Think about your first social media account. Why did you join? The answers change as you move across platforms and through time.

If you joined Facebook in the mid-2000s or Instagram in the early 2010s, your goal was probably to see what your friends were up to. But let’s say you joined later, during the rise of the influencer. Your reasoning might have been to keep up with news or the latest trends, with a side of keeping tabs on people you went to high school with. If you picked up TikTok during the pandemic, you might have been looking for a lockdown diversion—a goal that TikTok recognizes as it brands itself as an “entertainment platform” rather than a social media platform.

What is social media? If brands, creators and audiences are logging in for entirely different reasons, where is the commonality? As platforms and the preferences of those using them change, so too should our working definition.

Are you consuming or communicating?

In the social media world, there’s a lot of talk about audiences and communities. We see these terms interchangeably, but they’re very different.

Think about an audience watching a play. They’re clapping, laughing and crying at the appropriate times—but they’re not part of the show. They may ask questions at the cast Q&A afterward and the actors might adjust their performance based on how it’s being received, but realistically the script doesn’t change based on audience input. The audience is there to be entertained, informed or persuaded, not to join the dialogue.

Now think of a community, like a small town. Everyone has a part to play–the doctor, the grocer, the teacher or the firefighter. All of those parts interact with each other to form a functioning town. If people stop playing their parts, the community stagnates. Everyone is incentivized to connect with each other and those interactions strengthen the community.

Communities and audiences have distinct dynamics. In both scenarios, everyone is connecting with other people–audience members have a shared experience and community members are working together–but they’re doing it in different ways. As the social landscape matures and mimics real-world interactions, platforms are picking up on the different ways users want to join in and are creating features to cater to those needs.

What are you watching?

If an audience is like a theater full of people, the goal is to keep them entertained as long as possible. Audience-centric platforms are constantly creating and refining features to keep users on the app and coming back for more.

Algorithms run the show

Who hasn’t had the experience of seeing a Reel or TikTok video that’s so specific, you start to wonder whether the app has scanned your inner thoughts? That’s the work of the algorithm. This top-down distribution approach is a hallmark of audience-based platforms. When you log in, you don’t necessarily decide what you see, the algorithm does that for you.

Audience-based platforms feed audiences content they’ll theoretically enjoy while fine-tuning the recipe based on their reactions. TikTok is especially skilled at this concept, with a For You page entirely curated by their algorithm.

Creating value with creators

If audience-centered social media is a play, creators are the actors. Creators thrive on audience-based platforms because their goal is to produce content that entertains, informs and persuades. It’s no surprise then that marketers’ top goal when working with creators is to reach new audiences.

Companies like Meta are taking notice. Facebook is shifting its focus from news to creators with a billion-dollar investment in creator functions while Instagram is placing more creator content within its new feed with suggested posts.

Graph of marketer's primary goals

Keeping up with your community

In a small town, people know each other, interact with each other and rely on each other. Community platforms work in the same way, putting the focus on interpersonal relationships. There are few passive observers in a community. Everyone has a role.

Room to grow

Community platforms and features leave space for real conversation. Instead of simply commenting on posts, you’re conversing about topics. A creator or brand marketer might start the conversation, but the community members dictate where it goes. Geneva and Niche are the latest examples of these apps, offering chatroom-esque spaces where people can gather over shared interests. A host might create a specific group or channel, but after they create it, it belongs to everyone.

Screenshot of a chat room in Geneva


Content democracies

A community’s values and priorities unfold organically–there’s no edict dictating what matters most. Community-based platforms are the same way.

While audience-based platforms use algorithms to distribute content to individuals based on their interests, community platforms let users decide what conversations take priority. Reddit’s upvoting system is a prime example of this. Users thumbs up or thumbs down content based on relevance and resonance, with the highest ranking content rising to the top. This system lets communities decide amongst themselves which conversations are worth having and encourages users to engage with their peers.

Aligning with the platform

Brands have known for a while that all platforms aren’t created equal. But as the split between audience and community becomes more distinct, marketers need to more closely align with the platforms and features they use—whether they’re staffing social teams, producing content or measuring success.

Audience-based content should be focused on keeping the audience engaged. This top-down approach to content is more traditional. The brand Tweets, people like and retweet, and the cycle continues. Apps like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook are excellent avenues for top-down content intended to dazzle.

Community-based content is less produced. Brands need to have a strong brand voice, but they can’t be prescriptive. Some brands are flocking to Geneva for focus groups, ambassador programs or general community building while others are creating conversations in existing communities through Ask Me Anything (AMAs) on Reddit. The main thing to remember with community content is that your brand isn’t in charge. It’s a democratic process and you’re just there to get the conversation started.

What’s my motivation?

Social media is and always will be an evolving category. As definitions shift and platforms dig deeper into their niches, marketers have to keep an eye on what’s motivating users to sign onto the service.

By keeping your customer or prospect’s motivation at the forefront of your social media strategy, you’ll always be able to deliver timely, relevant content in a way that speaks to them. The new subcategories of social give brands an opportunity to be more intentional about how and where they show up online, and what success looks like.

Want to know more about what consumers want? Check out the Sprout Social Index™ for the latest on consumer and marketer trends in social.