Working in digital marketing, two words I hear quite frequently are “community” and “audience”. We use them to describe the groups of people we want talk to and often interchangeably, but there are some significant differences between their meanings which are particularly important online.
Digital media change the relationship people have with brands and content. I believe the power they give us to find, share, curate and create means we now have much greater expectations of the brand content we engage with. It must be relevant and valuable to our interests, of quality and authentic.
In other words, the Internet enables us to interact with each other and brands in a way that was impossible before. We can gather in groups online based on common interests and expect the content we receive from brands to be relevant and tailored to our interests.
For a brand, this means rather than thinking of the people you want to reach as an audience – passively receiving the material pushed to them – you need to think of them as a community – actively engaging with the content they find interesting and relevant in common cause with their peers.
Communities are active, whereas audiences are passive. Communities will engage with the brands or issues they are interested in and will expect to take an active role in shaping them. Rather than a collection of individuals with few, if any, relationships between them, community members are more connected and involved in active conversation.
True communities are also more aware of their collective mass, which can make them powerful when focused on a common cause. Communities can be exclusive or inclusive, depending on their reasons for forming and purpose. However, they will bear a common identity and shared interests.
To fulfil the potential of digital media, I believe brands need to get into the mind-set of designing programmes for communities – people who are already actively engaging with the brand, or have the potential to do so. By placing the communities a brand wants to engage, as well as their behaviours, pressures, motivations and expectations, at the heart of strategy, it can gain the insight needed to provide relevant, useful, entertaining or emotive content and experiences.
The switch from thinking about forming audiences to communities is a subtle change in mind-set, but a significant one. By doing, so brands will have more potential to encourage people to connect and actively participate in a relationship that can be sustained and deliver more value for everyone involved.