The general public may not be all that clear on the difference between social media and online communities. Although a huge number of real communities have been created on social media, we generally would not recommend using social media if the option of a proprietary social platform is also available. But the new Facebook groups may change all this.

Drawbacks of social media

The key question organizations should ask themselves is whether they should invest in a custom platform or use social media. Both objectives and functionality can vary wildly. Broadly speaking, social media are aimed at keeping in touch with people you already know. Groups are an exception to this, but they are not the core functionality. Online communities are however much more focussed on getting to know new people. If you send a stranger a friend request on Facebook, it will likely be received sceptically. In an online community it is much more normal to approach or invite a stranger. What brings people together in a community is not an existing relationship but a shared interest, passion, value or goal. Michael Wu of Lithium does a great job describing this.

Social media’s functionality is built on the principle that birds of a feather stick together. Facebook’s algorithm is for instance set to show you content that you’re most likely to comment on or like. This is the so-called filter bubble: eventually you’ll only see news and information which conforms to your worldview. Any challenging dialogue which may lead to new insights is in danger of being snowed under. This scenario should be prevented if your goal is to create an online community driven by cross-pollination of opinions and ideas.

Another fundamental functional difference between social media and online communities is ownership of data. When an organization runs a Facebook or LinkedIn group, the data stay within these groups. Because of this, they risk losing all the knowledge accumulated in the community from one day to the next. There are no options for connecting to a customer database. This makes it more difficult to trace customer insights back to individuals or groups. When using your own platform, these data are readily available. They can be stored on one of the servers, or access is contractually agreed.

Advantages of social media

Using social media to facilitate communities also has many advantages. The main advantage is that your target group is already where you want them to be. Almost everybody is active on social media, from the young to the old and from the smallest to the biggest organizations. Because people are already immersed in Facebook (research has shown that people log in about twenty times a day on average), a new Facebook group will be adopted much more quickly and by a much larger number of people than a new platform. On top of this, users already know exactly which buttons to push, so to speak, whereas this will all be new and unfamiliar on a new platform.

Another advantage is that you’re getting a lot for a little. There are of course costs associated with management and content, but the platform itself is free to use, which poses a risk in and of itself – consider for example the fate of LinkedIn groups. Unchecked proliferation of groups without management has resulted in a veritable graveyard of promotional content. However, for organizations on limited budgets the money aspect tends to be a deciding factor. This is why we often use Facebook and LinkedIn groups to test community concepts. It’s an inexpensive way of finding out whether a community will catch on.

And now: new Facebook groups!

It has been an open secret for a while now that Facebook has its sights set on dominating the online community market. The first steps in this direction were made a year ago with the launch of Workplace by Facebook, their answer to services such as Yammer and Slack. Workplace is intended specifically for Enterprise Social Networking (social platform for employees). It appears that Facebook was only getting started. Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook has even changed its mission statement to ‘give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.’

What this means in real terms is that the Facebook groups in particular (which are already home to many fully and partially formed communities) will receive a major overhaul. This is very good news. In the coming months Facebook will roll out functionality which will enable:

  • Posts to be scheduled
  • Admins to see who is active and what they are doing
  • Admins to remove members and their content at the push of a button
  • Admins to admit new members in bulk on the basis of location, gender or interest
  • Groups to be linked to other groups (for instance for sub-communities).

Great developments which unfortunately will not make our jobs any easier, since this update will substantially increase the appeal of Facebook for online communities and management thereof. At the same time, the risk of loss of control over the data remains unchanged. This made me wonder what other people think about all this, so I started a poll on Twitter. It seems that the majority of people there would currently avoid using Facebook for online communities. What do you think?

Whatever the case may be, we at Bind will be following this development very closely. What I really hope is that Facebook will consider a more flexible policy regarding user data from groups. Maybe in a future update?


Peter Staal

Community Building Consultant at Bind