Your Audience and Your Community Are Not the Same Thing. Here’s Why You Need Both

While consumers need practical information, the power of a community is in its autonomy

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When building a consumer brand, audience reach and community depth are both critical—but too often they are confused as being the same thing. 

Communicating with your audience describes a one-to-many relationship. It’s primarily broadcast by nature. While social media users can comment, the experience for the majority of your audience is consumption of information. There is huge value in having a broad, receptive audience, and building their experience is absolutely essential—it means that when you have something to say, there will be people to listen.

To attract and retain a truly engaged audience, content should entertain, engage, inspire or educate. No one likes to feel that they are constantly being sold to. This doesn’t mean you can’t share functional information, but it needs to be brought to life in a way that goes beyond the sales pitch. By finding other relevant and relatable topics that a brand can share with its audience, it can hold their attention without every communication being a pure sales message.

But as important as this audience is, it’s not a community. Communities connect over shared interests or values—whether that’s a neighborhood in a small town, a unified religious belief, a shared professional skill or a united love for a football team. Unlike a large audience, members of a community interact with each other. A community represents a many-to-many relationship, a connected group that, in the case of a brand, bonds through a shared passion for that brand and what it stands for. These communities often discover that they have other shared interests, deepening their connections beyond the single topic that originally united them.

The significance of nurturing a true brand community really can’t be understated. While I firmly believe that communities are at their best when given autonomy to grow in a natural direction, there are some things you can do to encourage your community to form and flourish.

Use a platform that facilitates two-way conversations 

Not all platforms are created equal when it comes to developing communities. Some platforms like TikTok or Instagram are still very audience-driven, promoting a one-to-many relationship with brands putting out content for their audience to primarily view, like, share or (if they’re lucky) comment on. These platforms are important, and the engagement you see can has a real impact on awareness and sales, but they don’t intrinsically empower people to engage with each other.

Platforms like Facebook Groups or Google Groups, on the other hand, are designed to facilitate many-to-many interactions, encouraging people to engage with posts from others and share their own content. A great example of this type of community is Starbucks’ Leaf Rakers Society—a community that celebrates fall, and the iconic Pumpkin Spice Latte, all year round.

WhatsApp or Slack can also work, but they become challenging when the communities grow to be too large: Comments get easily lost and conversations can be hard to follow. Some brands choose to take their community in-house by creating their own forums within apps or websites, but this requires an expectation for new behavior of users beyond platforms they’re already interacting with, going against the grain rather than capitalizing on natural user behaviors. 

It’s a lot easier to leverage platforms people already use on a daily basis. But one great exception is LEGO Ideas, which enables fans to become LEGO Fan Designers, submitting ideas via its own platform. Ideas that garner the most community interest can be brought to life, produced and sold. 

There’s no one place to establish a community, but you should consider things like your customer demographic, the size of your community now and in the future, and where you’re already seeing the most chatter about your brand. Our community operates in various Facebook Groups where members create and share a huge volume of organic content, and it’s in these posts we see the magic happen: People are sharing personal stories, supporting and encouraging each other with tips, advice and compliments. They promote our products (better than we ever could!) but they also ask questions and share honest answers, even in instances where they haven’t had the best experience. We encourage this honesty because it creates credibility—people know they can trust what they’re reading. 

Invest in moments that are hard to scale 

Not everything you do to build your brand has to be scalable. There are opportunities everywhere to create moments that make people feel heard and special. This could be a small act—responding to every comment they take the time to share, even just with a short note, showing people that you acknowledge and care about their engagement—or something bigger: inviting a number of people to be guests at your next product launch, or offering the chance to contribute ideas for a new product.

These are moments that are hard to scale, but they say a lot about your brand and create shared experiences that take the customer relationship beyond just a buy-sell transaction. Think outside the box and keep in mind that these small moments create experiences, and experiences are what create loyalty. And we’ve found this is something that motivates not only our customers but our employees as well.

Often, the brand activities that are hardest to measure with traditional marketing metrics are the ones with the greatest long-term impact.

Empower your ambassadors 

Once you’ve galvanized your community, identify brand ambassadors who can give you a direct line to your customers’ voices. Engage with them regularly through polls, discussions, focus groups and personal conversations and empower them to know that their opinions are valued and have real influence on the business.

Trinny London has ambassadors across the world who organize local meetups several times a year and act as spokespeople for the region, collating and passing on feedback, requests and wish lists. Our ambassadors are supportive but aren’t afraid to share their honest views on opportunities for improvement. That kind of unfiltered customer insight is invaluable. 

Leave it alone!

But with all that said, I remind you of an important point: The power of a community is in its autonomy. It shouldn’t be driven by a sales team with an agenda.

Communities that are given space to grow become more trusting of the brand, so insights shared become more authentic and therefore more helpful. In this kind of open environment, a community becomes not just a space for brand discussion, but also for personal connections and friendships to be established and for opportunities beyond the brand to be discovered.

A thriving and engaged community remains one of the most efficient routes to growth. Through word-of-mouth and knowledge-sharing, your community will fuel itself, with new members being brought along to discover the brand at little or no cost to you. If you can find the most relevant customer motivations to develop and nurture a community for your brand in 2023, you will discover huge possibilities and benefits to your brand as you watch it thrive.