While these terms are often used interchangeably, there’s a difference between simply having an audience and having a community. There was perhaps a time before when these two terms were blurred, but over the past couple of years, people have been throwing out the term “community” at just about anything it’ll stick to—and it’s clearly wrong. In other words, people have been using the term community incorrectly by identifying a simple audience or following and deeming it to be a community when really, it’s not. 

What’s the issue with this, you might ask? 

Well, the issue occurs when there is no perceived difference between the two. When this happens, it’s easy for organizations to be misled when looking to create a community. They may think that by just having an audience on Facebook or slapping together a quick branded community, they’ll see results. I want to be clear here: simply creating a space isn’t enough. For instance, launching a Facebook page and having people “follow” doesn’t mean you have a community, but rather, you’re just increasing your audience. While this is all well and good, it’s not going to lead to any of the benefits that community is said to bring. Why? Because it’s not an authentic community.

That’s why the blur between simply having an audience and having an authentic community is an issue; organizations may falsely believe that this will lead to tangible results. And the fact of the matter is, it just doesn’t.

Only an authentic community can genuinely lead to the benefits that you read about and hope to achieve. Like how the Acer community was able to see a 4x boost in their ROI or how RapidMiners was able to get their time to solution in their own peer-to-peer support community to less than 18 hours.

I’m also grateful to see more and more scholarship on this topic. For example, Carrie Melissa Jones has written about “mirage communities” and has gone deeper on the topic in her amazing book Building Brand Communities. More of us need to ensure we speak up when we see these “fake” communities.

What Makes a Community Authentic? 

Now you might be wondering, okay, but what is it that differentiates an authentic community from an audience? Good question! Beyond just a shared or common language or jargon, there are three key ingredients to creating an authentic community: 

1) there is a sense of belonging

2) there is a sense of caring 

3) there is a desire to share

All three of these ingredients are developed through a sense of community culture. That’s why community culture is so important; culture is what shapes and creates these factors that will ultimately lead to the best results. That being said, an audience is nothing more than a following of people who are interested in what you have to say or what you offer. A community is different in that it evokes a sense of emotion, which is the central component of a successful, authentic and long-term community.

When members feel as though they belong, they are more likely to care about others who they feel are connected to them through the community, and as a result, also likely to share information, thoughts, experiences, etc. When this happens, your community will be vibrant, active, engaged and ultimately, successful. The key is getting your members to tie their identity to the community, to know what it is that they desire from the community, and to deliver on it. 

How can I Achieve Authenticity?

Achieving an authentic community can be done, though it’ll take some time and a lot of guidance on your part, especially if your community has already been up and running for a while. The problem with communities that have been around for a while is that they’ve likely already developed a community culture, and it can be hard to change once established. If you (or your predecessors) weren’t hyper-present during the early stages of your community in order to shape the culture, it’s more than likely to have shaped itself, which is never ideal. That’s why I always encourage Community Managers to be present when a community is still new.

But don’t worry; your community culture can still be altered if already established, but it’ll take time and work. You can follow the same advice that I’ll give to communities that are brand new, but just make sure you’re diligent and have conversations with those who might push back on the change. 

That being said, there are several things that you can do in order to achieve an authentic community. All, of course, have to do with shaping the community culture in the way that’s appropriate for you. After all, if the culture is established and some members don’t like it, they’ll leave. This means that at the end of the day, only those who fit the profile of the community and its culture will be there, making it more authentic than ever. 

Here’s a quick list of things you can do to ensure that you have an authentic community:

  • Create impactful welcome emails, laying out the groundwork and rules of the community.
  • Ensure that all the content you produce not only encourages engagement but also forwards the communities purpose, values and culture.
  • Segment content to the appropriate audiences so you hit all persona types.
  • Create a plan and strategy to onboard new members in a way that will forward your community culture from day one.
  • Always have a way for members to provide you with feedback; this will encourage meaningful dialogue and also help you to shape community culture.
  • Implement ideation features when collecting feedback so you can quickly gather information from all of those who wish to give feedback—and be conscious of providing your community with feedback.
  • Initiate a community leadership program; this will help you identify and procure other leaders in the community to help forward your purpose and culture.
  • Have a plan in place to deal with community trolls or those who seek to upset or derail your community’s progress.
  • Make connections between members with specific introductions and how you think they could benefit.
  • Create a community newsletter to keep members in the loop and ensure you collect feedback to make any necessary improvements.

Having an authentic community will provide your members with an experience that keeps them coming back. As members continue to identify with the community and other members, they’ll become increasingly engaged, active and will often take on a leadership role. 

As you can see, there are a ton of ways that you can achieve an authentic community rather than just an audience.

Best of luck!


Article by Adrian Speyer – Vice President of Marketing & Community at Community Leaders Institute, and Author of The Accidental Community Manager