I posed this purposefully provocative question to our contributing social media experts from client, vendor and agency side whilst compiling the newly-updated Social Media Best Practice Guide for Econsultancy subscribers.

The question was met with thoughtful reflection:

“You’re absolutely right to ask this question. Every organisation should be clear on their answer,”  BBC’s head of social news, Mark Frankel responded.

Why do we need to address the ‘community’ question?

Changes to Facebook’s algorithm to favour friend, family and local posts followed its adapted mission statement to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Facebook’s definition of ‘community’ and the impact of its changes are being felt by many brands and businesses.

The cynical suggest that a ‘demotion’ of brand social media content and communities is a thinly-disguised ploy to ensure an insurance budget against the decreased visibility of Facebook Page organic posts.

I’ve spoken to a number of marketers from small businesses who have felt the effects. Many said that their Facebook focus is now on reaching audiences through paid media only for upper awareness and lower funnel conversion activity. They are allowing their Pages to ‘drift’, spending less time on crafting organic posts and dealing only with issues rather than proactively managing their Page.

Many marketers from all sectors feel that the ‘Facebook Zero’ algorithm changes are welcome and that they have forced organisations to rethink their relationship with audiences – redressing the broadcast content vs meaningful engagement imbalance.

Those of us who have been social media strategists since the turn of the century (wow, that makes me feel old), have always guided organisations using community strategy principles in social media – after all, a social media presence =  the creation of a community.

Stephen Waddington, Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum has been working with organisations for long enough in social spaces to feel that the word ‘Community’ in both digital and social media needs clarity. It’s a term that has been misused by many.

He makes the case that core PR skills, as well as a clear community strategy are key to developing and maintaining active and effective communities:

Community is a much abused and maligned word in this social media era.

“Create a Twitter hashtag, or build a Facebook or LinkedIn group, and people will come. Except they don’t. The internet is littered with failed community building efforts.

“Successful communities, online and offline, are co-created around a shared purpose. They coalesce around people with shared interests and value, and those in these communities rely on information from those they trust.

“The skills of public relations in listening, storytelling and content, can make communities vibrant.”

What happened to ‘social communities’?

Social networks were simply an extension of the early communities spaces of the Internet such as Forums and Usenet. Creating communities required an understanding of audience motivations, group dynamics, communication theory, transactional analysis, crisis communications, effective moderation practices – essentially a solid community strategy and community management skills.

As social platforms grew and features changed in the mid 2000s, many marketers threw $£ at delighting their audiences with apps, competitions, content and experiences. The core principles of developing and nurturing a community, however loosely that community were connected, were often forgotten in the pursuit of fans, followers and likes.

Social media became a space for many to spew out interruptive click bait, low-friction ‘which type are you’, ‘hot or not’, ‘tag yourself’ posts, competitions and memes rather than focusing on providing a community space to nurture a group of thinkers, makers, shakers, doers, fixers and fans.

This, of course, is a highly reductive and simplistic view. Let’s not forget that this approach to low-value social content was also rewarded by the social networks, until they publicly announced that the days of rewarding low-level brand/audience engagement were well and truly over.

There are also many amazing communities out there using social networks as their platforms. Do use the comments below to highlight yours.

Communities of purpose, principle, action, local communities and even branded communities connected by little else than a love of a particular  brand, TV series or celebrity, for example.

So what did some of our expert report contributors say when asked the question:

“Do brands and businesses really care about creating communities in social media?”

First up, Kerry Taylor – EVP, MTV International & Chief Marketing Officer Viacom UK at Viacom. Given that Viacom’s brands include MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon with programmes that have large active fan bases on social media, her response to the question was perhaps unsurprisingly emphatically positive:

“We do! 

It is our biggest connection to our audience and helps us get the most immediate sense of how we are doing and where we need to go.

We don’t have tonnes of data points and so our community is everything – our fan base, our immediate source of insight, where we test new ideas and get inspired.”

Ros Lawler, Digital Director at Tate, agrees:

“It is essential in the museum sector as a means of reaching and growing new audiences.  Particularly when trying to engage young audiences.”

Focusing on business objectives, understanding the interplay between organic and paid media in social, and working to the strength of each is the secret to building and gaining value from communities, states Jeff Semones, Managing Partner, Head of Social Media, Mediacom.

“For brands that enjoy a strong, active relationship with their customers who choose to engage on social, great value can be realized through loyalty and advocacy.  For these brands, the answer is yes.  

However, a marketer’s appetite for long-term commitment to creating communities, very much depends on the individual brand, the business they’re in and most importantly the brand’s relationship with their customers. 

With that, ‘customer-centric marketing’ has emerged as a term that often applies to brands that prioritise communities in their social strategies.  

It’s important to recognise the skill-sets and resources required to garner maximum value of social media through the interplay of organic and paid disciplines in support of a brand’s social media strategy.  

Customer-centric marketers understand the limitations of organic reach but still see great value for their brands through community-inspired tactics.  They also understand that paid media is a must-have to deliver meaningful reach. 

Additionally, the latest ad products from the primary platforms enable marketers to leverage impressive targetability of specific audience segments that can drive more measurable outcomes.  

However, brands still need to deliver on the day-to-day expectations of their social media audiences, which is the primary role of the organic discipline. This is where the potential power of community can be leveraged.  

Brands that fully commit to fostering collaboration, integrating paid/owned/earned strategies and maintaining their communities, can inspire naturally occurring advocacy that drives word of mouth and earned media value.  

The best brand marketers in social media understand how to synthesise the strengths of both organic and paid tactics that create great experiences for audiences, while delivering strong results against business objectives.”  

So, there is clearly an appetite to continue to invest in social media communities.

This rise of Facebook Groups for communities?

Some organisations, like the BBC, are testing out the efficacy of Facebook Groups, arguably a better place to develop genuine communities of interest and purpose on the social network giant. Groups are one of the most active and loved community elements of Facebook with over 1 billion users.

The BBC are experimenting by supporting specific programming which encourages high levels of community engagement. An example of this is the Death in Ice Valley Facebook Group from BBC World Service and Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

But others are not so keen to put their eggs in the Facebook Groups basket. One anonymous contributor said,

“It feels like if we jump to Facebook’s tune and develop Facebook Groups, then the algorithm will change again. We’ll go back to reduced visibility and have to spend significant sums on advertising.”  

Another big question for strategists is: will Facebook monetise Groups? Will they extend ad placements or create a new ad formats specifically for these community hubs that Facebook publicly cherishes? Facebook will certainly have to proceed with caution as they develop new ad inventory.

It’s a time of uncertainty, but it’s certainly a good time to reflect on the question:

“Do you really care about creating communities on social media?”

What’s your answer?

For more context, guidance, opinions and data on social media best practice, download the updated Social Media Best Practice Guide.