Audiences, Stakeholders or Community Members?

On Monday morning (weather permitting) I will lead a discussion at the Social Media Breakfast in Boston on audiences, stakeholders or community members. Thank you, Bryan Person and the Horn Group, for having me as your guest.

One of the suggestions in Now Is Gone is to consider approaching social media tool-sets with a community mindset instead of an audience mindset (see Audiences versus Communities podcast). Audiences assumes a mass communication tool where people are primarily receiving a one-way broadcasted outreach. Communities assume interaction is always a possibility, that two way communication can occur in a variety of ways at any time, and that there’s a deeper relationship between parties.

Applying Marshall McLuhan’s theories (you know, the medium is the message), audience approaches are for cold media forms, while community outreach is for hot media forms that are now two-way in nature. The community-based outreach intends to engage people in conversation rather than talking at them.

This is a dramatic shift for marketing minds, and quite frankly because it’s a new approach and attitude towards outreach, many struggle to make the leap. So it’ll be an interesting chat given the many experienced social media minds in attendance.

I’d like to add stakeholders to the discussion, because I feel this contemporary marketing term can also be applied to social media. Stakeholders assumes that the parties you are reaching out towards have a vested interest in the organization, and its outcome. In my mind, stakeholders equates to multiple audiences with different needs, and empowers those audiences to act or express dissatisfaction. I’ve included Webster’s New World College Dictionary definitions for all three terms below as an addendum.

Picture This

To prep us, here are some thoughts. Do you see your social media consumers as an audience (image credit MSC)?


Do you see your social media consumers as stakeholders (image credit: Kentucky Governor’s office)?


Or as a community (image credit: MCNews)?

Construction 27 JCWP

And why do you see social media consumers in one group over another?

Addendum: Definitions

Audience: A group of persons assembled to hear or see a speaker, play, concert, etc.

Stakeholder: A person or group that has an investment, share, or interest in something, as a business or industry (from The only definition in Websters was, “one who holds money bet by others and pays it out to the winner”).

Community: A group of people living together as a smaller social unit within a larger one, and having interests, work, etc. in common.



  • I think stakeholder is the more appropriate term because it connotes a higher level of involvement, enough to induce action. There’s a probability for action – buying, talking, endorsing, etc. There’s enough self interest to get them off the couch. While community has active members, its people brought together because of things many times outside of their control (geography, race, economic status, etc.). Community is better than audience, but not as good as stakeholder.

  • My observation here is that the big bone of contention between the PR 2.0 Evangelists and the Keen/Chapel Wing hinges on these definitions and applications.

    The groups use the same words with different contexts, and are not in agreement on where the analogies hold and where they break down.

    It’s rather maddening seeing so many people invest so much energy in arguments over semantics, and refusing to recognize the overlaps in the terms they employ.

    Thanks for proferring your breakdown of the terms of the trade – I’ve got something a little different in mind that’s in the works.

  • Thanks, Jeff. Good breakdown.

    Ike, I’m not seeing it as a battle of semantics, more one of attitude. To me having the attitude that you can use social media to talk to audiences indicates that you think you are in control, that the people you are communicating with cannot make good decisions (Keen), and that it’s your stage to perform on. The audience can only cheer or leave depending on your performance. This approach seems to be one for other media forms.

    I like communities because it assumes that the reader is engaged regardless of whether they comment or not. It assumes they have a choice, and does not judge them on their ability to participate. Further, it returns us to a relationship ethos rather than a talk-down-to attitude.

    At the same time communities have leaders and role players, and this matches the current environment where you have 90+ percent reading at least once; 30-40 percent more than once; 10-15 percent subscribing and bookmarking; and approximately 1-3 percent commenting and cross-posting. This medium is one of communities, thus the medium is the message. And that message is community.

    Stakeholders involves the reader even more in the collaborative process as Jeff noted. I am not sure social media really has stakeholders, but I like the term better than audiences.

  • I’ve got a somewhat different, but not opposite view on this. In actuality, all three terms can be somewhat appropriate…but not totally appropriate. While I’m not gunning for a new buzzword, none of the words totally fit. Maybe stakeholder comes closest.

    The reason I hesitate to use community is because I often find that the ‘members of the community’ don’t feel as if they’re a community. There’s a lack of connectivity amongst them. They are users of a particular product or services and they use out that product or service. They can’t be engaged as such.

    Sometimes it ends there. There’s little need for anything more.

    But for some, they may be the ones who reach out for more. Once they start to become engaged, they become stakeholders. They’re not yet a community. There still is very little connection.

    Again, I think that community involves more than a one-to-one conversation. It involves interaction amongst members of the community. The centerpiece is the company. The company still may have the greatest proportion of powee, but now it’s more power based upon facilitation.

    I see it as the job of a social media strategist to help this process along and help an organization transform some audiences into stakeholders, and some stakeholders into communities. It’s a practice that’s becoming more and more vital every day.

    Quick example: I know of a guy that’s posted some great videos as to how politicians should use YouTube. He often talks about “reaching out the YouTube community”. But you know what? There is no YouTube community. Just like there is no NBC community. Instead there are series of many many subsets of audiences, stakeholders, and communities on YouTube.

  • These are tough concepts for big media companies to grasp. I wonder how much more longer big media will continue to wither on the vine until people start thinking differently.

  • Just thinking about it is a step in the right direction. ;)

  • Hey Geoff. I didn’t know you were into McLuhan. I wrote my senior thesis on him in college. What you said about an interactive community being “hot” certainly fits, although to McL “hot” means engaging and hot media are not necessarily good media. (Nor are cold; they just are what they are.)

    MMcL saw radio as a hot medium because it engages the imagination to fill in missing information, as opposed to cool TV, which engenders a more passive taking-in of info. McLuhan thought that Hitler and to a large degree, FDR, were creature of radio. To many Germans, Hitler’s booming voice sounded compelling. They imagined him as a wise, powerful leader. On TV, McLuhan speculates, Hitler would have failed. His appearance was hardly imposing, and his bombast would have made him a caricature of himself.

    The point is that each medium — and you’re certainly pondering the effect of all sorts of new media amalgams — engages people differently. The hot and cool metaphor can be helpful in understanding the new tools for delivery of “the message.” I love McLuhan, though he had a self-promoting streak that made many fellow academics think of him as a charlatan.

  • @Jonathan Interesting insights. Sounds like there may be more processing ahead on your personal take with a possible fourth term.

    @Jim @ Brian Agreed, just thinking about communicating to people using different approaches other than an audience form invokes growth.

    @Tom Yikes, the old man comments on one of my blog posts! LOL. Great to have you, and good insights on McCluhan. For those that don’t know my background, my folks are long time newspaper veterans. TL was former managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, and Jacqueline Bigar (mom) is one of the nation’s premier astrology columnists.

  • According to stakeholder theory (and much PR theory – we’ve imported the term from management), any organization has stakeholders, whether you want to acknowledge them or not – these are people who have something at stake in the functioning of the organization – or, the other way round, who can influence the organization.

    The question is, do you treat stakeholders as audiences or as communities? I think the answer depends on your goal & communication needs. The choice of medium should follow from that.

    Your question assumes that you’ve already chosen the medium (social media). Of course, the dominant thinking argues that social media is for dialogue, engagement, conversation – the community approach. But I think there’s room for an interesting conversation about the audience approach to PR. It’s been considered the “devil term” pretty much since 1984, when Grunig & Hunt introduced the 4 models of public relations. However, this doesn’t mean it hasn’t been and it isn’t practiced. So the answer is “it depends,” but the interesting conversation is to figure out what exactly it depends ON.

    If anyone is interested in further reading, here are the sources, or contact me for summaries/abstracts/powerpoint slides:
    Grunig, J. E., & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing public relations. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.
    Freeman, R.E. 1984, Strategic Management: A stakeholder approach. Boston: Pitman.
    Mitchell, R.K., Agle, B.R., & Wood, D.J. (1997) Toward a theory of stakeholder identification and salience: Defining the principle of who and what really counts. Academy of Management Review, 22(4), pp. 853-886.

  • @Mihaela You are right, audiences is very much in use and quite common, particularly in PR.

    But your comment assumes PR should be running social media, which is usually not the case, or at least, in full. ;) I’m not sure companies have a choice on how to treat social media conversations if they want to actually engage anyone. Assuming you can control how you approach it, means you can predict the reaction. If anything we’ve learned out here, from Southwest’s miniskirt issue to jetBlue’s scorned YouTube apology, assuming control of reactions is a classic corporate error.

  • Geoff,

    Looking forward to seeing you on Monday morning and to participating in some lively debate.

    I tend to agree with Ike about the semantics of audience vs. community – not too dissimilar from the viral/WOM or advertising/PR semantic arguments that have been going around.

    Not everyone thinks of audiences the way you’ve defined them. I’ll give you a perfect example: the bleachers section of Fenway Park. If you think that the crowd can only cheer or leave, you’re mistaken. Ever heard of the wave? Or chanting? Or taunts? Those actions require leaders from within the audience. And even though the Red Sox franchise may seem to have a command & control, members of the Red Sox Nation are very much connected with each other.

    Again, it may just be a distinction over how we use the words, but my point is, the words don’t matter – it’s the concept behind them that does.

  • @scott It’ll definitely be a pleasure. And hopefully fun, too. I think you nailed it…It’s the concept behind it– or as I like to put it — the attitude that matters.

  • Am I completely off the mark here, or are bloggers and their respective blogs, all three. By definition, a blog has an audience, silent readers who don’t make their presence known, but read, a community, audience members who participate by making comments, and at least one stakeholder, the blogger, who is also part of the community, making comments to comments. He or she is also part of the audience, by writing with his reader’s in mind.

    So, by adding 1+1+1, a blog is the ultimate social media.

  • I’m not sure if I’m totally with this, in the sense that I’m not totally sure that the relationship between audience and performer is entirely one way. To some extent I think it looks that way based on how you compartmentalize stuff into particular categories. Often the roll compartmentalization and language play in our sense of what reality is, and how we interact with reality, goes unconscious.. And I think this is maybe one of the biggest challenges we have now.

    We are pushing against the old modes in our search for new modes. This probably makes sense in terms of how this stuff must evolve; it has something do with what it takes to get us thinking in new ways, or out of the old mind sets, but eventually there is the danger that in changing our mind sets we loose something of value that the old mind sets had.

    You could make a critical evaluation of older media forms from the perspective of these new ways of thinking about them, and see how our new ways existed in the old forms, and then the difference between how they existed in the old forms from how they exist in the new forms.. Or more particularly, think about about how they could fit in the new forms over all ecology.. Inside of which you could just as easily have parts that conform to what we more conventionally think of as old media forms.

  • Mihaela said: “According to stakeholder theory (and much PR theory – we’ve imported the term from management), any organization has stakeholders, whether you want to acknowledge them or not – these are people who have something at stake in the functioning of the organization – or, the other way round, who can influence the organization. …”

    I think this comes closest to what I’d think about social media, certainly the ‘having something at stake’ definition, anyway. Though I don’t only think that about social media.

    Everyone affected by a decision has something at stake in it. They may not even know it. They may have no obvious or formal means to participate in it, or in the response to its effects. The extent to which their well-being, as defined by any number of quality of life measures, is affected by it may never be acknowledged by people with a financial or political stake in the decision.

    The problem for a long time has been that the business community, on balance, has consistently answered the age old ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’ question with a resounding and definitive, “No!”

    There is a way in which the term stakeholder is sometimes used as a conferral of apparent status to mollify people and obscure the functional disregard for others of those who regard themselves as the ‘real’ stakeholders. Terminology is not as important as intent, and any discussion along these lines is more interesting to me in terms of what people trying to leverage social media think of its participants rather than as a definitive commentary on what we really are.

    If you think of those affected by your/your clients’ decisions as having an important stake, you’ll act accordingly, even if you make errors in judgment from time to time. If you think of those affected as a rabble that deserves no more than attempts to buy them off with the occasional dog and pony show, you’ll also act accordingly, and now people have more direct means of publicizing how much that has always ticked them off.

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