Audience vs. Community

Jun 10, 2021

This is our first deep dive! Expect these to focus on one, specific topic. Some will be opinionated, others will be research-driven.

One of the most common questions I've gotten since launching The BSP is why I launched it as a newsletter if the goal is to create a community. Shouldn't I have launched a BSP Slack, Discord, or used one of the many community platforms out there instead?

It's true, building an audience is different than building a community. We'll get into what that difference actually is, and why I chose to start with an audience.

New, solo creators shouldn't launch communities — they should build audiences. Here's why 👇

First, what's the actual difference between an audience and a community?

An audience has no way to form relationships with each other (one-to-many), while a community does (many-to-many). Right now, you don't know who other BSP members are and there's no way for you to interact with them.

Here's a great visual from The Startup (I'm not cool enough to have my own graphics yet 😅)

Let's get more specific. What separates a community from an audience?

Communities give better feedback

Since you can ask for feedback in a place where everyone in the community can see it, the feedback you get will inspire additional thoughts from others.

Communities have better retention

If members form meaningful bonds with each other, it's likely they'll be more likely to be engaged over a longer period of time.

Communities are riskier

It's much harder to bring back a community where engagement is low than to grow an audience further. In a community, new members will see the lack of engagement. With an audience, it doesn't matter.

Deciding to launch a community means getting on a treadmill.

Communities are harder to move

It's easier to transition an audience from one platform to another than it is for a community (though, it's still hard). This is because audiences can make independent decisions to move, while community members make more collective decisions, due to having relationships with each other.

Which is the right choice?

Having an engaged community is incredibly valuable — you can form deeper bonds with members and the pull of a community is stronger since members will form relationships with each other, but what's right for you depends on your goals.

Audiences require much less management, and the decision for people to join or not is lower friction.

Even if your goal is to build a community, building an audience can be the right first step for a few reasons.

Communities need critical mass

If you joined a new community and saw 11 members that had collectively posted twice in the last month, would you start checking it daily or invite your friends to join too, even if the content was interesting? Probably not.

However, if you subscribe to a newsletter, the amount of other people subscribing doesn't matter at all — all that matters is whether the content is interesting.

(We'll get into how to define critical mass in a future deep dive on community analytics.)

Communities are investments

Joining a community is a bigger decision for potential members than subscribing to a newsletter or following someone on Twitter. Communities require active engagement while audiences are passive.

Adding one more email to their inbox each week isn't that impactful, and it gets delivered right to them, but adding a new Slack or Discord means spending time learning about the channels, seeking out new messages that pop up, and writing thoughtful responses.

Making that investment will be an easier decision for people if you've first proven you have credibility and can deliver interesting and valuable content. Then, they'll have a reason to want a deeper connection with you or your company, and each other. Don't fight a harder battle than you have to.

Communities need nurturing

Like a product, building a successful community requires you to be extremely engaged in order to understand the right way to guide and grow it. You'll also want to learn over time what people respond to from you as a creator or brand.

To do this in a community, you need to be posting thoughtful content multiple times per day, forming 1:1 relationships with as many people who join as possible, and promoting ways for them to interact with each other.

There are plenty of reasons to not do this right away:

  • You haven't found your voice for the project (i.e. community-member fit)
  • You're not ready to invest that much time into the project
  • You recognize that things may change as you get feedback

When building an audience, your only job is to create great content. This keeps you focused, and lowers the risk of members abandoning the community after you do, eventually, launch it.

Bottom line

The risk of starting a community is high. Once you start, you need to be fully engaged in order for other people to buy in. If people see minimal activity in a community, it spirals, and it's hard to get people to return to a community once they form an opinion stop paying attention to it.

For solo creators with limited time, an easier path is to build an audience first.

Communities maintain engagement when there is a reason to gather, and there are other reasons to come together than being part of an audience:

  • Working together towards a goal (open-source projects, DAOs)
  • Shared beliefs (countries, religions, social movements)
  • Shared interests (book clubs, football)
  • Shared experiences (Burning Man, support groups)

Building an audience may actually be the hardest path, because it's on you to build your credibility from nothing. It may also be the most rewarding and valuable, though, because you have the ability to shape its direction and focus.

Will we become a community?

Yes, eventually I'll create a community space for members. Members on the Believer plan will have additional, private spaces within the community.

Why become a community?

Becoming a community will unlock a lot for members and The BSP. It'll be easier to:

  • Run events
  • Get feedback on ideas before writing about them
  • Facilitate connections between members
  • Learn from each other

When will it happen?

It's too early to say for sure — but, due to how well launch went, probably sooner than I originally thought.

We'll do a deep dive on how to think about this decision soon.

What needs to be true?

These are rough estimates, but we probably need to:

  • Get much closer to our 10,000 member goal
  • Notice a lot of people sharing content from The BSP on social media. This will tell me that people see value in the newsletter and are looking to, at a minimum, discuss it with other people
  • Meet a rockstar community manager who wants to help run it

Is there any reason we wouldn't become a community?

Only if I was unable to devote the time to nurturing the community that it would deserve. This seems unlikely to me.

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