I’ve seen people make the following observation more and more: “you shouldn’t build an audience; you should build a community!”
Now, there is a lot of truth to that statement. It appears, on the surface, to redirect self-interest towards something more collaborative. It’s not about having an audience to sell to, but creating a thriving community — supposedly.
But that is where I feel many people are just doing a mental bait-and-switch. Instead of building an audience to sell to, they 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.
For most, this is not an intentionally deceptive viewpoint. Many founders follow the leaders in their space, imitating best practices and “growth hacks” because they trust the people who suggest them. Yet, some of those people have it wrong.
In the ongoing attempt by the entrepreneurial community to define the terms we’re using while we use them, let’s take a look at the difference between audience-building and creating communities. Remember Clubhouse and the hype around it? They promised us a new way to connect with each other, and it ended up being a place where everyone is trying to sell you something.
Nobody wants to join a community only to be funneled towards a purchase at some point. If I’m interested in someone’s products, I follow them as a brand or a business. I’d rather consider myself to be an honest audience member than a member of a dishonest community.
So, how can we avoid this as digital entrepreneurs? How can we build relationships with potential customers without manipulating them into thinking that we are selflessly guiding them into a community of their peers when we’re not?
We have to start with honesty.
Audiences are focused on you. Communities are focused on a common goal or practice. If we want to empower people by helping them help themselves, we build a community. If we want to sell things to people, we build an audience.
These are different things, done for different purposes. If you want to be trusted by your peers and customers, your honest intention needs to be clearly communicated.
People will know if you build a community that is really a funnel in disguise. They will also talk about it to their peers — the very people you wanted to be your audience.
So please, don’t set out to build a community when you really want to build an audience. When you use the term “community-building,” make sure it actually refers to connecting people. When you’re working on putting the word out about your eBook or SaaS business, call it what it is: audience-building in a for-profit context.
I am so adamant about this distinction because I believe that the words we use matter. What we call things shapes the world around us. If we misname our efforts, it is easier for us to trick ourselves into believing that what we do is something other than what we’re actually doing.
As founders, we have to be honest with ourselves first and foremost. I’ve long struggled with the fact that I am building a for-profit audience. I thought it was all about looking at it only from a perspective of “giving back to the community” or “selfless service,” but at the end of the day, every single entrepreneur is building something to sustain their life. We all have to pay the rent and grocery bills. There is nothing, absolutely NOTHING, wrong with building an audience for that purpose.
That’s because our audience consists of human beings with a lot of agency. If someone chooses to follow me on Twitter, they aren’t coerced or forced to do so: it’s their fully sovereign choice to make.
I believe that this deserves respect.
The way I try to show that respect is by being honest and forward about my work. I write books, and I sell them. I consult founders, and they pay me.
It took me a long time to say this proudly and without feeling like I was making myself vulnerable. This perspective is something I have found to be surprisingly common among other founders. We shy away from talking about money. We charge way too little because we feel we’re not as good as we claim to be — or that we have to price our services hyper-competitively.
It’s dangerous to extend this level of self-denial into our audience-building activities. When we trick ourselves into believing we are doing selfless work when we’re motivated by a purely selfish rationale, we are also tricking the people we interact with. And I can tell you one thing about successful audience-building: it doesn’t involve tricking people.
I’ve thought long and hard about this because I want to make 100% sure that my personal brand as a founder and a writer is an honest, transparent, and objectively correct one. The more I reflected on this, the more I found nuance and blurry definitions used to justify selfish actions that extract value without giving it back.
But let me stop painting this gloomy picture right here. There is a genuine silver lining that is accessible to anyone who is setting out to build an audience without looking for hacks or manipulative tactics. There is one very promising way to build an audience and create community at the same time while remaining honest and creating win-win situations.
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.
The wonderful thing is that this includes your future customers. They see you creating something valuable to them right there, in front of them—no need to sugar-coat this. The more honest you are about your work, the more your audience will take you seriously.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about communities. In fact, participating in communities is the best way to build a reputation as someone that’s worth following.
If you’re still confused about the difference between audience and community, here is a very simple mantra: “You will build an audience by contributing to a community.”
Be clear about why you’re in it, think audience-centric, and make every interaction about the people you chose to serve and empower. That’s the audience part: how you can best help those people. When it comes to community, think of how you can best help people help themselves. How can you connect them better? How can you foster relationships and shared knowledge? How can you increase the opportunity surface of a whole community?
The more you contribute, the more people will become aware of who you are and what you stand for.
That’s the seed for your audience-building efforts. Be clear, be present, and contribute selflessly so that — one day — what goes around comes around.