Have we got our head in the clouds about the value of online community?

Cool Geeks and Social Media Coaches?I had a very interesting conversation with a Facebook application developer today. He’s a very smart guy and we agreed and disagreed on quite a lot of things. Here’s the crux of the discussion from my point of view. If it’s not yours, or if it is, please–for the love of community–pitch in and SAY something!

We were talking about how to build community on a Facebook page and whether or not that’s really even possible. Look at any big brand Facebook page. Do you see really engaged conversations or simply reactions to a post from the brand or other members? Are people really discussing anything on Facebook?

Now, I’m one of those old school community people. I really do think this is important stuff, and that’s probably what Guy Kawasaki means when he calls people Twitter Nazis, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Community requires involvement and a certain amount of passion or the discussions are pretty shallow. There are no breakthroughs or epiphanies.

BUT, that’s just my opinion, and it’s only one kind of community. There’s also the kind where people come to hang out and have fun. That’s pretty much how I see Facebook. People go there to relax, swap stories, play games and see pictures of their cousin’s kids. Sure the big brands are using Facebook pages more than ever, but are they doing it for community or marketing? Of course they’re doing it for marketing. They’re businesses.

So here’s a thumbnail of just 4 “social networks” and how community applies to them (in my opinion). This is very general, so don’t get your panties in a bunch if I say your favorite network is not what you think it is. Maybe it is for you and it just doesn’t work that way for me. That’s why there are so many forms of community right?

Twitter
Twitter is like having a conversation while running a marathon. You talk to people in passing and when you catch up with them again. Then again in the break area and you’re off again. That’s generally the depth of the conversation. What’s it good for?

Research. You want an answer, to know what your competitor is doing or how their customers feel about their product? Look to Twitter. Wanna know the most recent news, trends or information rich blog posts? Look to Twitter.

SEO. If you want to drive a lot of traffic to a particular web site or raise your brand visibility you can do it with Twitter. Link sharing is easy here and it often gets carried over into other networks like Facebook.

Brand building. Especially a personal brand. Curate enough interesting material around a topic and you’re an authority. Even if you don’t know what any of it really means. (not judging, just sayin’)

Facebook
Facebook is where people hang out. Sure, there is a bit more long form discussion than on Twitter, especially in the new groups, but really? People are sharing pics and chatting among themselves. They’re sharing links they found on Twitter and then discussing them and re-sharing them on Facebook. Brands build pages with huge numbers of fans who take little or no action. Over 65 million people “like” something daily? Cool. But does that mean they really like it or are just marking it for later? Just logging it doesn’t mean we care about it, much less discuss it.

Facebook is more intimate. People are more likely to post their kid’s pictures and personal stuff there than on sites like Twitter. They’re more likely to spend hours wandering the fan pages looking for something fun to do like games, quizzes, sharing video links and finding out about their friend’s appendectomy.

Blogs
People share passion on blogs. You see it in the comments and on some of the best blogs the comments from the regular readers are as valuable or better than the actual post itself. They’re also great sources for information you can share and discuss more in-depth on other networks. Blogs have subscribers but not members, so do they even qualify as community? At least they’re also great for SEO. Google loves WordPress, no question, and every comment adds value for the commenter and the poster.

Forums
Users who like forums like to have long threaded discussions. They’re there for a fairly focused reason, they’re often quite passionate about it. Maybe they’re talking about cars or code, but you can search the forum for answers to your questions or post them and see results fairly quickly. Forums are one of the darlings of us old-school community types and they take us back to the days of passionate arguments on bulletin boards with people who became life-long friends.

Maybe it’s a bit naive or nostalgic to think business must develop true community to succeed with social media as a marketing tool. Who are we to define what is truly community? Are ideas like that holding back the evolution of social media?

(cartoon courtesy CoolGeeks.com)

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  • I think I'm with you on the old school community. All the platforms you cover here create networks of individuals within which it is possible but not easy to build a community (the exception is that forums are a bit more optimized for building a community). To me, community assumes that there are a lot of strong relationships between people in the network and that they have some shared mission. To me, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are much more hub and spoke and therefore not really a traditional community. I have a long standing soapbox about how social media is not community (see: http://community-roundtable.co…/). I think the majority of social media marketing is typically not community management these days but… as people's maturity in social media improves, I think it is common for them to start understand the value and difference between the two.

  • rickbakas

    Nice, easy description. Out of curiosity, what did the FB developer have to say? What was his point of view?

  • He seemed more of the opinion that volume rules and inferred I was more than a little idealistic about levels of engagement. I'll ask him to add his POV here. We had a good conversation and agreed about a lot of things, but it really hit home for me with differing schools of thought on what “social media” is and how best to connect with people in the medium. Nobody is right or wrong, it's just not black/white..

  • Great article Janet.

  • It's funny, I have a certain opinion being a diehard Friendfeeder, and yet, realistically from large brand marketing I can see penetration into those type of communities *very hard*. Facebook seems like a kind of middle ground. But yes, the inactive “like” numbers are very misleading to most brands- recent article on inside facebook on page and fan engagement, which seems to be the entire journey all over again. It's like, you get an inch with being part of these networks – twitter, for example, but then the journey begins.

  • Yeah, I think that's the thing that many miss. Being ON the network only gets your foot in the door and maybe some passive visits, but it's only the beginning of the game, and that's where the fun begins.

  • Chris Turitzin

    I'm Chris Turitzin, the Facebook Developer, Janet mentioned. As a quick background, I was part of the fbFund in 2009, have built Facebook apps with over 70 million installs, and now work with brands to formulate Facebook strategy at Momentus Media (http://momentusmedia.com).

    I was suggesting that for a cost-conscience marketer, community building may not be the most effective way to use Facebook.

    Janet and I both agreed that most people use Facebook as more of a lean-back TV watching experience than a lean-forward thinking and deciding experience.

    Its hard to say if this is just because of the way Facebook is built or if this is actually what people want out of Facebook, but either way, it is the way that it is. Every successful app on the Facebook platform understands this.

    I am throwing out the idea that the way people use Facebook may be close enough to TV that buying eyeballs may be the most effective way of spending marketing dollars (for some brands). Through advertising, and buying 'likes' brands can buy the right into newsfeeds, and their messages appear along side friend messages just like ads to on TV.

    I think it would be most intelligent to look at this as a specific decision for each brand. Some brands are really difficult to get people conversing about eg. Skittles or Dixie Cups. Some brands are really difficult to get a mass of people to 'like' eg. local non-profit or niche product manufacturer. Brand managers should realize where their brand stands and spend their resources effectively.

  • Thanks for adding your perspective Chris. There is definitely something to be said about Facebook as a TV-like experience, and if we look at it through some of the comments here, then the question becomes “is Facebook a community in the first place?”

    We can say sites like Facebook are about community, but it depends on how the user uses it…
    When all is said and done, the site belongs to the users and they are the ones who can define what it is. Communities are the same way of course, at least the good ones!

  • Jjoaquim

    Hi, I'm from Barcelona and I speak Globish instead English, apologize. Facebook is becoming another cloud ecosystem like Google Apps and Apple iOS+Mobileme, Twitter, LinkedIn are small things and will be absorbed by Facebook and Google, respectively.
    A community need to cross over these three ecosystems, and only could be managed using social tools like Ning or SocialGo.
    Thanks.

  • Maybe I come from a strange community but almost every professional I know who has a much higher income does not want to do any business through Facebook. These people will pay for their privacy, so my guess is that they will not be joining Facebook for while, if at all.

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