How-to Guide

How Social Communities and Social Networks Differ

The terms “social communities” and “social networks” have been around long before the days of Facebook. Believe it or not, the first usage of “social network” predates the invention of the Internet by well over a century.1

We often hear these buzzwords used interchangeably, but they are actually two unique types of social media. Understanding what makes them different and how they relate to each other is critical to a successful social media strategy.

Without communities, social networks are merely glorified contact lists.
Michael Wu, Ph.D., Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics

Social Networks

Everyone has their own social network composed of friends, families, and people he or she is acquainted with both online and offline. An online social networking site merely makes our social networks visible to others who are not in our immediate network. The features that distinguish a social network from a community are that people are held together by pre-established personal relationships, and the connections are built one at a time. Think about your own social network and how sites like Facebook mirror that set of connections. Your Facebook “friends” are usually a combination of family members, classmates, neighbors and coworkers.


Social Communities

Unlike social networks, communities usually consist of people from all walks of life who seem to have no relationship at all. The glue that holds community members together is a common interest such as a hobby, profession, location, or cause. For example:


Building a Thriving Community United by Shared Purpose

What does the relationship between social networks and social communities have to do with your social media marketing strategy? Bottom line, successful social networks must have some form of community for their members to interact and build their relationships. Without communities, social networks are merely glorified phonebooks and contact lists.2

The combination of frequent engagement, deep interaction, and time spent together is what builds strong relationships within communities. – Michael Wu, Ph.D., Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics

2017 Lithy Digital All-Star FitBit fosters a community with a strong sense of purpose. The Fitbit Community Team formed in 2013 with the mission of providing users accurate information, timely inspiration, and a complete support experience. Members are united in a shared desire to reach their health and fitness goals.

The deeper you commit to exploring and defining your community’s shared purpose, the better the chances are that your members will reveal personal stories that invite participation and create shared experiences. It is within these shared experiences that purposeful connections between the brand and consumers can take shape.

Shared purpose is the bridge between the brand promise and brand purpose; ultimately it is what the brand and customer aspire to create together.

Without shared purpose, brands run the risk of falling into bad habits, such as thinking of their community members as an audience or users—implying that they are passive viewers instead of engaged participants. Shared purpose creates the space for people to define, create and share their stories through the acquisition and application of your brand's products and services. It’s time to stop thinking of your customers merely as “fans” or “followers” of your social network accounts. Instead, strive to nurture social communities where people interact and transact with your brand in meaningful and immersive ways.

To discover and define the shared purposed of your social communities, ask yourself these five questions.


1 Merriam-Webster - "Definition of Social Network"

2 Lithium Community - "From Weak Ties to Strong Ties: Community vs. Social Networks 3"

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