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As associations, you already have an engaged audience – your members. And these highly engaged people can often be the basis for a thriving community where members come together, interact, grow and engage with one another. 

However, with an often widely dispersed audience and only a few annual meetings on the calendar, are you doing enough to foster that dynamic?  

Recently, I attended INBOUND22, and one of the prominent themes of the conference was the importance of connection. In his opening, HubSpot co-founder and CTO Dharmesh Shah discussed the importance of community and how organizations can use it as their next strategy for growth. 

Audience vs. Community – Why It Matters

Although “audience” and “community” sound the same (and they have plenty of similarities), there is often a fundamental misunderstanding of their definition and what they mean for your organization. 


For most associations, a focus on audience is prioritized to grow reach, particularly from a marketing perspective. In a post for IMPACT, Stephanie Baiocchi explains that “an audience is a group of people who consume your content, independent of one another.” 

Put simply, your association audience enjoys your content – they get all your emails and attend a few webinars – but that’s where the relationship ends. They often aren’t members (although they can be), but more importantly, they don’t engage beyond the initial read. 


In comparison, a community brings an audience together for a shared experience. “A community is a social space where people come together around a shared interest, challenge, or goal,” says Duncan Elder in a post for Tribe. “People in these spaces discuss the topic of interest, share knowledge, learn from others, and build their networks.”

Whether that’s a message board, LinkedIn group or annual meet-ups, they’re internalizing the content your organization creates and connecting through it.  

How It Fits for Associations

Understanding audience vs. community is essential when considering the content and offerings you’ll create as an organization. Although a big audience is great, it can also become a “vanity metric.” It looks great on paper, but as a business, it may not be impacting your association's bottom line.

What is?

The members paying their annual dues, attending your conferences and evangelizing for your organization, which is why building community becomes the priority. 

Building Your Association Community

As Shah puts it, “a community does not have to be huge in order to be valuable to its members. It just needs to connect the dots.” Whether you’re connecting members with professional development resources, career opportunities or networking and mentorship relationships, the community is worth the price of admission.

So how can associations prioritize their offerings to build a better community?

Related: How to foster community in a time of crisis Learn More >

In his session, Shah outlined the elements of a community that maximizes value for its members with an acronym – I.D.E.A.L. – identity, diversity, engagement, action and learning. So how does that apply to the association space? 

  • Identity – While you want to know your member’s roles and experiences, you must also understand what moves the needle for them. Their goals, interests and values inform their identity and what they hope to gain from your association membership. 
  • Diversity – As a community, you aren’t just responsible for bringing people with common interests together; you also need to bridge the gap between diverse perspectives. As Shah says, “the more diverse a community, the greater the potential for high-value connections.” Associations should prioritize creating a safe space for members that celebrates different backgrounds, cultures, and geographies.
  • Engagement – Your members want to connect, and as you build a community, facilitating this connection is vital. Whether it’s providing discussion prompts or simply creating a forum where everyone can connect, the easier you make it to communicate, the more your members will do so. 
  • Action – Creating a welcoming and constructive community is great, and so is revenue for your organization. A community can quickly become a source of non-dues revenue if you leverage it to either promote premium (paid) content or partnerships with other organizations. However, your community should never lose sight of prioritizing connection over sales. 
  • Learning – The bottom line is that a community is designed for learning. Whether they’re learning from the content your association is creating or using it as a place to learn strategies and talk through issues they’re having in their own organizations, the community members need that space to become a place of learning. 
Related: 5 Community Outreach Strategies for Local Chapters Learn More >

Understanding the Impact of Your Community

There is no question that association communities are valuable – it’s why members remain members. However, as the workplace continues to evolve and legacy members retire, community can become the unique selling point your organization needs to double down on to keep your membership growing. 

For starters, you need to understand the difference between audience and community. While a large audience can be significant in terms of metrics, all those people don’t represent the folks who are genuinely engaged with your organization. 

Second, you must know how to reward and engage with those community members. Why? Because they are the ones that constantly renew, evangelize for your association and help increase the impact your organization has. 

Finally, look at what your organization already has in place. Because of your membership model, there’s already a built-in community. It’s just a matter of unifying it and providing the value your members crave.

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
October 25, 2022
Jose Triana is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.