Published in Growth -

Why NFPs should move from ‘audiences’ to ‘communities’.

If building a sizeable, passionate and committed audience is your only priority, you could be shortchanging your supporters. And denying yourself of value.

That sounds dramatic, but it’s true.

While building a large audience is crucial—for progress towards your mission, for organisational stability, for reach and recruitment of supporters—a community can add additional dimensions of value.

This first begs the question: what is the difference?

Understanding the difference between an audience and a community.

There are some important distinctions.

An audience is defined by one-to-many communication. Typically, you project messages outwardly towards your audience, and the members of that audience receive them. A community is defined by many-to-many communication: you might lead a conversation or provide the overarching themes to guide participation, but highly engaged and participatory community members will contribute and generate their own responses.

An audience is receptive. An audience will respond to the content you produce for them. A community is generative: community members will produce content among and for each other. The insights gleaned from this material can even influence the type of messaging or campaigns you produce for your wider audience.

Audiences are largely impersonal in nature; communities are predicated on understanding and connecting with individual people. As an extension of this idea, audiences can be purchased. Communities are based on relationships, and must be earned.

In building and maintaining an audience, it is unlikely your organisational goals or priorities will change. When you foster a community, there are opportunities to pivot organisational goals and priorities in line with feedback or insights gleaned from the community.

Building an audience is a short term and more conservative approach. Building a community is more ambitious: there are risks involved, but the outcomes and value can far exceed your expectations.

So, what exactly is that value?

Here are some examples of the significant benefits that communities can deliver for not-for-profit organisations.

1. Learn from your supporters and better align with their needs and expectations.

Having a large, established audience is enormously beneficial. But it’s also defined by a top-down communication dynamic.

You create and publish material which your audience will consume. You provide services which your audience can choose whether or not to engage in.

The shift to a community creates a more reciprocal and participatory model. By fostering a community, you can hear directly from your supporters to establish clear insights into:

  • The challenges they face.
  • What they want or need from your organisation.
  • Specific initiatives, causes, content types, or potential new service offerings that appeal to them.

This exchange—and the learnings you glean—can be explicit or implied.

With an established community in place, you can literally ask for feedback about any of the services you provide.

You could even ask about the way you manage or support the community you’re engaging, like Beyond Blue does in their community forums.

Beyond Blue asks for feedback on how they can better run and maintain their community forums.

Alternatively, if you have the right tracking and data analysis configuration, you can infer feedback from the behaviour of community members over time.

For example, CatchUpGuide Dogs’ social networking and support platform for people with low vision or blindness—offers a social groups section with conversations about cooking: recipes, tips and techniques, assistive technologies for people to use in the kitchen, and more.

If this is one of the most frequently visited and highly engaged areas of the platform, that might indicate potential groundswell for a training course on cooking classes.

An engaged community provides access to an ‘always-on’ (and always honest) market research channel.

When you have access to an engaged and forthcoming community, you can be more engaged and proactive in the way you support your entire supporter base.

2. Connect with new people and provide a crucial interim support for those who aren’t ready to engage in face-to-face services.

This benefit is specific to a certain type of not-for-profit organisation. Communities are especially valuable for support services and community health providers like Cancer Council, Guide Dogs, ReachOut, or Lifeline.

For people navigating the challenges associated with grief, anxiety, depression, or a difficult diagnosis with their physical health, empathetic peer-to-peer exchanges can offer invaluable support.

Research suggests people are increasingly comfortable turning to online communities to seek help with loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and more. Moreover, people experiencing serious mental health challenges report benefits from interacting with peers online.

By engaging with and learning from peers online, people can gain important insight into healthcare decisions. Over time, this can contribute to more confidence and comfort with in-person service seeking behaviour.

A supportive online community can act as an important long-term conduit for people who may never have otherwise sought to engage a service provider.

There are two benefits here:

  • In the short term, the community itself can act as a crucial support for people to access on their own terms.
  • Longer term, as these people become more comfortable with the prospect of seeking face-to-face support, fostering a community can be seen as an investment in future in-person service delivery.

3. Create strong, long-lasting emotional bonds with new supporters and ensure people think of your organisation when they’re ready to engage.

Brand salience is a concept developed by Professor Jenni Romaniuk and Professor Byron Sharp, both acclaimed authors and Directors at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science.

It refers to ‘the propensity of a brand to be thought of in a buying situation, reflected in the quantity and quality of the network of brand information in a person’s memory, or the brand’s share of mind.’

When you commit to build a community, members will likely come from two main sources:

1. Existing members of your audience—who are likely already passionate advocates for your organisation—join and support the community simply because it is your initiative.

2. Entirely new members come to the community for the content generated by the community, drawn to the value of peer-to-peer engagement with people who share their perspectives or circumstances.

For people who fall into this second category, your organisation is merely seen as a facilitator for the community. In this case, any consideration of brand is likely a secondary proposition.

Over time however, this dynamic will shift. As the shift occurs, brand salience becomes an important and valuable factor.

Consider a hypothetical scenario.

A young woman, Laura, struggles with the pressures of her final year at high school. Without fully understanding the nature or reason why she feels a certain way, she Googles some of the feelings she’s experiencing and discovers a community forum. It’s run by an organisation called PositiveMindSupport.

As Laura reads through the forums and begins to contribute to discussions, peer experts offer support, techniques to help manage her challenges, and suggest the value of speaking to a qualified support person. Laura is hesitant about reaching out for in-person support, but learns a huge amount from the community and manages to successfully navigate her final exams.

Years later, an unexpected death in the family re-triggers the same difficult feelings. This time, Laura is more open to the prospect of in-person support.

The concept of brand salience suggests a higher likelihood that Laura will reach out to PositiveMindSupport for in-person support, based on this organisation occupying a higher share of memory compared to other competing providers.

Now, consider that Laura is just one visitor to a community with 40,000 members. When people derive valuable support from a community, there’s a residual positive connection made with the facilitator of that community. Over time—and at scale—this can result in your organisation connecting with more people to provide valuable support services for greater far benefit.

Are you ready to embrace and capitalise on the benefits of community?

While growing your audience is important, communities can offer compelling new benefits in both the sort and long term. And both for community members and facilitators alike.

Building a community is a potent way to foster and engage your existing supporters in new ways, to differentiate yourself from any comparator organisations, and to build valuable new connections.

So, what are you waiting for? Let’s build one.