Business Opportunities: Audience vs. Community - What should you build?

👋 Hi everybody!

The hype for communities and the audience-first principle continues, attracting more and more entrepreneurs.

As with most hypes, misunderstandings about the true nature of the thing behind the hype are inevitable. Sadly, a lot of community builders have to learn this the hard way.

In line with some popular figures in the space, we want to shine some light on the conditions that need to be met for successful community building. These are best illustrated when contrasted against the idea behind building an audience.

Theoretically, the differences might appear obvious, while in reality, distinctions between community building and audience building might not be as clear cut.

However, we’re not trying to fight a battle of definitions here. Instead, we simply want to make a somewhat idealized juxtaposition of audience building and community building to inspire you to reflect on your own goals as an entrepreneur.


🫂 Community Building

Shared goals and values aside, communities are messy constructs. They try to sustain a network of heterogeneous trajectories over a long period of time, which typically requires at least one human at the core, holding everything together.

Rosie Sherry, a legend in the community builder space, illustrates what this can mean in practice:

“Sometimes people need hand-holding for a long time.

Sometimes people just need a space to drop in, ask a question and get a good answer.

Sometimes people just want to read, watch discreetly and explore rabbit holes.

Sometimes people just have a lot going on in their own life.

Some people love written words. Others love audio or video.”

What we can take from this is that community builders aren’t moving forward on a straight line. Rather, they help others do so. More precisely, they help others help themselves move forward.

Why, you might ask, would somebody do that if the community itself isn’t monetized? Doesn’t that mean that community builders have to invest a lot of time and effort without exactly knowing how and when this investment will pay off financially?

Well, yes.

Psychologically speaking, that requires a lot of trust – trust that can only be sustained if helping others is something that gives you satisfaction while doing it.

At the same time, the long-term financial upsides can be immense. If you build a product for the people whose problems you’ve come to understand like no other, you have significant competitive advantages:

  • You have your target audience right in front of you

  • They trust you and are willing to give your product a shot

  • You will get honest feedback from people who want your product to succeed

On top of that, you have created a small army of soldiers who are out there not only with their own, but also your interests in mind. You’re suddenly not the only person looking out for your own success.

💪 How powerful is that?

📣 Audience Building

So, what is the main difference between building an audience and building a community? According to Arvid Kahl:

  • Audience = help people

  • Community = help people help themselves

Arvid Kahl, a key figure in the audience-first movement and a strong advocator for building in public, emphasizes this distinction because he sees a lot of entrepreneurs conceptually mixing ‘audience’ and ‘community’ in problematic ways:

“Instead of building an audience to sell to, [people] now think they need to build a community to sell to. And that, in its very essence, is a dishonest approach, eroding the understanding of what communities are — and what they’re for.

[…] By building in public, you get to enjoy the benefits of community participation while being brutally honest about your for-profit enterprise. If people expect you to share your founder’s journey, they know that you have a financial goal. They are well aware that you don’t do this just for fun. You’re building a business. You’re building a customer base. You’re building an audience. All of this is clear to anyone involved.”

We share Arvid’s assessment, based on our own experiences doing research in online communities. A lot of people fail to sustain a community because they weren’t fully aware of the implications of being a community builder in the first place.

We don’t emphasize this to discourage people. We just want to make sure that you choose the right path right from the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey.

🎯 What we did with CommunityValidated

The reason we’re bringing this topic up is not least rooted in our own history ⬇️

A few months ago, we were considering building our own community for early stage founders. It seemed like a natural next step for someone with an audience in this space. Also, we generally enjoy helping others, so we figured it would have been a lot of fun, despite all the work we’d have to put into it.

Before taking such a big step, however, we decided to talk to some of our readers first.

Our key takeaways:

  • Being dependent on continuing community engagement in the (not so consistent) early stage founder space would have been a huge risk to take

  • We can help people effectively through 1on1s in chats and Zoom calls

Ultimately, we decided against building our own community. Instead, we focused on growing our audience and we’re happy with how things turned out for CommunityValidated.

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