Communities and constituencies

I’ve had cause just recently to consider in more detail the way that we think about communities, and how we misuse that term to describe groups of people who aren’t actually a community at all.

Last year at Blogtalk, I was having a chat with a friend about how she had a new client who wanted to start some blogs – so far so good – to service their community. The client was a magazine and their mistake was thinking that because they have readers, they have a community. I’m sure there are a gazillion definitions of ‘community’ out there, but it’s clear to me what a community is not: a group of people with no social relationships between each other who have just the reading of a magazine in common does not a community make. The same way that, in cities like London, it is easy to live in a place for years and never become a part of the local community.

To my mind, communities are groups of people bonded by social interactions, which will probably be initiated by and revolve around some sort of shared purpose, activity, value, interest or location. The Open Rights Group, for example, has a mailing list which forms the hub of its online community. Brought together by a shared interest in digital rights, people talk about the issues, exchange views, debate, help each other out, help ORG out, and generally interact in a positive manner. People know each other – either online, or on- and offline – and have formed social relationships, whether weak, strong, or intermediate.

There is, of course, a wider community than that formed by the discussion list. There are people who read the blog and interact via the comments, or who come to ORG events and socialise, but who aren’t on the discussion list. In some cases, their ties to ORG are stronger than their ties to each other, but small subsets of people who know each other well also exist because of some other shared context, e.g. another mailing list or working on the same issue. Others will come to know each via their comments on ORG’s blog as well as posts and comments on their own blogs. Overall, this is a loosely-joined group of people, some of whom will become more involved with ORG, some less so.

Finally, I see a third and very much bigger group, ORG’s constituency – people who may or may not be aware of ORG, are not in touch with either ORG or other ORG supporters, but who are still interested in the issues.


The challenge for ORG – and every other non-profit or artist or business that wants to build communities – is how you move people from sitting quietly by themselves in the outer constituency circle through to the central core community. How do you increase engagement, from the passive constituency to the active core community? Whether, like ORG, you need to find people who are going to support your non-profit with donations and voluntary action, or whether you are trying to find new fans or sell your product, moving people along that big red arrow is the hardest thing on your To Do list. Theoretically, it’s all very simple; in practice, not so much.

The first step, and the one I see people stumbling over most often, is to understand who is in your core community, who’s in your loosely-joined community, and who’s in your constituency. If you don’t get this clear, confusing your constituency with your community, then everything that comes after will be built on quicksand. This is a mistake I’ve made in the past, and it’s one I see other people making too. If you don’t understand who your constituency are, and where they are, then you can’t put together effective strategies to communicate with them.

One starting point is to look firstly at the community you do have. What type of people are they? What do they do for a living? For fun? Where do they live? Where do they hang out online?

Then look for communities that overlap yours. What communities do you have something in common with? Something ideological? Practical? Financial? Commercial? Who else is doing something similar to what you do?

Finally, look for communities that don’t overlap yours, but which could if only the people there knew about you.


When you’ve identified these different groups of people, you can start to then think about how you communicate with them. And that’s a whole nother blog post.

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