The Difference Between Marketing to an Audience and Building a Community

Community-building is a growing part of marketing today. At the same time, building a community is quite different than marketing to an audience. Let that soak in for a minute, and don’t give up on me yet.

Marketing is a broad and still-growing field. With the rise of social media, community-building became an essential part of connecting with potential customers online. But you can’t treat it like you would traditional marketing. Building a community requires a fresh approach, one that puts people above product and encourages a real two-way relationship.

There are three very different approaches which differentiate marketing and community-building. We take a brief look at each of them below.

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Conversation instead of broadcasting


Not too long ago, marketing was largely about placement. Companies bought time for commercials on radio and television, space in newspapers for ads, billboards and product placement. All of these methods focused on one-way communication. They paid money to capture eyeballs and viewers had little way around it.

While all of these marketing methods are still in play, social media empowered these audiences. People on social media (and increasingly on those other channels) are now able to decide exactly what they want to see and ignore the rest. This means that, rather than broadcasting messages, businesses have to actually engage in two-way communication. It requires you to actually listen to your audience, rather than throwing your name out there and hoping for the best.

Nurturing a community involves engaging in meaningful conversations. There’s no way around it. While it may involve more effort on your part, it’s a far more effective means of bringing in new advocates and customers.

Providing resources instead of selling


Part of having that two-way conversation is providing actual value to social media users. Even if you’re engaging them, if you’re not providing them with anything of value they’re still going to ignore you.

Think about what makes a community. A community is about bringing like-minded people together around common topics or goals. Many companies made the mistake of hopping on social media and doing nothing but selling, but this reflects your own goals, not that of the broader community. This is a surefire way to lose followers.

Instead, identify your target audience’s interests and expectations, and provide them with valuable content to meet those expectations. It doesn’t even have to be created by you; you can curate great content to provide that value and show you’re paying attention to the industry as a whole. What’s important is that you offer up resources and earn people’s trust. Doing so will soften the beaches for the rare occasion where you actually offer a salesy or product-focused message. You may even consider contributing to existing communities before ever trying to create your own. This will allow you to build a community in a more natural way, one that doesn’t come off as self-interested.

If you’re really unsure of when you can push a sales message on social media, we recommend following the social media rule of thirds. This rule dictates that a maximum of one-third of your content should be about your company or your product. The other two-thirds should focus entirely on providing resources.

An open community space instead of owned media channels


Finally, in marketing we often strive to call attention to our own channels. We want people on our websites, in our comments sections, on our Facebook pages sharing our content. Community-building requires a greater openness to engaging beyond your owned channels.

Building your community often means meeting people where they are, as opposed to expecting them to come to you. You also want people to be able to speak freely, and not worry about protecting your brand from negative comments or feedback.

Create a space where people can share diverse opinions, have fruitful discussions and find inspiration. This space might be as simple as a hashtag that serves to unite community members, or as complex as a Slack or Facebook at Work group for brand ambassadors. Consider establishing a guiding philosophy, a statement or persona that will keep everyone working towards a common goals. As long as people feel open to communicating, you’ll find them more willing to participate. What follows will be a greater connection between community members and both you and your brand.

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