Understanding Internal vs External Community Building

Photo cred: Amato Luis

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?

Here’s 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 building because they’re connecting people around their brand and vision. This community is tied directly to the company.


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. is a great example.  People can chat within 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?

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About the author

David Spinks, CMXSummit and Lifelong student, community builder and writer.


Brilliant article David - an issue that definitely needs to be highlighted.

I guess whenever we do Community Management we unconsciously do this. Our first point of action when we do an audit of the digital landscape (in order to understand the audience and content) is to assess the current social presence belonging the brand (the internal) and then look for opportunity in unbranded communities (the external). From understanding both, we can properly tailor content and ensure that we create a wide variety of engaging content.

As you suggest, sometimes its best to flip these two communities, and add a little diversity to the content they are used to receiving.


Well done raising the awareness of the distinction between the two types of community. External communities are largely owned by Marketing, often without any connection to customer service or product development. Social Media then only becomes a channel for selling rather than a medium for building customer relationships. The focus is on new customer acquisition rather than customer retention - a failed strategy in today's social world.

Internal communities:

* Give an opportunity for a business to uncover much tacit knowledge and expertise, which in the ordinary organizational structure often goes unrecognized.

* People can gain a reputation for what they know and contribute to the business.

* Can transform how a business takes in and deals with the flow of knowledge and information; no longer just a bunch of static files, but dynamic content energized by conversations and feedback.

* People can work together within groups not bounded by function or location, but based on shared interests to deliver high business value.

* Proper coordination can take place between external facing deliverables like SM Marketing, and link it to the back end of customer support, customer experience, innovation and product development.

* Lead to the transformation of the culture of an organization towards openness and transparency - to become a Social Business.

To answer your question which of the two I find most important, I would say they are both important. But most businesses are proceeding backwards: outside -> in, resulting in no real change within the organization. To truly become a Social Business, the correct approach should be from the inside -> out. Vanessa Maura explains it much better than I -


Fantastic post! I've been struggling lately because I didn't know how to classify my community. I work for Kik, which makes a smartphone communication app, meaning most of the Kik community does not talk to me, the community manager, but they talk to one another privately.

I am definitely working with an internal community! My main goal is to help people who use Kik, who want to make new Kik friends, get in touch with one another. Also, my superusers who really love the app should be rewarded for getting all their friends to use it.

Thanks so much for this David - it has really helped to focus my thinking and understand my role better! Bravo!


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