How should enterprises address Facebook groups, and the reality of algorthimically-driven communities?

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed July 24, 2019
Building community groups on social platforms can be powerful - but you're at the mercy of that platform's algorithms. Here's some tips on how Facebook groups fit into that community mix - now that Facebook is prioritizing them.

Confused business team holding a question mark sign

Meet Jon Reed - enterprise blogger and... Facebook community group administrator. Wait? The same Jon Reed that undermines Facebook almost weekly in Enterprise Hits and Misses? Yep. Vive la contradiction.

I've been a Facebook group admin for all the years diginomica has existed. So why would I bring it to your attention now?

Because over the last year, I've seen a surge in group activity - and visibility inside Facebook. That surge is directly related to Facebook's algorithmic shift from news, where they got themselves into a lot of trouble, to "a place for friends" (cough!). There is also a trend towards more "private" social media that ties in here.

That means groups feature prominently in Facebook's algorithms now, driving group visibility on your behalf. Add the bait-and-switch Facebook pulled by limiting the algorithmic reach of business pages, and it's only natural for businesses to ask:

Are Facebook groups right for us?

Algorithmic communities - a whole new ball game

I'll get to that. But first - even if you have zero interest in Facebook, I believe this topic carries weight. Why?

  • Enterprises are realizing that community is a big/underrated asset that bolsters the repeat business a subscription economy thrives on.
  • It's hard to build a full community solely on your own web site/app. But the communities built on platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook are driven by algorithms beyond our control. If we build out communities on social sites, we must contend with that.

If you build a group on Facebook, you're going to run into one of two problems:

  1. Group memberships never takes off, and interest falters like a wet noodle.
  2. Group membership (and engagement) thrives, posing problems for moderation, group management, and civility.

Businesses have a good likelihood of never facing the second challenge due to lack of critical mass. In some cases, the problem is lack of search traction (I built up my local group by naming it something that I knew Facebook users would be searching for).

But more likely, the membership/engagement culprit will be lack of passion for the topic. There are plenty of articles that advise businesses on avoiding that problem. Obviously with the exception of certain consumer brands, like perhaps Harley Davidson, it's hard to get people excited to join a group to talk about a brand - on Facebook or anywhere.

However you frame your group's topic, it needs to tie into culture your constituents have a stake in (an obvious one would be a hiking gear company that opens up a Facebook group on wilderness hiking).

Facebook group moderation - keeping the algorithm in check

What if you do reach a point of significant group engagement? Then you'll need moderators. There are a range of Facebook group types, from secret to private to public. But whatever you select, it's highly unlikely your group will prosper without some level of moderation.

At minimum, you'll want to establish moderation for membership approvals, to keep out spambots, fakes and trolls. Facebook's group moderation tools are a bizarre mixture of highly sophisticated and rudimentary functionality. When it comes to membership approvals, the functionality is rich, with structured questions you can pose to determine group fit and approve.

My group has a "real names" policy; you must petition the moderators if you want to participate without using the name you use in the real world. I was under the misguided/foolish illusion that the use of real names would prevent the kind of cruelty and lack of civility you see from the anonymous accounts on Twitter. Wrong. It's amazing what people will sign their real names to these days.

That said, in most business groups, you aren't likely to run into true flame wars. Those kinds of things can be moderated away by banning members or deleting posts, according to your posted group rules (e.g. no politics). The much tougher challenge is the grating-but-subtle lack of civility posed by people who are occasionally careless and thoughtless. Lately, it's all about posting animated GIFs that make fun of others and supposedly qualify as discourse.

Example: this GIF of Chris Walken making fun of longer posts is about the most depressing thing I've ever seen online, a romanticization of attention-span deficits and lack of intellectual depth. Yes, you can ban GIFs if you want to risk being that heavy-handed, but the tricky part is the subtle degradation of quality interactions -  because of how easy it is to post a bit of snark from your phone.

This is where the algorithmically-driven aspects of Facebook groups come back to haunt you. Some of the biggest troublemakers in my group are actually awarded badges by Facebook like "conversation starter" because they are the best at riling up others. Meanwhile, Facebook assumes that any post getting tons of comments is, by definition, your most important post, so it will get prioritized in the feed, at the expense of all other posts.

Facebook groups are particularly awful at tracking older activity, and no one bothers to use the mediocre search engine. So it's really the top five or ten posts in the group that get all the visibility. Controversy always goes to the top. One hugely popular post will elbow out others, regardless of its timeliness or merits.

There are a few ways to combat the algorithm. Example: marking a post as an announcement puts it at the top of the stream, blissfully out of reach of Facebook's algo. One of my favorite moderation tactics: after a day or two on a contentious post, our moderators will turn off comments for that post. The post soon loses its algorithmic juice, fading into the feed.

Turning off all comments on a post seems to work better than getting fussy about deleting some comments and not others. Selective comment deletion creates a lack of trust and transparency. Closing the entire comment thread is at least a transparent move, though not all will agree or be happy about it. It's almost impossible to keep track of all the comments as they are being posted, and there is no advance moderation of comments. That can put moderators in awkward positions, as deleting comments after they are posted is not appreciated.

Facebook groups for business - final tips and examples

Personally, I haven't participated in any business groups on Facebook I particularly liked. But I've read about a few:

Because of the variety of Facebook group options, there are a range of creative possibilities for groups, such as select "secret" or private groups for premium subscribers. You could have groups where smaller select groups of customers get special access to certain experts. And yes, some companies use Facebook groups internally, but that's beyond the scope of this article.

It all depends on your business - where the conversations are happening, where your brands intersect with cultural issues where Facebook has traction. But for those who want to make up for lack of visibility on their Facebook Pages, groups may be worth a look. It's a strange feeling to find your content prioritized so aggressively by Facebook, after Pages have been shunned and compelled to advertise for any level of visibility. So Groups, are, in a sense, a bit of a satisfying turnabout play.

A couple final considerations:

  • Facebook groups are kind of circular. Questions will be re-asked, and there's no easy way to resurface the definitive older conversation. So, Facebook Groups aren't a good fit if you are trying to compile a well organized resource center.
  • Obviously, you will never want to depend on Facebook for the heart of your community. You'll still want your own events, email subscriptions, and community interactions on your own site. Facebook Groups has decent analytics, but sharing relevant URLs that bring people back to your site is fair game, as long as it's done with discretion. You can track those URLs for engagement.

This raises the question of how LinkedIn Groups fit into the mix. I'll get to that a bit later this summer.