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The Value of a Social Community

With Facebook’s announcement last Friday that brands will have to pay even more to reach their followers come January, it raises the question of how valuable a social “community” is, and does it even exist at all on what have now become ‘traditional’ social media channels? By asking these questions and challenging the traditional marketing concept of how social is used, a much more effective approach to ‘social marketing’ online can be explored.

Why is understanding that point important? Because it means you have to restructure the way you market, marketing to the individual amongst a broad collection of other individuals, rather than expecting people to interact as a group. Given the algorithms that can control potential visibility on social networks, making sure you find personal relevance with each individual is key to success.

Back in May 1996, over 18 years ago (the formative years of the online world still), Arthur Armstrong and John Hagel wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review discussing “the real value of On-line Communities.” They stated that most online communities at that time, oppose the idea of commercial activity, and businesses interacting online typically only to advertise their goods.  However, Armstrong and Hagel noted there was potential for companies and businesses to build new and deeper relationships with customers.

In this article, Armstrong and Hagel cite four reasons why people join an online community:

  • Communities of Transaction facilitate the buying and selling of goods and services and provide information about these transactions. Participants are encouraged to interact to make informed purchase decisions.
  • Communities of Interest bring together participants who interact extensively about specific topics of interest. Participants not only carry out transactions with one another, but their interactions are generally focused on a specific topic area.
  • Communities of Fantasy allow participants to create new personalities, environments, or stories of fantasy. Here, individuals can take on the persona of an imaginative or factual being and act out roles like members of a spontaneous improvisational theatre.
  • Communities of Relationship centre on intense personal experiences and generally adhere to masking identities and anonymity. Examples include cancer survivors and rape victims. Here, participants discuss the pain associated with these experiences, talk about how to deal with personal issues, and exchange information about medical research and treatments.


When looking into each of these rationales, it is clear that each has an underlying individualistic reason for people to join. It describes a community as a place where you might ask “what does this group of information do for me and why should I participate within it”. But at its heart, participation is key both with the topic and the other people among it.

Structured forums like Reddit do encompass these more communal aspects based around communities of interest (Subreddits are the champion of this model) and are structured in a way to facilitate 1:1 interaction from people within it. However, traditional social media channels have evolved without this focus of interaction in mind, creating publishing platforms more than interaction platforms.

This is why Facebook actually is able to monetise brand conversations now: it’s a broadcasting channel, not a community platform. It’s not designed to foster ongoing discussions on one topic. It is: “here’s what’s important to me, and I want to share it with others, or I want to create a persona and shape the way people will see me because of the content I share.”

As such brand presence has often evolved around this mechanic, pushing out content with the hope that some people will see it, interact with it and take an action that benefits the brand.  Instead, brands should be thinking about how they can enable one person to benefit their own wider community, which in turn creates a positive effect (whether simply impressions / reach, or a specific action).

In turn, when people connect with brands online, it’s still self-reflexive – how can it benefit me – why should I care. It’s not about necessarily interacting with other individuals to help raise brand profile and making sure a piece of content goes viral in support of the brand.

And that’s why this nuance is important. In order to be successful on social networking sites, content must be created that engages each individual making it important to that one person.  Why would they care, why would they share?

Most brand content on social platforms is still created around this idea of community – self-serving posts they mistakenly believe people will lap it up and share because of their interest in them. They broadcast this out on a platform, because they can reach this “community” of people and it’s an easy way to ensure potential customers see content, and to get people discussing their products. Therefore, many brands on social channels still act as Armstrong and Hagel stated in 1996, as advertisers rather than to add value for individuals. However, even the platforms themselves don’t allow for genuine community interaction.

Some brands have taken the approach of discounting this social community model, and the use of Facebook itself as an organic platform. The American food and beverage conglomerate Mondelez defines their Facebook community from a purely business perspective, according to Sonia Carter in an eMarketer round table on October 9th.  For Mondelez, social communities don’t hold enough ROI because they have limited reach.  Instead, Mondelez chooses to use their social ‘communities’ as unofficial focus groups; testing the potential virility of their ads, with the ultimate aim of high media efficiency. Therefore the true value for Mondelez is squarely financial. In their words, “the optimum number of fans is the amount needed to be served with social contextual ads (ads which  show that your friend likes a page or piece of content).”

This approach is a strategic one, which treats social channels as broadcasting platforms. Rather than putting resources into the platform, putting the resources onto content creation and the ability to build brand affinity from 1:1 interaction on other platforms is at the forefront. And this is the approach with the next massive algorithm change that many brands will have to adopt.

Even brands like Red Bull are already having massive reach issues despite producing strong content. The success of the content they do create comes not from Red Bull’s own channels but from the number of people that discover the content during their travels through the Internet, find it valuable, and choose to share it with their friends. It also puts search at its heart with a distribution strategy that focuses on where potential people will see their content. Publishing to social is not the key to Red Bull’s success, it’s engaging content that is designed to be social and placed in numerous places where people have the chance to discover it. While working at Red Bull, we never talked about our community, we talked about creating inherently social content, and that is the approach more brands will need to adopt to have any organic social success in the future.

Brands therefore must stop thinking of a community that is interested in everything they have to say, and start thinking externally about how to reach individual consumers. Why would one person care, and why would they then share that message on to their friends? How can content be created that resonates with a person in order to drive brand affinity or an action? How can you build authentic social triggers into the real world to get people to talk about the brand? How can that content be discovered?

It’s a nuanced difference, but one that can create vastly different success metrics when managing a brand channel online, and one that must be explored with the reality of Facebook and its pay for play format.

By creating content, experiences, and campaigns that focus more on the “individual” rather than the “customer”, you can actually create better engagement and more numerous conversions. And this isn’t hard to do; it’s just taking off a brand hat, and asking, would you share this on your own timeline to your friends? Simple.