Facebook groups are NOT communities, and you are not necessarily a community manager.

With all the recent hype about communities, it is no surprise that Facebook picked up on the hottest buzzword and decided to declare itself “community oriented” and call their groups “communities”.

It is also no surprise, that they did this hand in hand with adding “community tools” (read: business and advertising tools) to their groups, in preparation for making them a business channel — for Facebook, that is — by allowing advertising on and to groups.

What followed was also to be expected, and that is that many people who created and managed groups on Facebook, suddenly had an epiphany and started calling themselves “community managers”.

So, we now have a community program, thousands of community managers and a lot of communities. Fun, right? Not so much, no.

As a community manager and a Brand communities advisor, who’s been developing communities for business, social and other purposes for more than 13 years, I believe there are a few key facts people are missing, and before you celebrate your new found glory (if you happen to be a group admin on Facebook), or run out to open a group for your business (if you are a brand), I’d like you to pause, read the following, think and hopefully save yourself a lot of agony, time and money.

First, let’s get some things straight:

Let’s break a few myths

1. The recent changes to the Facebook algorithm, whereby exposure of pages declined even more and the feed favors friends and groups — is not random. Someone understood that a terrible imbalance was created with pages advertising and taking over the feed. At the same time, Facebook noticed the rise of more and more groups (especially with the marketplace additions) and realized that they need to make a change, at least on paper, to make users think they are backing away from their “payment first” approach, which so many people have been complaining about. But you didn’t really think for a moment that Facebook will take financial loses, did you? If you think that groups are really aimed at “connecting people” (sorry Facebook, but Nokia did that long before you), you are naïve. There have been talks of advertising in and to groups for ages, and people already receive ads inside groups, even before the recent changes. Now, with the added insights and the favorability of groups in the newsfeed, it should be very clear, even to the untrained eye, that Facebook is simply creating a new revenue stream for itself. They just gave it a fancier name.

2. Anyone who has developed and managed even just one real community in their life, knows full well that there are multiple channels for communities and that, because a community is much more than a group of random people in the same place, the channel has to suite the engagement strategy and the communication format that is best for the community. In other words, Facebook groups are just a channel, one of many, and probably not even the best one at that. Real communities (you know, the ones that connect real people, pun intended), are never only “virtual” or online. They may communicate online by digital means, but the connections and communications seep into the real world very fast. So the channel matters. A LOT.

3. Continuing the thought in the previous section, looking at Facebook groups, they are probably the worst community channel out there. A basic requirement in an online channel is the ability to create group as well as one-on-one discussions, the option to store and search information and the option to create different discussion streams inside the same community. Not only do Facebook groups lack these basic functionalities, they are also making things even worse. Examples: For one-on-one discussion, you need to use messenger. This means that if two members of your group want to talk to each other privately, they have to be connected (otherwise chances are they won’t even see each other’s messages until they approve them) and if they manage to do it, they do it off the group. They are no longer “in the community channel”; Search on Facebook groups only goes back 30 days and the results are not always accurate even at that. This means that if I am a member of a very active group and want to search for a topic to read what was previously posted, or wish to avoid repeating the same questions — I can’t; If I am a Facebook group admin and wish to create “sub-groups” (within the same group) to allow people to talk about different things in the same “community” — I can’t. Bottom line: worst community tool, ever.

4. Then there is the matter of Human Nature and the definition of “community”. Dealing with people is never easy. They have their different opinions, feelings, they have good and bad days and they get angry at different things. This is a given. Community, by definition, is a group of people who share an interest, with enough passion to also engage with others who feel the same, and who seek the same added value. Heated discussions happen all the time and in some cases they are the hallmarks of a good engaged community. In other cases, they mean you just managed to drag people into the same channel, but they are not really supposed to be there. Communities, therefore, require authentic leadership. Not so much “management” or “policing”. Facebook groups include admin tools that encourage policing and management, but not leadership. Facebook in general is a sociable network (a social network where people connect on a friendship and acquaintance basis) and since the change a couple of years ago, whereby you can add anyone to a group (sorry, they recently changed the wording to “invite” but the functionality is the same — you are added to a group without your consent), this means it’s very easy to create huge groups of people who may not even care about the group, not be aware that they’re in them (until they get a notification or see a post), or who join just to see what the fuss is about. This is completely opposite from the very definition of a community.

Again, I will give an example: One of the group I manage on Facebook consists of more than 17k people and was originally named “Italy itineraries and recommendations” (there, you caught me. I’m an Italophile). People poured into the group by the hundreds every week because they all looked for recommendations on hotels, restaurants and flights. However, the purpose of the original group managers (I’m not the one who opened this group) was to create a home for people who are passionate about Italy. They failed. Most of the group members are only passionate about their upcoming vacation, this year. Because next year they’ll take the family somewhere else. The group also attracted may businesses — hotels, B&Bs, tour operators — who all tried to advertise their services on the group. So, changes were made, the name was changed to “Italy lovers” and a strict no advertising policy was installed. Did it help? Hell no. All the admins are constantly busy policing, deleting posts, warning people who advertise and trying to engage the members in activities such as learning Italian together. Unsuccessfully… Is that a “community”? If you believe Facebook’s new buzz, yes it is. But if you have even a bit of common sense, you know very well that it’s not. It’s a group, a large one for sure, but still just a group, of random people who happened to be interested in something related to Italy at some point and never left. The added value they expected to get was different from person to person and did not match the original group admins’ vision. Am I a community manager? Not in this case. For this specific group, I am just “an admin”.

Another Facebook group I manage has only 750 members, but they are all users of the same product and most are also in the same, or similar, industry. For all intents and purposes, there are some major business competitors in the same group. But here we have a connecting thread — we have the product and the passion for the industry. We have the same shared added value of knowledge sharing, support and business growth. The result is a very engaged group of people who, despite being competitors, actually help each other, promote the product outside the group, answer each other’s questions, initiate activities, meeting offline in the real world (with the brand team and among themselves). Even heated discussion, require little to no policing, because they are still on point, keeping to the group theme and spirit. Is this a community? Yes it is. And the community members have in fact been requesting that we move the community away from Facebook (which is not useful to them due to all the reasons in section 3 above) to Slack. Am I a community manager for them? Yes I am.

Get the difference? Bottom line is that, as I already stated, Facebook groups are merely one of many communication channels and not necessarily a “community” channel. They are certainly not “communities” in their own rights. I don’t know many real communities on Facebook.

If you are a group admin, I apologize if I rained on your parade. I have no intention to offend, only to make you realize that in order to be a real community manager, you need to work very hard on first developing your community strategy, defining and prioritizing your engagement indices, defining the added values to the community and only then select the right channel based on that and create a content and community activity plan that suite your strategy.

Just some random people in the same place

If you were lucky enough to create a group that attracted 80k people who have nothing in common other than their gender and geo location, or were brought in to help manage a group of several dozens of people who have nothing in common other than reading the same blog and not finding their place in this world, you are certainly a group admin and you may even be good at that, but community manager, you are not (and those are two real examples).

Once again, just like with my previous post about Influencers, people are too easily blinded by the shiny names, badges and numbers and mistake “groups” for “communities”. People who read a post and a half on some blog, and happen to manage large groups on Facebook (specifically on Facebook, yes) suddenly go out and declare themselves experts, teach courses and charge brands an arm and a leg for their advice pn community management. Brands engaging (for very high fees often!) “community strategists” and advisors, should really take time to first understand what a community is, what a community manager is and only then judge the potential advisor or strategist. Not just hire them because they have a huge group on Facebook and call themselves “community leaders” (or any other name).


Credit to: Elinor Cohen