engagement, Facebook

Returning to Facebook Groups

24 Comments 31 May 2012


Image courtesy of bartunde, Creative Commons license

A friend recently asked me: “What are you excited about now in Facebook?” Without hesitation, I replied, “Facebook Groups.” Yes, Facebook Groups, not Pages. Written off and abandoned by almost every organization I knew once Pages beefed up its functionality three years ago, Groups is where the real community engagement is happening now.

I’ll admit that I, like so many consultants, advised clients to close their Groups and focus on Pages a few years ago. With good reason: Facebook came out with the Like button that tied Facebook Pages to websites and almost every web interface. Facebook poured its time and promotion into Pages, making them even more robust with deep analytics, applications, and utility. There was no “join” button offered to join a Facebook Group, only a poorly-adopted “send” button.

In late 2010, Facebook revamped Groups entirely and they began to take off. The “new” Group features include notifications of group actions and activities, document uploading, group chat, threaded commenting, inbox messaging about group events, and mass messaging to inboxes (described in more detail here). This was when everyone I knew began to explore Groups once again.

Why am I so excited of late about Facebook Groups? Why now?

The answer lies in what I’ve begun to realize that Facebook Pages cannot offer: real community and deep engagement

Of late, I’ve begun advising clients to consider creating (or adding back) a Facebook Group, in addition to its Facebook Page. While I have consistently counseled that Page owners must use Facebook Pages to create community and deepen commitment with stakeholders, that trust and commitment can never compare to what happens in a Group. From the Page Cover Photo intended to tell the message, to the Page Timeline intended to tell the story, to the Page updates intended to encourage conversation, there is opportunity for real conversation on a Page. But it just isn’t happening. I don’t see Pages becoming a real organizational community anytime soon.

Pages are designed to be a one-way relationship

The Facebook Page concept is for it to be the company space on Facebook, which usually includes company branding and messaging. While there’s nothing wrong with this, the very act of creating a “company space” means that it is not a “community space.”  I have yet to see an organizational Facebook Page that is wholly devoted to and encouraging of fan updates, fan news, or driven by fans. (I think this could be a fascinating experiment in organizational community-building, however!) Even Facebook Pages that are fully devoted to its fans tend to broadcast organizational news and updates more than not. Waiting for fans to post may mean waiting a long, long time.

In addiiton, Pages are at the mercy of the Facebook news feed algorithm. Posting an update to a Page doesn’t mean fans will see it. The average post by a brand only reaches 16-17% of fans. If that update is shared, commented upon, and Liked by more than a few, then Facebook will optimize that post to show more prominently in certain fans’ news feeds. One of the reasons Pages struggle so much with engagement: most people don’t see the updates. Compounding this, most fans don’t visit the page once they’ve Liked it.

Experience the real community on Facebook: Facebook Groups

Groups, on the other hand, are designed to facilitate online community-building. The mere fact that admins must post as people changes the internal dynamic of the group conversation. It becomes more personal. Group members are notified when anyone posts, as opposed to relying on it appearing in a news feed. The conversation tends to focus on issues, experiences, and connections.

I am a member of several Facebook Groups created by organizations in order to launch and discuss either an online campaign or an issue. Within these, I’ve seen friendships build, investment in the group and organization deepen, and member-to-member connections move people to action. There’s a bit of magic that happens when a group begins to feel and act like a connected community. I’ve witnessed great, even “magical” ideas generated from within the group. The organization is just the facilitator, and the momentum is generated from within the members of the group.

 When I was the Community Manager at FirstGiving, I opened up a FirstGiving for Runners Facebook Group. There were a lot of people raising money for causes by racing, and I felt that there would be a natural communal affinity amongst runners. Instantly things were different within the Group than on FirstGiving’s Facebook Page: the conversation was never about what FirstGiving was doing, because no one wanted to talk about that. The conversation was about training, running, raising money, causes people cared deeply about.

In no time at all, it became a true community: people friended each other, donated to each others’ fundraising pages, encouraged each other professionally and personally. We asked the active members of this group to join FirstGiving as guest bloggers and online cheerleaders, and they happily did. It was not only a community, but strengthened the connection between FirstGiving and its stakeholders.

Aren’t organizations about connecting people to an issue? The connector between the people and the organization is the community.

I’m looking forward to seeing more organizations building community with Facebook Groups. If you are already doing so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.



Your Comments

24 Comments so far

  1. I think your points about Facebook Pages deficiencies in terms of community building are spot on, however I think you also hit the nail on the head with the biggest challenge of Facebook Groups:

    Instantly things were different within the Group than on FirstGiving’s Facebook Page: the conversation was never about what FirstGiving was doing, because no one wanted to talk about that. The conversation was about training, running, raising money, causes people cared deeply about.”I think the nonprofits that don’t already have a strong membership-based nature or obvious rallying causes to rely on would struggle to create a genuinely helpful Facebook Group.  That said, your example is a solid example of how this could be a good option for some, but probably not all, nonprofits. 


    Debra Askanase Reply:

     Abby, thanks for bringing that up. I honestly think every organization could create a group of some sort. Perhaps it is a group for the leaders of the organization, or most active members. Perhaps it is a topical group focusing on in one aspect of the organization.

    One example that might fit what you are talking about would be a B2B organization, but I also think those associations could create a group where the conversation is about what the member organizations care about. (For example, the Mass Nonprofit Network, the association of Massachusetts nonprofits, could use it as a water cooler group to share knowledge about fundraising, government relations, etc.)

    I’m curious to know what type of organization you have in mind when you are thinking about an organizations that isn’t already membership-based in nature or has an obvious rallying cause to rely on. Perhaps we can think about this point together!


  2. John Haydon says:

    Debra – great post here! I agree that there is definitely deeper conversations in groups, probably because Groups are generally smaller than Pages, plus Edgerank doesn’t apply to Groups. In other words, when someone posts in the group, all members get notified based on their preferences – not some mysterious algorithm. That said, Pages are much better for marketing throughout Facebook:

    1. Reach expands out to friends of fans. Not so with groups (only other members see what’s going on in the group).
    2. Virality applies. Friends of fans create viral reach when they comment, like or share. Again, expanded awareness.
    3. Pages and Posts can be promoted with Facebook ads. Not so with Groups.
    4. Custom Page apps can be created for advocacy campaigns. Not so with Groups.

    What I always tell people is this: Pages are a marketing tool for generating reach by getting people to “talk about” your organization. Groups are an awesome tool to enhance and deepen community engagement, as long as the community exists in the first place. And as Abby highlighted [“conversation was never about what FirstGiving was doing, because no one wanted to talk about that”], Group members – and not the org – should set the agenda.


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Really salient point John about the virality and reach of Pages that Groups do not have! Also about the customization of Pages for campaigns and promotion. There is a role for Pages, and I think that they are in fact an absolute necessity. In fact, I don’t think we’re in disagreement, but rather, you bring up the important role of a Facebook Page for an organization.

    I think we also agree that “groups are an awesome tool to enhance and deepen community engagement, as long as the community exists in the first place.” If the organization hasn’t done the work to create any type of community, or if it is a new organization, then a Facebook Group will be challenging enterprise.


    John Haydon Reply:

    Debra – You’re a smart cookie.


    Kevin Martone Reply:

    John, I completely agree. Debra and I discussed this on Twitter yesterday:

    Pages are great for attracting people, reaching out to new potential prospects/members.

    Groups are better for real engagement among people who have already committed to the organization or cause.

    In the end, this is where planning and setting goals is so important. Who do you want to engage in a Group? For what purpose? Pages are somewhat easier because they can be more about the organization. Groups can really be focused on just about anything, so thinking through the audience and goals is crucial.


    John Haydon Reply:

    I’ve seen groups used in really great ways by disease orgs where parents / families can share, connect and support each other in a venue that’s private.


    Debra Askanase Reply:

     Setting goals is the beginning and the key to success on Facebook..or any social media for that matter! Great comment, Kevin.


  3. Lisa Colton says:

    This is fantastic, Debra. I too am having way more fun with groups, because I am in a conversation with real people, rather than lending my ear to a brand (even if we do end up in conversation).  Groups FEEL flatter, and thus more inviting.  Abby and John’s comments are important too, as is the culture of a group.  I’ve seen some groups get overrun by a few prolific and somewhat annoying people.  I’ve seen others THRIVE with 5 or 50 or 250 members.

    In general, I recommend groups to small communities who don’t have dedicated staff to be facilitating conversations on Pages — it works well to spread the responsibility for keeping up the momentum.  I also find groups are great for knowledge sharing and coordination – for example we’re doing one for the URJ Social Media Boot Camp which now has 200+ participants.  Folks often ask questions that are answered by their peers before any of the paid “expert” staff has a chance to jump in (which is great!).

    It feels to me like there is a missing middle ground for many nonprofits.  Pages have limitations (algorithms, etc) because they are designed for businesses who are MARKETING.  Groups aren’t given some of the functionality (usernames, insights) because they are not intended to be that kind of “official” presence.  Sounds like nonprofits could really benefit from some middle ground.


    Debra Askanase Reply:

     Great point about the middle ground. Really interesting to think about what that could look like! In an ideal world, it might look more like Google Plus (not kidding), which has deep conversational functionality. Or something that “feels flatter,” as you mentioned where participants have a similar status to admins. I’m not sure, but just throwing out thoughts. Would love to think about this piece more, too!

    Also good point about the culture of the group. That’s really a whole series of blog posts about group dynamics and organizational culture, of course, but a very real issue to think about when creating and supporting a Facebook Group. I, too, have seen groups thrive with less than 50 members, as well as stay inactive with 100, all due to the culture of the group and mutual respect.

    Thanks for sharing your reasons for recommending groups to organizations. It led me to think that yes/no flow chart of some sort might be a helpful tool in terms of “are you ready for a Group or a Page or both?”


  4. Great points here! I think though that it would take a brave NPO to take this plunge.


    Debra Askanase Reply:

     Thanks for the comment, Rabbi. Brave, yes, but hopefully also very worth the risk :)


  5. With the new timeline pushing aside non admin’s posts, facebook pages are mostly about organizations and much less about community or conversation.
    About a month ago I attended TechCamp seminar and one of the trainers, Kara Andrade, told us that in Guatemala people prefer using facebook groups over pages because when you define a group secret or close, it is not indexed in search engines and cannot be traced by authorities. Good to know…


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Ma’ayan, good point about how the new Timeline has created Pages about organizations and less about conversation – I hadn’t really put that together but it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for commenting!


  6. Laura Norvig says:

    Love this article, Debra, this actually gave me a great idea for something I was pondering about how to solve – Groups might work for that!

    I feel like I used to see a lot more genuine community engagement on pages before the switch to Timeline. And yes, the mysterious ways of the algorithm are quite maddening. I find if I don’t post 2 or 3 good things every day, my “reach” numbers are plummeting at an alarming rate!


    Debra Askanase Reply:

     Laura – wow! Two or three good posts daily, and reach drops?! That’s astounding data. Imagine: most admins post daily and that’s it. I wonder if posting “norms” need to be changed to accommodate the mysterious algorithm and Timeline changes?

    Glad this article was helpful, and look forward to you coming back and letting us know how the Group works out.


  7. Eric Brown says:

    I agree as well. I had always encouraged businesses to make use of Groups, but when Facebook changed things up a couple of years ago, they removed the last available way to mass message your network and I started focusing on my Page. However, it’s still my Group that continues to drive conversation and engagement, not my Page.


    Debra Askanase Reply:

     Eric, when Facebook removed the last way to mass message folks in a group, a LOT of people left groups. (Facebook has also removed a way to mess message folks who have RSVP’d to an event as well, unfortunately.) I, too, started focusing on Pages then. However, of late, it’s been Timeline that’s seemed clunky, and Groups are where the community gets together. Agree with you on all points!


  8. Carol says:

    Great piece, Debra! When is your next webinar about Facebook Groups?


    Debra Askanase Reply:

     Carol – nothing planned at the time about it, specifically, though it’s a great idea!


  9. Jackie Rive says:

    Very interesting article and as a newbie to Facebook I wonder if a group would be suitable for on-line retailers? I am a manufacturer of herbal health products for animals and have found my bricks and mortar customers struggling but on-line sales have remained constant. I have been looking around the internet from twitter, facebook  to linked in to try and find on-line retailers so we can collaborate and help build this side of the business together, but  am finding it hard to engage them. Do you think Facebook Groups could be good for these type of people or is it more a strategy for the end user as in dog and horse owners?
    I realise this post is a month or 2 old but your comments would be greatly received.



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Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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