Having an audience is nice; having a community is worth talking about

A friend of mine recently joined Twitter and what makes that newsworthy is how adamant Laura has been about not jumping on the bandwagon. She tweeted this morning:

Has enjoyed all the comments about hell freezing over because I joined Twitter. Still need someone to help me use it properly 🙂

I’ve offered to help her learn the ins and outs of Hootsuite, Tweetdeck and other tools that can help her manage the new information firehose she just pointed at her life. But what I really need to get across to her is that we’re all just making this up as we go along anyway, so as long as she engages, that’s all the “proper” she needs to know.

This past weekend, I was listening to a For Immediate Release podcast that featured Benjamin Ellis, a “social technologist and serial entrepreneur.”

Ellis’ presentation at the Dell B2B Social Media Huddle had a lot of great content. But one of the things that got me thinking was when Ellis pointed out that “audience” and “community” are not the same thing.

Here’s where my thoughts led me: When it comes to social media, so many people are talking about gaining followers and fans and getting people to “like” their brands or organizations. But what are they really gaining from those efforts?

If people see the information you post and learn from it, that’s helpful. If people share that information with others, then more people are seeing it, which is even more helpful. Nevertheless, both are examples of having an audience of followers and not a community. The people receiving the information are passively absorbing what is being talked about and not necessarily taking action because of it.

If you have a community of followers, however, you’ll soon see those people engaging with you because of your information. Perhaps it’s as simple as not just sharing information, but commenting on it as part of that share. Perhaps it’s being compelled to take some action because of the information they now have. Or maybe it’s someone posting a comment to agree or disagree with your position or offering constructive criticism on a product or an idea.

The difference between an audience and a community is the level of engagement. Social media and social networking are about being social, using a new medium and networking. But the true power in all three of those activities is the ability to engage.

The power of social media comes from the ability to affect change due to simple and fast communication. But the only way to affect that change is to engage to the point at which people are driven to act in some way. It doesn’t have to be some life-changing epiphany. It can be simple feedback, a discussion that helps you open your mind to something new, or even inspiring people to try a restaurant in town that they’ve never visited but could use some new business.

I’ve taught at the university level for more than 10 years now. I can tell you firsthand that having an audience of students doesn’t mean they are learning anything from me. Having an audience of engaged students, however, means there’s a good chance they are learning – and so am I.

So the next time you think about how many followers you have or how many people like your product or brand on Facebook, also think about the last time you actually engaged with one, one dozen or 100 of them.

Having an audience is nice, but having a community is something worth talking about.

(Photo courtesy of Shirlaine’s photostream on Flickr.)