What we’ve learnt from six months of experimenting with Facebook groups

Six months ago we created 52|48, the first Times and Sunday Times Facebook group, to focus on the subject of Brexit. It was designed to encourage intelligent, insightful debate between people who voted Leave and Remain (no easy feat if you’ve seen discussions in some corners of the internet). In particular, we wanted to hear from readers who might not normally comment on the Times website, either because they were not full subscribers or because they did not feel comfortable doing so. It was important that we took the Brexit conversation to the place where most people go to talk about issues close to them: Facebook.

The Facebook group format seemed ideal because it was easy to set up and had a familiar interface. It was also low risk, allowing us to moderate posts, vet members and shut it down instantly if everything went wrong — not that we were catastrophising or anything.

52|48 grew quickly as we shared the link on Facebook, Twitter and the Times website and included it in our Red Box and Brexit Briefing newsletters.

It now has more than 1,300 members, with 89 per cent of them engaging in the group on a monthly basis. The quality of content being shared by members has really surprised us. Most Brexit-related Facebook groups are for one side or the other, yet ours has managed to attract a good balance of Leavers and Remainers without descending into BoJo memes and name-calling.

As a result of this success we decided to trial two other Facebook groups: Screen Times and First Edition, for film and book lovers. These subjects were perfectly suited to the group format, inspiring more passionate discussion than politics.

Here’s what we’ve learnt so far during our time running these Facebook groups:

  1. People like hearing directly from our journalists

A good Facebook group should offer its members a benefit for taking part. It should also be a place for them to find entertaining and authoritative content. Having our journalists directly involved in the groups does both jobs.

By allowing our columnists to debate with and inform members, 52|48 stands out from other Facebook groups. We’ve been lucky to have the columnists Iain Martin, Phil Collins and Hugo Rifkind answering group members’ questions.

Even on First Edition and Screen Times, having section editors take responsibility for posting gives the group an authenticity that would otherwise be lacking. Posts by Kevin Maher, chief film critic of The Times, are a good example of this: he knows his subject best and can impart wisdom that others can’t.

2. Use polls to refine the purpose of the group

The polling function is an extremely useful tool. The polls always spark a good response and allow us to better understand what members want from our Facebook groups.

3. Ask broad questions to generate ideas (and surprises)

There is an inclination to ask very detailed questions to stir up conversation but we found that the simplest questions can inspire the most responses. When posting in 52|48, it was especially telling that a question about where our members lived had one of the highest responses yet.

People can be intimidated to get involved at first, worrying they have nothing of interest to add to debates. Posting occasional icebreakers such as the above can really help to engage the lurkers.

4. Don’t rely on competitions to boost membership

We recently conducted two competitions within our book group, First Edition. One was to tie in with Hallowe’en; the other was just for fun. We asked entrants to share the book group competition post but the majority did not do this and just commented on the post instead.

People view groups as a private entity of their own. They don’t always want to share competitions to a main Facebook news feed that might judge them. Competitions are fun but use them as a reward for the group rather than a way to find new members.

5. Set clear expectations/rules

Just like any other forum, there should be a set of guidelines within each Facebook group. For the most part, ours are pretty simple: we don’t allow insults (no calling one another “remoaners” on 52|48); the group is by invitation only to limit the chances of trolls joining; and we ask that members add context to their posts because a link on its own can come across as spam.

6. Admins don’t always need to be present

At first we posted within our new Facebook groups three to four times a day. After about a week this lessened, and by two weeks members were pretty much starting and sustaining conversations on their own.

Have faith in your members’ ability to start new threads of debate and gradually reach the point where admins are only posting occasionally and are instead spending most of their time moderating or engaging in existing conversations.

7. Make group-joining questions easy

While group-joining questions are a good way to sort the humans from the bots, if it’s too tricky or personal people may be put off joining at all. First Edition initially had two questions about people’s favourite books and authors. For a book lover this is an impossible question that requires a lot of thought (but I can’t decide between Jane Austen and Chuck Palhniuk!).

We changed our joining question to a far simpler: “What are you reading now?” This is something everyone should be able to answer quickly and easily, without fear of judgment. The group’s membership, which had stalled at about 200 for a while, noticeably increased after we did this.

8. Don’t only promote your own articles

It’s very easy to see a Facebook group as a place to curate your own content and serve it to a tailored audience. While this is certainly one of the benefits, it should not be the main goal.

We only share Times links when we have a particularly interesting column, interview or review. It should be on topic and relevant to what group members want to see or might already be discussing. For example, we pushed this Philip Pullman interview out to First Edition to coincide with the launch of his new book, which was something many readers were extremely excited about.

Members know instantly if a group is simply trying to sell them something and they will end up leaving. The discussion should be the main focus, with a broad range of links from different sources being shared. That is not to say that you should not push your own brand/publisher’s content; just ensure that it isn’t every day.

9. Meeting members IRL is extremely rewarding

Following the early success of our Brexit group we decided to invite a handful of our most active 52|48 group contributors into the offices of The Times to thank them and to better understand their thoughts on the group.

I contacted ten to 15 people, and five accepted.

Pictured: 52|48 guests Richard Hillier, Liz Webster, (me), Lukasz Sikorski and Chris Parkins

In spite of fears that nobody would turn up — or worse, that they would turn up and all hate one another — the meet went well. Our group members heard from our political reporter Henry Zeffman and our policy editor Oliver Wright and had a long chat with Philip Collins, the columnist and former political speechwriter. In their feedback they said that they especially enjoyed meeting and debating with our journalists in real life.

One member, Richard Hillier, wrote: “From the initial discussion [with Oliver Wright] I got a real sense that the infighting within the UK government around Brexit was a real issue (and not just game-playing by the media and opposition). The later discussion with Phil Collins comparing journalism with his previous role in government was interesting and showed how the two fields are inter-related.”

They also enjoyed meeting other members of the group. Mr Hillier added: “Seeing & talking with the people who I knew only from the comments they had written gave a better understanding of their perspective. All seemed milder than expected.”

Most importantly, this experiment seemed to create more trust and understanding between group members and The Times. These members could see glimpses of how the news and opinion pieces are constructed each day and why certain decisions are made within the newsroom. In return they could provide us with unique feedback.

Sameen Farouk, another member who visited, wrote: “I think it’s important for The Times to reach readers beyond me, more than I’d ever appreciated.” He said that it was important for news outlets to engage with their readers to rebuild trust after the scandals surrounding fake news.

Summary

In the future we hope to use Facebook groups as a way to explore more niche interest areas, giving a voice to those who are underrepresented. For example, groups focusing on men’s mental health or on trans women of colour could provide interesting insights into societal issues and inform future stories.

The introduction of group insights from Facebook has been extremely useful but I’d like to see a wider range of analytical tools. It would be great to be able to measure key words and know how many people click through to links. More in-depth profiles of members could also be useful, especially when organising meet-ups.

I would like to see a more organised format within the groups, with the chance to categorise posts in a forum style, perhaps along the right-hand side of the page. Also, badges for the most regular contributors would be a useful way to keep members engaged and well behaved.

The scope for experimentation with Facebook groups makes them an exciting tool to trial, and I feel confident that the strength of our editorial input will continue to make them a valuable asset to The Times and Sunday Times.

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