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  • Writer's pictureAlex McEachern

Do you have an audience or a community?

Every ecommerce brand out there is talking about building an audience. Paid acquisition is more expensive than ever, and customer attention is at an all-time low. Which creates a really difficult situation for marketers. An audience solves all that though… or does it?

An audience alone is not a recipe for success. I have worked with many brands that have audiences in the hundreds of thousands and even millions who are still struggling to turn it into revenue or even product interest.

Having an audience does not mean you have a successful marketing channel, but turning that audience into a community certainly helps.

The difference between an audience and a community

Many brands build an audience but never successfully turn it into a community. Let’s start with the literal dictionary definitions of each.

An audience

“A group of people together in one place to watch or listen to something”

A community

“A feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

The biggest difference in the definition is sharing or as I like to refer to it, connection. An audience is a set of eyes but a community is a group of people who are connected to each other and potentially a brand because they share interests, goals, and beliefs.

Some people have even begun to argue that brands have basically become religions.

Which does your brand have? Using Barstool as a case study

The obvious way to distinguish between the two is by looking at how much active engagement you get on your medium of choice. Active engagement is when a viewer takes an action like leaving a comment. The viewer has to do a bit more than just mindlessly consume.

Look at your audience, how often are they responding to you, talking to one another, taking a stance on your behalf? One of my favorite ways to illustrate the difference is with two sport-centered brands. ESPN compared to Barstool Sports.

Let's look at both of these brands on Instagram.

Let’s take a look at the last 9 posts by each brand and compare the top posts by engagement.

Of ESPN’s last 9 posts, their top post had 1,567 comments or 0.009% of their total audience engaged. On the flip side, Barstool’s top post had 8,207 or 0.1% of their audience. Barstool actually had 4 other posts with more engagement than ESPN. Who has the more valuable audience? ESPN’s audience is almost twice as big as Barstool, but Barstool has 10x the engagement!

While ESPN has an audience, Barstool has built a community that goes way beyond what they have done on Instagram. But how did they build that community?

How to turn an audience into a community

You can turn an audience into a community at any time, but very few brands actually do because it requires a ton of commitment. I can tell you it's worth it though. An engaged community leads to reduced ad spend, loyal customers, and a ton of referrals/word of mouth.

I could easily write an entire post on how to build a community, but I am going to try to keep these tips quick and to the point. If you have a few hours you can take a look at some of the textbooks on the internet about community :p

Here are the quick hitters:

1. Incorporate yourself into your brand's content

It is much easier for people to engage and feel connected to other people. That is why I always recommend including yourself in your content and community strategies. Show people there is a person behind the brand who has the same interest, hobbies, fears, and desires as those who are consuming.

Even if you are a small brand just getting started out it still makes sense to introduce the people behind the brand. It humanizes the brand and tells people who they are talking to when they see your content regardless of platform.

Look at how Barstool founder David Portnoy aka Stool Presidente has incorporated himself into the brand. He has more people tune-in to watch him eat pizza than ESPN gets to tune for an interview with professional athletes.

2. Produce content that encourages “action”

Don’t talk at your audience, you need to give them a reason to participate. The goal of what you produce should always be to entertain or educate, but that is not enough anymore. You also need to create ways for your audience to engage with you or with each other.

The best way to do this is by directly asking them to do something. Yep, it’s that simple. Just be sure to make it as easy as possible to participate. It is a lot easier to leave a comment than it is to submit a picture or a video… start with easy asks.

In the Barstool case study above, their top-performing post was just a question. No visual, no clever puns or jokes, just a simple hypothetical that drove over 8,000 comments.

Instead of just saying something at your audience next time say something action-oriented. Ask a question, start a poll, give them a hypothetical.

3. You need to fan the flames frequently early on

An excuse I hear all the time is “I have already tried to get more engagement, it didn't work.” Building a community does not happen overnight. The brands that have done it successfully have been at it for months if not years. The one thing they have in common with your brand is that they were once in the exact same spot.

If you have never asked your audience to engage with you before they may not respond in droves the first time you do. You will likely need to fan the flames. People hate to be first to do something, we are much more comfortable following the herd.

Get people moving in the right direction by asking people you know to go first, or to help you get things started. Once people see others engaging they are much more likely to do it as well. As you start to build your community use personal outreach and 1 to 1 interaction to kickstart your engagement. It’s how all the biggest brands started.

A community can be built in any industry and any vertical

The most common objection I get to the tips I presented above is “I am not a media company” or “that just won't work for what I sell.” I have seen B2B brands do this successfully and have seen all sorts of products build a community including brands that sell products like wall paint.

Barstool is just one brand to draw inspiration from but chances are there is a great example in your industry. Just message me on Linkedin or leave a comment here and I can point you towards more examples.


The key-takeaways

The above was a lot, I get it! That is why I will always include the key takeaways for you to grab at a glimpse.

  • An audience is ok but not enough, you need to create a community from it

  • Active engagement is more important than audience size

  • Any industry or vertical can build an audience through content

  • Include yourself in your content

  • Create content that inspires action in your audience

  • Every great community required a ton of work to get started. Don't get discouraged, or expect it to take off on its own



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