In the mid to late 1990s, when print publications began their migration to digital, media businesses typically did well in building communities online, engaging with subscribers and members via email lists and forums.
As we entered the new millennium, internet users moved away from chat rooms and bulletin boards to social media platforms and search engines, meaning they no longer had to visit a publisher’s site to access content.
Since then, many social media platforms have been shuttered or are ‘limping along’ – Google+, Bebo and MySpace are the more notable examples, but many social platforms have become publishing and media giants in their own right.
Are social media platforms the best place for online communities?
Facebook encouraged brands to create groups and pages to connect with their followers and subscribers on its platform, opening up opportunities for increased visibility and traffic. But, changes to the algorithm in January 2018, that prioritised friends and family updates over brand Page posts had a massively harmful effect on the organic visibility of media owner and publisher content.
As well as Facebook being a competitor for advertiser ad spend, it also now wholly controlled the rules for social content visibility and distribution.
The impact on publishers was near-terminal in some cases. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, highlighted the ethical question about Facebook’s power to decide “which media outlets survive, and which don’t.”
Facebook launched Facebook News in late October 2019, with the promise of creating a new revenue stream for media organisations that were struggling to make social ‘communities’ sustainable, not solely an operational cost for media owners.
Facebook made deals with various news organisations, paying them to license their content, with the possibility of providing a much bigger audience; however, publishers must jump through several hoops to be included and require a sufficiently large audience themselves to be eligible for inclusion.
With criticisms of Facebook’s leaden-footedness around the spread of ‘fake news’ and disinformation on its platforms and the spectre of regulation and anti-trust cases around the world, the ‘News’ icon appears to have been moved from the Facebook tab.
It seems that Facebook may be distancing itself from news in the newsfeed and it appears that ‘Watch’ (video on demand) and ‘Gaming’ (where users can browse live gaming streams, play games and organise tournaments), are the new focus.
It makes sense commercially for Facebook. Publishing more video and creating communities around gaming and episodic video programming equals more in-platform time and more inventory and opportunities for ads and ad revenue.
Some publishers and media owners have created Facebook Groups, for example the BBC have created public groups around some of their programming, such as the ‘Death in Ice Valley’ group and Slate have created a group for their Slate + subscribers. But many remain wary that whilst they open their content to a wide potential audience, they are at the mercy of Facebook reducing the visibility of Groups at any time, covering them with ads, or even shuttering them.
On LinkedIn, B2B publications often have huge audiences. Members can simply follow publishers Pages, and their stories will be eligible to show up in their feeds, however, once again platform algorithms dictate reach.
In terms of community building, LinkedIn Groups have not provided the platform publishers need to engage with their audience and many useful community management features have been removed. The quality of content published in groups and shown in users’ news feeds has also become an issue. A recent survey revealed that 28% of LinkedIn users said they found it to be “Full of Spam”, with 38% stating it is too cluttered to be functional.
Ian Jindal, Founder and Editor in Chief of Internet Retailing, summed up the risk businesses take when they conflate ‘community strategy’ with ‘social media strategy’.
He stated that LinkedIn is not a community platform for those who are serious about community, and that LinkedIn Groups encourage spam, salespeople and self-promotion: “LinkedIn’s Groups is a reminder that LinkedIn is not a community platform – it’s a business that monetises the #humblebrag in business as well as our eyeballs and data.”
Tech giant Google, with its now redundant Google+, offered publishers a way to segment and communicate with its subscribers. A publisher’s latest posts would show up on a brand search if publishers used the Google+ Publisher markup to its site. But the strong arm app approach to force Google users to sign up when creating a Gmail or YouTube account was a massive turn off for many, and the platform was finally killed off in 2019, despite its loyal users liking the fact that Google+ Circles allowed them to cut through the noise of many other social media platforms.
With all this in mind, it is apparent that social media giants are too focused on ad revenue and their own evolution for publishers to build a truly successful community on their platforms.
While there are still certainly opportunities to build engaged and active reader or subscriber communities on social media platforms, they are becoming more and more saturated with ads, while their algorithms dictate who sees what content.
In addition, whilst people are more connected than ever, their attention spans are getting shorter. Getting them to see content, let alone engage, is becoming more difficult. With users switching between devices and flitting between checking notifications for emails, social media, and messaging apps, publishers now need to adopt a cohesive omnichannel approach to find, reach, engage, and build loyalty and advocacy with their subscribers.
For these reasons, media businesses are revisiting online community platforms, which have evolved into a hybrid of social media, messaging, and forums that they can brand and manage as a way to create and add value for their subscribers, advertisers, and partners. Importantly these are now ‘owned’ channels that are fully branded and integrated.
The pros of building an online community
By hosting a community, there is no need to rely on a third-party like a social media giant, who may decide to change the way in which a community functions or is visible on the platform, depending on their evolving financial model, and with little or no notice for the publisher.
Not only does an online community provide a great way of engaging with people likely to be the publisher’s biggest advocates, it also gives them access to a wealth of data. To get the most value, it’s crucial that communities are planned and nurtured.
Aside from having complete control over how to build, manage, and engage with an online community by owing the digital asset, there are many other overwhelming strategic reasons for publishers and media organisations to run an owned community, including:
- Content development – identifying hot topics to inform future editorial or sponsored content
- Events – identifying insights and ideas for event tracks, speakers and prolonging attendee engagement and the impact of events (virtual and physical) for attendees, speakers and sponsors
- Revenue – a community can be part of a membership package, and can contain affiliate, advertising and advertorial content
- Research and data – the opportunity to conduct valuable subscriber research to discover hidden insights about audiences or topics, which can be used to improve content, marketing messaging and audience targeting, as well as commercial intelligence
- Building trust and loyalty – on a macro-level, it’s important to take the time to analyse, and when appropriate, respond, to both the positive and negative conversations going on in your community to demonstrate that your organisation cares, and is listening to feedback
By being able to take a deep dive into data that is not influenced by third-party algorithms, business decisions are insight driven, allowing them to be more focussed, resulting in better ROI and increased loyalty. At a time when revenue streams for publishers and media organisations are under threat, creating a space where you can really get to know people is more important than ever.
About the author: Michelle Goodall is head of marketing at Guild. She has over 23 years of experience in community and social media strategy.