Network vs. Audience vs. Community

A graphic representing the connections with networks, audiences, and communities

Businesses can't succeed without relationships. That's how you find customers, employees, business partners, etc. There are different channels you can use reach people and build these relationships. Three of the most common channels are networks, audiences, and communities.

They're sometimes discussed interchangeably, but there are important differences between these three ways of connecting with people, and you need to understand the differences if you want to find the right channel to connect with the right people. In this post, I'm going to discuss the differences between the three channels, and explore what they should and shouldn't be used for.

Definitions

I'd like to propose these definitions for the different channels:

  • Network - The people you personally know, even if it's just virtual. Communication is two-way (you can communicate with them, and they can communicate with you), and most conversations are specific to the individual rather than mass communication sent to everybody at once
  • Audience - The people who follow you. Messages to your audience are normally broadcasts (tweets, email newsletters, podcasts, Youtube videos, etc.) rather than personalized messages. Communication flows one way.
  • Community - People who don't just know you, but also know each other. Everyone in a community can communicate with everyone else, and while there might be an owner or moderator, the real power is held by the members of the community.

These channels are all similar in that they're ways for you to meet and interact with other people, but the differences are significant. Let's examine them more...

Networks

In many ways, networks are the most appealing of the three channels. Your personal network is the home of your closest relationships (family, friends, colleagues, etc.) and if you want to build a strong relationship with someone new, you almost certainly need to do that with personal, back-and-forth communication.

Networks are also nice because they're the easiest of the three channels to build. Building a network is the most human thing in the world, and that's coming from a huge introvert. You just have to talk to people. Yes, there are some networking pros out there who can do this more effectively than the rest of us, but pretty much everyone understands how to interact with other people, make friends, and build trust.

But there's a major downside: Networks don't scale. Humans are only capable of having authentic relationships with so many other people. That's sort of a feature, because it keeps the relationships with people in your network meaningful, but if your goal is to build a huge business, you'll quickly outgrow your personal network and need to find connections elsewhere.

Audiences

Unlike a network, an audience can scale almost infinitely. Because communication happens in the form of broadcasts, it takes the same amount of effort to reach one person or a billion people. If you want to reach a lot of people, you'll almost certainly need to build an audience.

But there are some downsides. The first is that your relationship with your audience just won't be as meaningful. Whereas people in your network might be willing to make extreme sacrifices to help you, your audience doesn't really know you in the same way.

It also takes a lot more work. When you ask someone to join your audience, you're competing with all of the other content that exists in the world. If you want people to follow you and actually see your stuff, it has to be good. Once you have a bunch of followers, it's easy to justify the work it takes to create great content, but it takes just as much work to make the content in the early days, and it's hard to justify that when you don't have an audience yet.

This is a perfect example of a flywheel: It takes a lot of energy to get it moving, but once it's moving, it doesn't take much energy to maintain the momentum.

Communities

This is the most misunderstood of these three channels. People often call things communities when they're actually networks or audiences. I suspect this is partially because the word "community" sounds very welcoming and valuable.

In some ways, communities are the holy grail of these communication channels. The thing that makes building an audience hard is creating great content. With a community, you don't have to. Your users will create the content themselves! It doesn't get any easier than that.

But as you might expect, communities come with major difficulties. They're even harder to get started than an audience because there's a chicken-or-the-egg problem. Nobody will join a community if there's not already activity, but there's no activity because no one has joined it yet.

Communities also come with moderation challenges. With an audience, you're the only one who can broadcast messages. With a community, anyone can do it. This means communities are often targeted by spammers, trolls, and just plain old rude people. The solution to this is either to limit who can be in the community (which in turn limits its scale) or invest heavily in moderation (which takes resources and can alienate members of the community).

Then there's the Eternal September problem. Communities always start out small, and they normally get popular because of a unique and appealing culture. As more people join, the culture eventually gets diluted until it's just like every other site. Scaling a community is much harder than scaling an audience.

What should you invest in?

Obviously this depends on your goals, abilities, and starting point. But generally speaking, a network is the easiest thing to start with (I mean, you already have one, it's just a matter of developing it). If you want to scale your relationships, it might become necessary to grow into an audience model, but a strong network helps with that.

If you do want to build a community one day (which I wouldn't do unless you really know what you're getting yourself into) it can be much easier if you already have an audience. Your current audience can help solve the chicken-or-egg problem. So even if a community is your goal, you might want to start out with a network and then an audience.

Like all things in business, the key is to just start at the beginning, make a bit of progress every day, and be patient. That's what I did with Less Annoying CRM, and it's what I'm doing with this blog.

Speaking of which, want to become a part of my audience? Click the button below to join my newsletter so I can one day use you as a pawn to create my own community.

Have thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear from you! I'm @TylerMKing on Twitter.
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