Online Community vs. Social Media

There are a lot of thoughts floating in the digital ether about online communities and social media. Those thoughts often collide in confusing ways. Some folks – most perhaps – think that managing an online community is the same as working in social media. While an online community is built off a social media platform, the role of a social media manager and an online community manager are much different.

In essence an online community is a collection of people with a common interest, or set of values. They meet online to think and share together. It could be for moral support (a community of military moms), or it could be a group of digital gaming fanboys. Or it could be a bunch of people who like the idea of being completely anonymous online.

A community manager then would be the person who corrals the community, keeps them on track. Welcomes new members and shows them around. Moderates content. Curates content that will be of interest to the community. Queue up new features that the community needs/wants. Manage the Terms and Conditions. Set up in-person meetups. And in many cases these community managers also focus on growing the community through outreach and marketing. But their goal is usually built around making the community a meaningful place to hang out. They are focused on strengthening the network of community members and ensuring that there is content that drives them to engage and grow.

Some community managers do spend some time in a marketing capacity. Any community will have a certain churn rate so you need to fill the pipeline with a steady stream of new and engaged users. And that dovetails nicely with our next topic, social media. Social media is a couple things. One is that, in its most pure form, “social media” is a digital platform that allows real people to socialize with each other in a digital way. These folks create media (messages) that can be disseminated to others in the community or beyond. So in this definition, there is a tie-in with online communities: social media is a platform on which to build an online community.

Social media is also thought of as a collection of all the most popular social media platforms – Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Digg, Tumblr, etc. Often times businesses will look at all these channels and see the great potential for marketing their products or building brand equity. So, these firms will hire a “social media manager” to handle devising and implementing a social media strategy. Sound like marketing and PR? It is. It could also be building an online community around a brand. But these social media managers are first and foremost interested in brand equity and usually that means selling more stuff. Online community managers, on the other hand, are interested in building relationships – stronger ties among their community members.



  1. I totally agree with your point that social media and community are very different. But I think that good community management done on behalf of a brand, ie. marketing, has the same goals as community management around a topic of interest, done for love.

    Both are interested in “building relationships – stronger ties amongst their community members”. But in a marketing context, those stronger relationships are built in the context of a brand.

    So I think you’re right. But only because most social media marketing is short-sighted and acts like broadcast marketing. Marketers have a lot to learn from community management.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I love other ideas on this somewhat vague topic. What I don’t spell out here is the notion of relationships and community built on commerce, versus those built on collaboration. I think the distinction is a crucial one because it defines the type and more importantly the depth of relationship that is possible.

    And yes, marketers are still digging out of the trenches of mass-media marketing. Community management (i.e. community building) is still a fairly new topic in the context of social media. I think I wrote this post mostly because I see so many “community managers” who are simply posting stuff to a facebook page and saying “Click my junk!” (a terms I heard from @jasonfalls, who attributed it to @AmberCadabra).

  3. Good differentiation based on objectives. It is important to make this distinction and there is a great deal of confusion around this. Our company provides online communities for associations and I often find association staff and members that are turned off by public groups that call themselves communities but are really more interested in advertising.
    Don’t get me wrong, Facebook is great advertising and associations need advertising; but their members want community.

  4. Thanks for the comment Bob. I was sensing a lot of confusion when I originally wrote it. There are so many online “communities” that are not collaborating and sharing information with one another.

    Community by definition (Robert Putnam’s) requires an exchange of social capital. That doesn’t happen in a commerce-oriented online community (i.e. Coke or Ford’s Facebook page). Advertising, brand-building, and selling more product is their main objective. It’s an exchange of economic capital more than anything.

    But you’re right. Facebook can be an integral component of any organization’s marketing efforts. You need to get the word out on your work, and Facebook is a huge network to tap into for that. It’s a broadcasting platform that organizations and brands can use to socialize their messages across member’s (fan’s) social graphs. But it’s hard for me to say that equates to community.

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