The Fundamental Difference Between Marketing and Community

94HCommunity Manager is a title that continues to be slapped on a lot of roles. Some of them make more sense than others.

Marketing makes little sense.

I love marketing. I’ve done it. It’s valuable, it’s important and when done right it can be really powerful for your business. But it is not community.

Why do companies insist on calling employees Community Managers when they’re working completely on marketing? Not sure. Maybe it just sounds better to say you’re building a community than to say you’re marketing at someone.

And to be fair, they are helping to build community by building the initial audience that will become a part of the community. You can’t build a customer community without customers!

But the problem is that marketing and community have different goals.

How I Distinguish Marketing and Community

Marketing is how you get them in the door.

Community is their experience once they’re in the door. 

If you’re building community, you’re giving members a sense of belonging and identity. You’re facilitating interactions between them and helping them form relationships. You’re creating an amazing customer experience.

So marketing goals might be:

  • Reach
  • Traffic
  • Signups
  • New customers created
  • Followers
  • Awareness

Community goals look more like:

  • Happiness (NPS)
  • Retention
  • Active users
  • Return customers
  • Referrals
  • Product feedback

Now imagine if you had someone doing marketing but being judged by community goals and metrics. Or the more common mistake of judging a community professional by marketing goals and metrics.

To make matters more difficult, many marketing metrics are possible to track immediately while community metrics can take much longer to truly track and understand. Therefore ROI is easier to show for marketing than it is for community.

Community and Marketing Working Together

Obviously, like any other part of your team, community and marketing are connected. Your brand has a belief, a culture, an identity tied to it. It’s that identity and culture that often drives the culture of the community. It’s what binds members together. Lyft is a great example of a company whose marketing, culture and community are very well aligned.

It’s not community vs marketing in a competition, though it might seem that way sometimes when they compete for resources within a company. Do you focus more on adding more customers or on improving the experience of your existing customers? It’s a question every business has to answer at different points in its lifetime.

Community and marketing can even overlap in a few places…

  • You can find ambassadors from within your community to participate in an ambassador campaign, getting more people in the door
  • Word of Mouth, or referral marketing can be improved by creating a customer community and encouraging them to refer others
  • Your community can contribute content or stories that you can use for marketing
  • Marketing and community can both be used to give people a sense of identity tied to a brand

It’s also true that you can have one person do both marketing and community. For early stage startups with small teams, it’s not uncommon for a single person to take on multiple roles.

What’s important is that you realize they are different roles with different goals and different metrics. Even if it’s one person doing it. Even if you call it Community Management.

I’m excited for the day when I no longer have to have this conversation and write these posts. The good news is I think we’re getting closer. As I see more and more companies hiring for true community roles, it’s clear that companies are starting to get it.

That’s my opinion about the difference between community and marketing. What’s yours? Please, comment below and share if you disagree or agree.

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I couldn't agree more, and I think your use of the word "community" hits its true meaning. In my experience though, we overuse "community" and there's a true risk of thinking that every interaction, or even worst, every shared demographic variable, creates community, which is far from true. Excellent post!


Totally agree. Thumbs up for this great post. Customer Care and Community Management is important. Thanks for writing and sharing it. 


Great post! I think it's something companies struggle with because the concept of "Community" as a separate function from traditional marketing is relatively new, so old structures don't easily fit. It does, however, give us the ability to define the role of the  Community Team differently in each company, so that is a plus.

Mike Chan
Mike Chan

Hi David, while I do agree that marketing and community are different, I think the best companies really integrate these roles to give the customer a seamless experience and avoid a blatant handoff from one department to the other. The fundamentals of both marketing and community are similar - understand your customer, serve their needs and give them ways to connect with your brand.


The sad truth is that it's easier to justify marketing, PR, and advertising spend than community spend in most companies. And even those three things are really hard to justify to most traditional business leaders! They want to know where each dollar is going and what it gets them in return. Community is such a new thing to so many people (we're building things FOR people!? We're making their lives better? Aren't we supposed to be selling things AT them!?) that this conversation will be happening for a long time to come. There's nothing wrong with that. 

But if you live and breathe community and understand its importance in today's chaotic, noisy world, be absolutely sure that any company you work for does as well. Or go build something of your own. ;)


I've found SO many big brands, especially consumer brands, stop just short of building community through their marketing endeavors. Great post David. 

DavidSpinks moderator

@Mike Chan "understand your customer, serve their needs and give them ways to connect with your brand." I agreed with everything except that last part. Community is about connecting people with people. Your brand is just the facilitator. 

But you're right they should be integrated, the same way product and marketing and support and PR and HR should be integrated. They're all unique, but connected pieces of a complete experience.

DavidSpinks moderator

@carriemejones I think PR can be hard to justify too which is why sometimes I compare the two. You may not be able to track the value of awareness from PR but you know it's good. 

About building things for people, that is a great mentality, but also not necessarily realistic for companies that have to make money in order to survive. They do need to know that the things they're spending time on will keep money coming in or they won't be around long enough to making people's lives better. 

So the question will remain, does community actually increase revenue, retention, loyalty, etc.? Does it create more word of mouth? Does it accomplish business goals?

Mike Chan
Mike Chan

@DavidSpinks Great point, and you're right. The brand takes a back seat and helps facilitate relationships between the community members.