Are Closed (and Secret) Facebook Groups the Future of Social Media?
Back in March of last year, Condé Nast Traveler did something a little unusual in the social media universe. They played hard to get.
Instead of courting new followers with clickbait and promo codes, the company required that interested people apply to get into their closed Facebook Group, focused on female travelers. To be considered for membership, applicants had to explain why the Group was important to them, and show an understanding of the community guidelines.
Today, the Women Who Travel Facebook Group counts more than 50,000 members. And it boasts a level of activity many brands could only dream of — three-quarters of users are active on a daily basis. The initiative has been so successful, in fact, that Conde Nast has since extended Facebook Groups across eight of its brands, including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Allure, BRIDES, Golf Digest, SELF and Teen Vogue.
The Facebook Group is nothing new. Spaces for like-minded people to congregate and discuss specific subjects — from hobbies to pets and celebrities — date in one form or another to the platform’s earliest days. These Groups have long been segmented into three classes: open (or general admission), closed (requiring admin approval for new members) and secret (invisible to outside search and accessible only with a direct link).
But for a combination of technical and cultural reasons, Groups are suddenly having their moment. (Apart from Facebook, LinkedIn revamped its own Groups offering this fall for its 500-plus million users, adding the ability to share pics and videos, as well as receive comment notifications.)
In the past year alone, Facebook Group membership is up 40 percent, with 1.4 billion people — more than half of Facebook’s massive user base — now using Groups every month. Of those, 200 million people belong to so-called “meaningful Groups,” considered a vital part of users’ daily lives. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said he’d like to see 1 billion users in “meaningful” Groups within five years.
Behind Groups’ hypergrowth
This hockey-stick growth is explained in part by Facebook’s own algorithm shifts and platform tweaks. Even before the Cambridge Analytica crisis reached its crescendo, the platform had recalibrated its algorithms to prioritize engagement with friends, family and Groups, while downranking public content shared by businesses, brands and media. Under the auspices of community building, we’re now seeing significantly more posts from Groups on our feeds and fewer posts from company Pages or media publishers.
At the same time, Facebook has tested a dedicated Groups tab inside its mobile app, so users can find all of their groups in one place, as well as discover new ones. Beefed up tools for scheduling posts and screening members have made it easier to build and scale Groups (though critics point out that the kind of robust search tools and browsable archives now commonplace on platforms like Slack are still sorely lacking).
But truly understanding the growth — and future evolution — of Groups requires applying a broader cultural lens. 2018 represented a crisis year for social media — and this was largely a crisis of trust. It’s critical to remember that Facebook and other networks initially represented a sort of safe space: a refuge from the chaos and threats posed by the vast, anonymous Internet at large. Back in the day, most interactions on social media were with real people, many of them friends and family. Believe it or not, Facebook was a place to be yourself and let your guard down.
But that sort of intimacy and collegiality was partly undone by social media’s own success. With time, and the addition of several billion users, Facebook’s “walled garden” began to feel more like a Wild West. Newsfeeds overflowed with clickbait, recipe videos and sales spam. Developers scraped off personal data and ads grew increasingly invasive. This came to a head in the 2016 US election cycle and its aftermath, as platforms that once seemed “real” and refreshing became filled with fake news and fake users.
All of which makes the prospect of joining a Facebook Group remarkably appealing. In particular, closed groups, which require admin approval before joining, can seem a throwback to an earlier era of social media. Dialogue is actually productive. Suggestions tend to be useful and actionable. Snark and sarcasm are generally kept to a minimum, as are marketing and sales talk. In my own backyard, for example, the 6,000-member strong Girl Gang Vancouver Group has earned a reputation as a thriving community for female creatives in media, communications and tech. Members of the closed Group share jobs and resources and announce events and workshops. Clear posting guidelines preempt spam and robust moderation keeps the feed focused. It feels little like Facebook at large, and that’s the point.
The future of Groups
So for companies and brands who rely on social media to reach customers, are Groups the panacea for addressing dipping engagement and declining reach? More broadly, does the Group concept point to a way forward for social media in general — a means to recover the trust and authenticity that made Facebook and other platforms so revolutionary to begin with.
As with so much in social media, the devil is in the details. Facebook clearly wants companies to gravitate to Groups. Beginning last year, they extended to brand Pages the ability to create and moderate their own Groups — a right once reserved just for individual profiles. Early adopters rushed in, eager to reach customers cut off by Facebook’s new algorithm. Thus far, results have been mixed. Health tracker Fitbit, for instance, created more than a dozen Groups in major cities. While the company boasts millions of followers on its main Facebook Page, its Groups have struggled to sustain a few hundred members each and posting is sporadic.
Brands finding success, on the other hand, have learned to walk a fine line — creating a space where passionate users can express themselves, while working hard behind the scenes to keep discussions vibrant and focused. Indoor cycling workout company Peloton boasts more than 100,000 members in its official closed group, which now registers upward of 300 posts and 5,000 comments a day. But this is no accident. Members are vigorously screened and admins are quick to flag and remove content that violates community guidelines.
Nor does the work stop there. Scaling Groups presents challenges as intimacy is easily lost amid a sea of new faces and updates. Spamming and self-promotion by members are ever-present risks. Meanwhile, brands need to resist the temptation to sprinkle in their own marketing copy. Even a few heavy handed calls to action can undermine an otherwise thriving Group and send skeptical users fleeing to less commercial alternatives.
In the end, the potential of Groups is deeply tied up with social media’s own unique power. Current challenges aside, Facebook redefined communication precisely because it enables people to connect with people, without an intermediary or gatekeeper. Brands that learn to set up Groups and recede into the background — to let customers connect on a human level, not a transactional one — stand to recapture some of that original magic.
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