What can marketers do about private communities?

Profile picture for user barb.mosher By Barb Mosher Zinck October 1, 2019
Modern marketers like to measure data - and analyze their progress. The growth of private communities puts marketers in a "dark data" dilemma. But are private communities worth pursuing regardless?

Confused business team holding a question mark sign

A new research paper from Trust Insights looks at trends in social media to help marketers figure out where to spend their budget and effort. The report, Social Networks 2020, points to the growth of what Trust Insights calls “velvet rope communities,” also known as “dark social,” or private communities.

People are increasingly spending more time in private communities like Slack and Discord (a gaming community), making it harder for marketers to reach them and track the information and links they share.

Dark social has been around for a long time

It’s not new. Dark social is more than private communities. It’s all the ways a consumer can share information that a marketer can’t track. Email, text message, messaging apps, private communities, and so on.

There are ways to indirectly figure out how much of a website’s traffic comes from dark social to some degree; it’s the rise of these private communities that may challenge marketers the most.

To understand better how marketers can deal with private communities, I reached out to Christopher Penn, Co-Founder, and Chief Data Scientist at Trust Insights, to dig a little deeper into this challenge.

The first thing I wanted to know is if brands in the B2B space should shift more of their focus and social marketing budget from public social networks to private communities. It seems to me that private communities could be extremely popular in the B2B space where people are constantly looking for peers who share common interests and work responsibilities and are more open to helping each other without the fear of everything they say becoming public knowledge. This could include researching the purchase of new products. Penn told me:

It depends on what brands are getting out of their public social networks. If they are doing extremely well, if they are seeing great results and the lowest possible cost for acquisition from public social media, they should continue doing it. On the other hand, if they start to see their cost per acquisition, or their return on investment declining below that other channels like email, Pay Per Click Search, etc., then they may want to do that pivot to the private communities.

Penn pointed out that for the most part, private communities are not a replacement for public social networks, and they aren’t typically about acquiring customers. Unless, of course, the brand doesn’t own the community. I recently joined a new private community for podcasting from Casted.us, a new podcast hosting service. Now Casted owns the community, but if I were a brand trying to find podcast guests or influencers in the podcasting industry or wanted to promote my podcast, or I wanted podcasters to move to my hosting service, I would want to get involved in this community. In this case, Penn points out you would need an acquisition strategy.

So how does a marketer find the private communities they need to get involved with? The simple answer is, you have to ask.

You need to ask around to people who are knowledgeable in your space, your subject matter experts, your employees, etc. to determine where they spend their time. You can also do some level of search, particularly for Slack instances that have URLs that are easily found, like, you know, analytics for marketers, as an example. But your best bet is going to be asking your customers, asking your subject matter experts, asking your employees, where do you spend time in gated communities that are hidden from public social media?

The shift from influencer to ambassador

The Trust Insights report talks about this idea of shifting from working with influencers to working with ambassadors.

Influencers, as we understand them now, largely, are people with big audiences and big mouth, Right? They talk a lot, they share a lot. They are in the public eye, they have good levels of engagement. But as public social media continues to encounter issues and decline in some senses, as trust erodes, particularly in the Facebook ecosystem, more people want to move to those private communities, Slack, Discord, LinkedIn groups, etc. And, in order to get into those communities, one of the things that we have to do is find people who can invite us in.

Penn said that it’s possible the influencers you work with are already involved in private communities that you might want to be a part of, and you’d look to the influencer to introduce you.

What about your employees? Many companies have programs where they encourage and even expect their employees to be active on social media to help promote the brand, whether that’s by providing related thought leadership or promoting the brand in some way. It’s easy to track what employees are doing in social media to know that the time you give them to do this is used appropriately and making a difference.

But when you put an employee into a private community with the idea that they are advocating on behalf our your company, how do you track the performance of those efforts? Penn said that it isn’t relevant to measure performance in this case, because what you want is your employees to help you identify the communities where you need to focus. In some cases, Penn said if it’s a community that is closely related professionally, you might want your employee to vouch for you:

Now, if an employee wants to be an ambassador, they proactively identify like, yes, I want to represent the company in this community, then you can certainly look at things like making sure they have just minimum process standards more than anythingelse; like companies have had for a very long time, like Social Media policies and those would be something that would extend to private communities. And, if they are representing the company in an official capacity in a community, then you'd want to have process-based metrics, like, are you participating in a certain number of discussions per week, etc. But, that is only if they are acting in an official capacity, with oversight from their manager, etc.

Why are private communities seeing more success today?

Private, branded communities have been around for a while, and they have been successful for some brands and not so much for others over the years. What's different now that these types of communities are finding more success. Are there certain things a brand should do to ensure their success?

Yes, build your own community has been successful for some and not so much for others, largely because brands have this idea that they must own and control everything. And when a brand sets up its own private community with a completely closed ecosystem that's not built on a platform that users are using, of course, adoption is going to be slow. You know, come join our web forum that five people visit a year. That's not a recipe for success. What's different is that as social media itself matures, and splinters into these private communities and the users go with it, the opportunity is there for brands to build communities in places where users already are.

Penn points to the rise of Slack private communities. Anyone can build a private community on Slack and invite people to join. And because Slack is probably the most popular messaging tool today, just about everyone has it on their desktop or their phone. So Penn said that asking someone to add a new Slack instance is pretty easy and requires little effort by the user.

Think about how many apps you have installed and then uninstalled on your phone over the years. Right? Do you really want another app? The answer is probably no. But if you are leveraging the fact that somebody probably already has Discord installed, or has Slack installed, you're rowing with the audience, you're going in the same direction the audience is going in, you're not asking them to do anything that they aren't already doing and that they aren't already familiar with. So that's what's different in the second round.

My take

With all the privacy issues happening now with Facebook and the growing acknowledgment that brands don’t own their communities when they build them on public social networks, it’s easy to see why many are looking to private communities.

I follow plenty of brands on Twitter and LinkedIn, but I share very little. I’m more open to the idea of sharing and asking questions in a private community where I know that like-minded people are working on the same things and have experiences they are willing to share.

Technology has made it easier for brands to build their own private communities, and that’s great. But the bigger question is the strategy behind the purpose of that community and how you maintain and grow it. That’s where many brands need to rethink the old way of doing a community to create something customers, and prospects want to be a part of.