audience more or less linked to a brand.

What is the difference between community and audience?

Audiences, first of all, arise around a brand: whether it is a company, a cooperative, a famous person. Usually, it is a structured organization that provides services or products, and that communicates with its audience through communication channels (social pages, newsletters, blogs, digital or physical events). These are usually the places where the brand informs or advertises a message that the public receives, reads, and, in the best-case scenario, comments. Those who participate, do it in order to satisfy an opportunistic desire, i.e. taking advantage of a service, supporting a cause, learning everything about a singer or a brand they love. The satisfaction that one receives by participating is purely individual and personal.

On the other hand, communities are born around an idea or rather a value proposition shared by a company, a team, or even a person. Those who participate are not recipients of a message but an active part of a value system that they share and support. Those who are part of a community are not looking for an opportunistic advantage but are driven by intrinsic motivation, that is, a motivation that guides the behavior of a person who performs a task or activity driven by the desire to do well for himself and others. Therefore, the affirmation that is sought is not personal but collective: there is always a common goal, a purpose that unites and guides action. Otherwise, it makes no sense to gather around a value proposition.

Therefore, the main difference between the public and the community is that the former acts individually while the latter collectively. This makes communities much more interesting than publics for organizations and all citizens. If communities act collectively, it means that within them they develop relationships that are no longer just one way (from the organization to the public) but ecosystemic (from the organization to the members and among themselves). Those who manage the community need not only to communicate but above all converse, stimulate, listen, working on the growth and enhancement of relationships.

Having a community, then, means developing and growing open relationships with one’s interlocutors and with each other, starting from a proposal of common value. This offers a series of opportunities: people who act for shared value feel more motivated and more engaged (engagement, brand support); acting for a collective purpose make people engage in small actions of change (brand activism); often members support each other by sharing knowledge, information, skills, and advice (knowledge sharing, customer support), at other times the members launch ideas and propose solutions (product & process innovation). In general, growing a community means investing in relationships because they generate trust, well-being, and social cohesion which, in my opinion, is very much needed these days.

At this point, the question arises: how do you do it? Can you turn an audience into a community?
The answer is yes but with some precautions.

Relationships cannot be designed, but the context within which they move can.

This is what community design does, it’s an approach that doesn’t place the needs of individuals at the center of the design but instead focuses on those of a participating group because guided by the desire to achieve collective affirmation. What community design does, in essence, is to understand how to create a sense of belonging, how to stimulate the meeting between members, how to prepare the conditions for people to exchange help, advice, information, ideas, and so on. Because that’s what a community does. And if this is also what your interlocutors do then call them community; otherwise, please, go back to talking about the audience.

Originally published in italian on Digital4.biz on May 4th 2021

Marta Mainieri is a consultant, trainer and speaker expert in the field of Sharing Economy, platform design and community design.