By now you’ve likely heard the news that Facebook, in an effort to produce more meaningful experiences for its users, plans to alter its Newsfeed algorithm to place more emphasis on content posted by friends and family. Or, read another way, Facebook pages, which have already seen decreasing reach over the past few years, are going to be seen by even fewer of their followers.
This has led to a collective freakout in the digital media space, with publishers that rely heavily on Facebook traffic contemplating a world where all that traffic has dried up. While I think most have been overreacting to the news (especially since Facebook pages generate very little of the average publisher’s Facebook traffic to begin with; most of it comes from individual users sharing content), publishers are right to begin strategizing how they can diversify their traffic sources (in fact I wrote about some of the ways they can do so over here).
One strategy we’re seeing many publishers consider is launching Facebook groups. Several months ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company will make groups a more central component to the Facebook experience, and by all indications this will be even more true once these newly-announced changes come to pass. You’ve likely noticed that the Facebook groups you belong to are getting more prominent placement in your Newsfeed, and if you’re a publisher you might be thinking about how you can use this to your advantage, possibly by launching a group of your own.
But before you do, there are some factors you should consider, both in how you frame the group’s topic and how you monitor it. For the last several months I’ve performed extensive research into Facebook groups, including interviews with the moderators of some of the most successful communities, and there are several trends I’ve noticed for what makes a successful group:
Launch groups with niche topics. Do not launch a generic Facebook group that is just a clone of your Facebook page. The incentive for someone to join a Facebook group is based on them getting to be part of a community around a central topic. So, as a publisher, you should determine which beats you cover well and consider how you can grow a community around that beat. A great example of this is the Facebook group Vox launched for Obamacare enrollees. Its healthcare reporter Sarah Kliff was doing extensive reporting around the law, so Vox created a group that consisted solely of people who bought health insurance on the Obamacare marketplaces. This not only helped create a dedicated audience for her reporting, but she actually dipped into this group to find both story ideas and sources.
So let’s say you’re the LA Times and thinking about launching a group. Since one of your main beats is Hollywood, perhaps you could launch a television and movie club group where users can discuss their favorite Hollywood fare. Or maybe you can launch several groups, each centered around a different neighborhood or region of LA.
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Make your reporters available. Most journalists wouldn’t be caught dead in the comments section for their employers’ Facebook pages, but when it comes to groups, being able to interact with a publisher’s star talent is a huge draw. For the most successful groups, journalists will often stop in a few times a week to answer questions, launch new threads, or join in on already-ongoing discussions. I’m currently working on an article about The Hustle’s Facebook group it set up for its ambassador program, and almost every single day, Hustle founder Sam Parr posts to the group and is extremely active, and the members eat it up.
Weed out trolls early and often. The comments sections on Facebook posts are often free-for-alls with very little moderation, but you can’t afford to allow trolls and flame wars to proliferate on your Facebook group. Because the framework of groups allows anyone to post and for that person’s posts to appear in members’ Newsfeeds, even a moderate level of spam or trolling will result in people leaving the group. You should establish clear rules early on (and pin them to the top so people see them immediately upon joining), and ban people who violate those rules.
Speaking of joining the group, Facebook allows moderators to ask potential members questions they need to answer before they can join. Use this feature to identify potentially problematic members before they’re even given access to the group. If a potential member can’t even be bothered to answer a few simple questions, then there’s a higher chance they’re a spammer who’s joining dozens of groups at a time so they can spray out their promotional links.
Groups can’t all be about you. Most publisher Facebook pages only link to that publisher’s content, but when it comes to groups, it should be much more topic focused and less publisher focused. That’s not to say you can’t leverage your group to drive traffic to your content (otherwise, why create the group in the first place?), but if you’re just using the group as a link repository then Facebook users will have little incentive to join.
You need to be open to members starting their own discussion threads and, yes, linking to your competitors’ content. The Facebook group isn’t a one-way broadcasting outlet, and treating your group simply as a clone to your Facebook page would be an indication that you don’t truly understand the paradigm shift that’s occurring on the social media giant: Broadcasting is out. Community is in.
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As a longtime journalist who’s written for national publications including US News & World Report, The Atlantic…