When to Switch from Social Media to Online Community
I’m often asked how online communities differ from social media. It's true that on the surface they look a lot alike. But besides the obvious factor of cost – social media is free whereas most community platforms have at least minimal fees – there are some key differences to explore.
I recently got a first-hand look at these differences in a well-known community to which I belong: Marie Forleo's B-School made the decision to move its discussion thread from Facebook to Ning. Since beginning her popular online business marketing program in 2010, Forleo's worldwide community has swelled to something in the tens of thousands. In a mass email to deliver the news to B-School members, Forleo played up the theme, "Change is hard."
But it doesn't have to be. Let's look at what goes into the decision to take a community from a scattered collection of fan pages, expert articles and secret Facebook groups to an online community platform or "forum?"
Size. In the case of B-School, the community had simply gotten too large for its Facebook group. You'll know you're there when one large feed becomes unwieldy with too many varied discussions, competing goals and lengthy comment threads. That's a good time to switch to a forum platform that allows different conversation threads to accommodate your community's needs.
Privacy. Expanding brand awareness, growing your fan base and creating a buzz, these are all legitimate uses of social media. Yet when it's time to engage your community, you'll want to take the conversation to a private platform where you have better control and can ensure members' anonymity and privacy.
Integrity. The goal of every online community is to engage real people in meaningful conversations. Separating the Twitter-bots from bona fide community members will help ensure a lively and safe forum and offer true value to your members. Unlike social media, online community platforms can offer member profiles that can be vetted by a community manager.
Flexibility. Marie Forleo found that within the one big overwhelming B-School Facebook Group there were different personalities, motivations, and preferences. In her new online community she has been able to offer separate discussion threads by interest, industry, gender and even communication style. Even relatively small communities can use online forum platforms to cater to their sub-segments.
Goals and values. A LinkedIn Group or WordPress blog is not a community because it lacks clearly articulated values, established rules of engagement, and a community plan and management. An online community, on the other hand, can use social media to attract members and tout its goals while shaping its culture.
Management. Social media managers are often at the boundaries of their organization looking out into the public to prospect for members and evangelize their brand. Online community managers, however, are more likely to spend their time on the inside, using online forums to engage executives and other stake-holders, offer product support or simply cultivate a shared sense of company culture.
People, not platforms. Online communities are about the people engaging in the conversation, not about the tools used. The line between social and online communities has blurred, in part, because there is no correct formula. Each community manager must discovers the right mix of private and public platforms to use in serving the goals of its members.
Future growth. In moving the discussion from Facebook to a private community platform, Marie Forleo has done an excellent job setting up members' expectations of the B-School Community as it continues to grow through maturity to mitosis, the final stage of the life cycle of the online community. By using a well-written series of email auto-responders, she has clearly detailed the rules of engagement that will allow the community to grow for many years to come and spin off in untold new directions.