Sometimes you stumble into a debate you aren't even looking for. Right after I published How should enterprises address Facebook groups, and the reality of algorithmically-driven communities?, B2B social media smarty Betsy Hindman pointed me to a contrasting post: Social Media Examiner's Beware of Facebook Groups. Long Live Communities! by Michael Stelzner, Founder and CEO.
Yes, I've got issues. Before we go there, my original post was not an enthusiastic endorsement of Facebook Groups for all enterprises. Rather it was:
Communities must reckon with the algorithmic priorities of the sites they are hosted on.
The local community group I run on Facebook has received huge traction in the last year, thanks to Facebook's algorithmic shift from news to "a place for friends." (Yuck). That led me to ask whether:
Instead of fighting against the algorithmic wind with Pages, whether a Group approach might make more sense.
Communities are in the hub and spoke era
My disagreement with Stelzner is admittedly a tad contrived. After all, I agree with his fundamental view:
I believe communities are essential for businesses.
Where I think we may differ is this:
I believe only a small fraction of brands have enough brand passion to dictate where their communities should congregate.
The vast majority, therefore, should "go where their communities are" rather than force fit them elsewhere. And, for most brands, that means a "hub and spoke" model, with the hub being their own site (I originally picked up this concept from Hubspot).
In this model, the spokes include third party sites out of your direct control (spokes can include email lists under your own management, which are obviously preferable to building colonies on sites like Facebook you don't own or control). For most enterprise communities, it's hard to do without spokes entirely. I think Facebook Groups deserve consideration as a so-called community spoke - and the debate is joined.
Facebook Pages - the burn is still fresh
Stelzner begins with a walk down memory lane of Facebook's notorious bait-and-switch on Facebook business pages - pages which are now buried deeply in Facebook's algorithm.
Yes, brands squandered ridiculous amounts of money building up Page "likes". (There is, however, some continued modest value in those "likes" for Facebook advertising today - IF the Page "likes" were built with demographic accuracy, and not bought in foolish bundles as some businesses unwisely did). Stelzner writes:
Businesses were beginning to question if they could trust Facebook with their future.
I guess that's true - but it's really hard for me to relate to. It was always a "use/use" relationship in my book. Trust never even entered the equation - and it still doesn't. As for Pages:
Facebook continued to reduce post reach. Today, it’s a tiny blip of what it once was.
Page "likes" aren't what they used to be for Social Media Examiner either:
One thing we know for sure is this: Most of our fans will NEVER see any of our posts (unless we’re willing to pay for reach).
True. But what does that have to do with Facebook Groups? Stelzner walks us through four reasons why Facebook is now emphasizing Groups, all of which ring true, including:
- Facebook losing grip on the younger generation,
- Facebook is in need of more hyper-local data suction from its users.
I'd add to Stelzner's list: the hot water "news" got Facebook into. Going forward, Facebook wants to have a "friend feed," not a "news feed," so regulators don't hold them responsible as a news media organization (which they are, but anyhow).
Facebook Groups - why now?
Stelzner's "exploration" of groups kind of ends before it starts. He's already decided:
"Marketer: Beware of Facebook Groups"
Stelzner asks: If Facebook cares so much about groups, why did they kill the groups app in 2017?
I don't have an answer to that one. Good point by Stelzner there. He goes on:
My guess is that most people likely see group posts ONLY as they scroll the news feed.
That means your groups posts compete directly with ads and personal updates.
That's true to some extent. However, it's fairly easy for users to request notifications of all group activity, and they are notified by default with pings every time a fellow group member mentions or tags them (unless they have customized their privacy settings, deep in the bowels of Facebook somewhere).
Stelzner's argument on Pages turns on him here. Even if users only see group activity in their news feed - that's more visibility than most posts from Pages ever get. I judge the viability of Groups by two things:
- I've seen how much traffic and attention my eight year old local group has received in the last year. Facebook is definitely pushing my group's content differently.
- There's no question Facebook is re-emphasizing "friends" and network engagement over news. It seems logical "Groups" would get lifted algorithmically as well. There is almost no chance Facebook will pivot back to news.
Stelzner concedes an interesting point:
It’s true that Facebook groups are becoming very robust and powerful for admins.
Yes and no. I wrote about how being a Facebook Group admin is a bizarre mix of powerful and rudimentary tools. On the rudimentary side, if a flame war breaks out in a comment section, I have no way of knowing that - without personally checking each thread. Facebook awards cheesy "participation badges" to my group members I don't appear to be able to control. Often, some of the most problematic members in my group get badges like "conversation starter" - honors I'd never award them myself. Other valuable group contributors get no recognition or badges.
More importantly, I have almost no control over the algorithmic decisions Facebook makes on what group content gets displayed on top - though in my piece, I shared a few tips to shoehorn a bit of control.
Algorithmic risk is unavoidable - and not specific to any one platform
Stelzner circles back to his Pages argument:
Q2: Will Facebook do to groups what it did to Facebook pages?
Think about your Facebook page. Now look into the future and ask yourself, "Will this also happen to Facebook groups?"
It's a valid question, and yes, it could happen. The problem with Stelzner's question is this: we can't avoid algorithm risk in our businesses. All we can do is mitigate for it, and play one algo against another. Google could downgrade our site in their algorithm - are we giving up our investment in search engine optimization? LinkedIn could downgrade the visibility of our blog posts, or our company's posts. iTunes could change the search visibility of our podcast. Amazon could downgrade our e-book rankings. Algorithmic risk is a constant.
The monetization of Pages and downgrading of organic Page posts was an inevitability. Forcing groups to monetize is a different animal. For example, your group doesn't have to be tied to your Page at all. A company employee could start a group with only a loose affiliation.
It's hard to imagine Facebook attempting to diminish community groups with no formal ties to Pages, as long as those groups have heavy engagement (a Page can have its own Facebook group, but there's no rule you have to do it that way). Facebook would rather charge advertisers to appear in a highly relevant, localized group setting. And, as far as I know, there is no way to squander money buying community group members as many businesses did on Pages.
Stelzner contends this is another way for us to do the heavy lifting for Facebook - in this case, building up their hyper-local data. Yep, he's right. That's why the use/use equation is so important. Anytime we participate on these networks, we are doing their heavy lifting for them. Our personal and business return must match up.
Facebook Groups - are there alternatives?
So if you're down on Facebook Groups, then what's the alternative? Stelzner doesn't have really have a winner for us just yet. He's down on LinkedIn Groups also:
Outside of Facebook, the only other major social platform that offers groups is LinkedIn. And frankly, those groups are a pale shadow of what they once were.
I think that's true in general. But there are some LinkedIn Groups thriving under skilled moderation (I'm going to write about that). And LinkedIn Groups offer some distinct advantages as well, e.g. some level of email push, which Facebook doesn't do.
LinkedIn is constantly toying with its algorithm also. So I'd say Stelzner's warning applies just as much to LinkedIn.
What is Social Media Examiner going to do then? He says they are exploring community options, including Slack and Mighty Networks. I used to be enthusiastic about Slack for community; I'm less so now after giving it a go.
The question is less about what community platform you'd like to have. The question is:
What platform do your constituents hang out on, and can you facilitate/spark conversations there?
You might think Slack is peachy, but if your community of business users has no experience with developer-friendly Slack, have fun with that. With any such experiments, you start gradually - bumping up investment where you see traction.
It will be good to see what Social Media Examiner comes up with; we can certainly use new community models and options. One thing they do have going for them is: engagement in their blog comments. Many sites struggle to get blog comments now; others have even closed comments due to civility issues.
It strikes me Social Media Examiner has a pretty vibrant community, still sparked by their blog comments - 148 and counting on this post alone. That might be more powerful than any other discussion forum they might add. Maybe Social Media Examiner doesn't have a community problem at all.
Most brands find it harder and harder to get users to congregate and network on their own site. But they shouldn't give up on that quest. I know some local businesses that only live on Facebook, without their own web site. To me, that's an intolerable risk. Facebook should never be more than a spoke.
There's a different argument for not participating on Facebook, via Groups or any other means. That's the argument that Facebook poses a particular/ongoing risk to societal well-being and data privacy - beyond the level of the other FAANG companies. That's not the argument Stelzner is making - they put on their own Facebook Ads event for marketers - but you could make it. I'm not sure I'd agree, but it would be a challenging argument to rebut.
I don't think Facebook's algorithms pose any more risk than any other social platform we might build a community on. All the social giants run on continually adjusted, amoral algorithms, driven by engagement as a whole - not by our brand's needs. They are all figuring out ways to get brands to pay to be visible where engagement is highest. That usually comes with downgrades in organic reach. Singling out Facebook for this doesn't make sense to me.
The biggest risk of developing communities on Facebook is not that the algorithm will shift. It's that you're spending time cultivating connections - without building up your own data. The way you manage an external group matters greatly: you want to keep earning folks onto email lists and into sign-up events, where they willingly share data with you directly. That's why Facebook Groups should never be more than a spoke.
Whether Facebook Groups deserves to be that spoke - that's a company-specific decision (I get into that a bit more in my prior piece). I don't agree that Groups should be avoided because some companies got burned by the Facebook Pages rope-a-dope. As for algorithmic uncertainty and lack of trust in the content aggregators - well, that's the only constant.