What's The Difference Between Internal vs External Community Building?

by David Spinks on Aug 08, 2011
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Originally published at TheCommunityManager.com

A very important distinction for a community builder (or someone looking to hire one) to make is whether they’re focused on building internal communities or external communities.

The way I see it, you can build an internal community within your existing userbase, customers or audience.


You can build external communities which aren’t part of your internal audience.

Still confused?

A simple example

Say there is a company that sells sports equipment.  There are two ways they can approach community management.

  1. They can work to connect their customers with each other online and offline through their online platforms and by hosting live events offline.  This is internal community buildingbecause they’re connecting people around their brand and vision. This community is tied directly to the company.OR
  2. They can build existing communities.  Perhaps they can host a weekly happy hour for sports fans, or create a fan page for recreational athletes.  This is external community building because they’re connecting people through a common interest, not the brand. This community is loosely tied to the company, but really focused on a common interest.

Internal and external communities are both valuable.

Internal communities are valuable because

  1. A strong internal community is your support system.  It’s a group of people who believe in your brand, and will defend you.
  2. Your community members can drive their own networks to your community, resulting in more customers or users.
  3. You can call on your internal community members for feedback on your product, testimonials and ideas.

Internal communities can be built into your product in some circumstances, if your product includes a conversation platform.

Turntable.fm is a great example.  People can chat within turntable.fm and so users can connect and interact with each other.  When you create the right dynamic within your product, internal communities develop on their own.

Twitter is another good example.  Conversations take place within the twitter platform, so internal user communities develop on their own.

External communities are valuable because

  1. You can create awareness and leads.  In the case of the example I gave before about a sports equipment company, by connecting people with each other through their love for sports, those people will relate that back to the company because the company facilitated the relationships.  They’ll then become more aware and confident in the brand.
  2. You can learn a lot.  Sometimes it’s really important to get feedback from people who haven’t already used your product.  You can pick up on trends, and identify new opportunities by talking to people in external communities.
  3. They’re less work to maintain.  Really, if you’ve done a good job, the community will be self-sustainable.  The community members will drive discussions, and bring their own networks into the community.

You can also engage with existing external communities instead of building them from scratch.

There could always be overlap. The people in these external communities may also be part of your internal community.  The goal is really to convert external community members who are loosely tied to your brand into internal community members, who are closely tied to your brand.

With external communities you don’t want to inject your brand into it too much.  You don’t want to be forceful.  Build the community around a common interest, and because it was your brand that brought those people together, they will naturally relate the experience back to your brand.

With internal communities, the people are already connected to your brand, so focus on enhancing that relationship.  Make the power users and best customers feel special.  If you do this properly, they’ll help you build your community further.

Are you building an internal community or an external community?  Which one do you think is more important?


Photo cred: Amato Luis


Post Author

David Spinks is the CEO of LetsFeast.com and TheCommunityManager.com....

  • Whoa, this is confusing, since “internal community” typically means employee-facing networks when you’re speaking to individuals/organizations who are focused on using social both inside and outside their firewall. Nevertheless, great information!

  • Completely agree @twitter-14157732:disqus . That is what I was expecting when I first read @DavidSpinks:twitter ‘s article. I like what he is saying, so we published it. Maybe there are better terms for it. 

    Either way, great point from David. I don’t think most companies think about this dynamic.

  • Yea I realized that after I posted it too lol.  There isn’t really a term that exists to distinguish between these types of community efforts though.  Maybe we have to make one up.  Either way, thanks for the feedback.

  • hey Dave, great concept for sure! Term wise is a bit of a bugger, we refer to your “internal community” as “Brand Centric Communities” and “External Communities” as “Social Communities” 

    Overall though was a great read! Thanks.  

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