Can you own your community or do the big social networks own it all?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy April 22, 2015
As Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn increasingly focus on their ad based business model, are these the long term places where communities can flourish?

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(© Arpad Nagy-Bagoly - Adobe Stock)
Gail Moody, who is Digital Governance Center of Exellence Lead for SAP triggered an interesting debate on Facebook (sic) around the topic of community technology. Her starting point is a story from Rachel Happe titled: Facebook Pages and How Social Networks Lost Their Way. Rachel makes the point that:

I have long thought that Facebook has been on a slippery path, because while it revolutionized the communications and engagement model from a linear transaction to a networked flow, Facebook’s founders built a traditional, transactional business model (advertising based) on top of it. Those two things are in fundamental conflict because the way value is created does not match the way revenue is generated.

That conflict is starting to come to a head – Facebook Pages no longer generate much organic reach through engagement and the latest changes to the Facebook news feed algorithm make it even worse. You have to pay to play. The irony in all of this is that it all stems from the fact that they made engagement too easy...

...we think owning your own social experience by creating communities is the only way to really protect yourself from the vicissitudes of social networks – and it will feel a lot more like social media did before the big players had to figure out a business model.

Reading through the long comment thread, strong opinions emerge about Jive - one of the more well known community toolsets - but there is no clear answer to Gail's question. Before making these choices, it's useful to review where we're at with community engagement, a vitally important component that determines community success.

Our observations show that external conversations around topics that matter are falling into three buckets: Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

We see for instance that most of our shared traffic comes via Twitter and very little from Facebook. But we see far more by way of engagement on LinkedIn than any other network. On some topics, LinkedIn is the de facto location for topic discussions. Twitter's 140 character limitation leaves little room for much more than a reTweet and a few words. We have recently seen an encouraging and significant uptick in conversations on Facebook.

The problem, and especially on Facebook, is that these conversations often get lost after 24/48 hours because they become part of the newsfeed rather than getting corralled into a group. This is something we are noodling over.

On LinkedIn, we post excerpts to personal accounts and interest groups. Again, unless we actively track what's happening in those groups then we are reliant upon alert mechanisms to advise us about what's going on. In that case we lose a degree of immediacy.

Some of the Facebook groups and certain of the LinkedIn groups are closed in the sense of being invite only and are actively curated and managed. This is far from trivial but from what I can see, leads to a high quality of conversation.

As Rachel says, these networks and Facebook in particular, have made it very easy to create those types of 'community' but we do so at the expense of being bombarded with ads - the very antithesis of what you likely want in a community. Adding to what she says, I'd argue that it is far easier for people to flip between the content they care about in a single environment than it is to flip between different tabs and traverse comment systems on a web browser. Convenience wins. But is this the right approach for building a sustainable community?

Esteban Kolsky recently said in commentary about the Get Satisfaction acquisition:

Communities are (should’ve been) the only reason we started social networks and why social matters to organizations.  And they are the (renewable) power source for business transformation going forward.  Communities is something you, Mr/s. business person, should care about deeply – and yet, more than 85% of “youz” don’t...

...If you are interested in forums and structured communities you still don’t get the concept of communities for business.  This is not your grandpa communities – that was just more “training wheels” stuff.  This is about providing an infrastructure and let interested parties build and power communities.

At one level I'm not going to disagree with Esteban. He has the history to prove the point and the big networks are living proof of at least some truth in that argument. But then the technology choice decision that flows from that depends on the purpose for which the community is designed to serve.

In our case, we see a clear need for a community built upon the notion that it provides a safe haven for discussing difficult topics or expanding upon topics already in the public domain, the amplification of which would be hard without the safety net a closed community can provide. The upside is that when carefully curated and nurtured, the community takes on the 'feel' of that intimate dinner party everyone enjoys.

Put another way, if you're the lead on something that's stressed and are struggling for answers then the last thing you'll likely wish to do is trumpet that to the world - even if that might elicit a fast response. Admittedly, our use case is restricted to the business-to-business scenario rather than of the business-to-consumer but it serves to illustrate that community as a topic is far from one size fits all.

Back to the tools and the Facebook discussion. Anne Petteroe made the astute observation:

Problem with owned communities is the underlying software feels old and outdated fast. Upgrades and introducing new functionality has felt more like SAP projects than anything. Many of the community platforms were for instance super slow to adapt to mobility.

That's true. The problem there is that once you make your choice, retrofitting or replatforming is difficult. It is therefore no surprise to see brands default to what they can get that doesn't involve building a solution. Even if they end up paying in other ways.

Image credit: Businessman using modern social networking interface on virtual screen - © Arpad Nagy-Bagoly -

Disclosure: SAP is a premier partner at time of writing

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