Why I (Almost) Never Recommend Facebook Groups as a Community Platform
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
(And a formal apology to comic sans, which is a great font)
A couple of days ago, I stirred the pot on Twitter a bit. Here's what I said:
I intended this to to be quippy and definitely a bit of a dunk, but I didn't think this would be super controversial. In the professional community-builder circles I'm in, most folks tend to see Facebook as a "sometimes necessary evil"—if they're on it, there's a reason, but they tend to wish they weren't.
I quickly learned two things: a lot of people really love comic sans, and a lot of people still see Facebook as a frontrunner platform in the community-building space.
I would like to extend my official apology to comic sans (which I actually have no problem with and also learned is one of the most accessible fonts), but I still stand by the core point of my original tweet: Facebook groups are rarely the best choice platform for building brand communities.
While I can't really make good off-the-cuff platform recommendations based on Twitter interactions—no thoughtful community pro would—what I can say is that I rarely recommend Facebook groups to my consulting clients. Those decisions are reached after hours of discussing goals and strategies, and getting the chance to really evaluate whether a tool like Facebook is the best fit vs. something else that's available on the market.
Twitter can be a pretty divisive place because character limits encourage hot takes over nuance, and I definitely fell into that trap by sharing a not-so-nuanced opinion on something that's actually a pretty nuanced topic. As a result, a lot of folks rightly pointed out that my definitive statement about Facebook Groups has limits. Some favorite counterpoints for your consideration (and some great people to follow):
Overall, this thread brought up a lot of interesting dimensions of the debate over Facebook groups for community, which prompted me to want to write a more in-depth post explaining why I, the very vast majority of the time, do not recommend Facebook groups for community builders.
I've run professional brand communities on Facebook groups. I didn't like it.
Let's start with this. My opinion on running communities on Facebook groups comes from my experience running communities on Facebook groups. Like almost everything I now teach as a best practice in community building, this conviction is not about shaming people who are "doing community wrong"—it's about recommending what I believe works best based on the mistakes I've made in the past. I learned most of what I know about community building through years of trial and error, which means that most of the things I tell people not to do now are things I have myself done at one point or another. In other words, no judgement. 😎
I ended up moving the community program I ran for Teachable off of Facebook groups and on to Circle* because I was running into some serious limitations using Facebook. It's worth mentioning that by all external accounts, the community I ran on Facebook was successful—in other words, it was highly engaged. It had almost 40k members, a very high active membership ratio (especially for such a large group), and members started organic conversations daily. But, while based on that information alone, it seems successful, engagement is only the tip of the iceberg. I've talked a lot in the past about the limitations of seeing positive engagement metrics as synonymous with success—and that perspective is definitely a big part of why I don't see Facebook groups as a be-all-end-all for community builders.
When I used Facebook groups, I had three core issues:
I had no idea who my members were—Facebook famously hinders external access to basic data that would allow you to connect members to your group with active users to an external product, or set up integrations that expand the uses of your community. (This is ironic because they're completely irresponsible with data in other contexts, but that's another story). In addition to hindering workflows for community managers, this makes measuring anything beyond shallow engagement metrics a complete non-starter. That might be ok for a hobby community, but it mostly disqualifies Facebook from being an effective tool for businesses who run brand communities, especially alongside another product (like a software company or even a paid newsletter or online course).
I had limited control over the culture. Yes, you can positively influence the culture of a Facebook community with strong community management practices—not every Facebook community is doomed to fail on this count. But, it is true that you have less control over establishing a culture from scratch on Facebook than you do on a custom platform, where you get the benefit of a completely blank slate. In Facebook groups, your members are going back and forth between arguing about politics with distant relatives one moment to interacting with your brand the next—and it shows. The culture of communities on Facebook will be inherently more volatile than in another space, even with good community management practices and a relatively innocuous subject matter. It's kind of like how you have less control over the vibe of your birthday party if you have it at a restaurant versus at your home. You can control the conversation at your table, but you can't control how loud the music is or what the table right across from you talks about.
Facebook communities are forums, only. The most innovative thinkers in community are creating community programs that include, but transcend, a simple forum experience. And although most community platforms may appear to be fundamentally forums, more modern, customizable platforms are created with those robust community programs in mind. These programs might include things like event series, challenges, formalized user generated content series, combinations of public and private spaces, tiered access, easier access to personal connections within the network, and more. If you're just trying to establish a place where folks can congregate to chat, then Facebook might do the trick. In my instance, I had big dreams for my community program that simply could not be accomplished with the Facebook Groups tool.
There is no one community platform to rule them all.
I'm a big believer that there is no one perfect software for community (or really for anything), but there's usually a best fit software for your project and use case. For any community project, I always start with goals and must-have features and then evaluate softwares according to those aspects. Because of that, I feel that pushing to establish which softwares are "better than" Facebook misses the point. And, it's equally important that we don't assume that just because Facebook has network effects, it's the best or only way to achieve your community goals.
That said, I generally see the landscape of community platforms falling into three categories: enterprise softwares (like Khoros, Vanilla Forums, and Chaordix), network effects softwares (like Facebook Groups, Slack, and Discord), and consumer/creator focussed softwares (like Circle, Mighty Networks, Disciple Media, Tribe, and many many more). I'm personally most familiar with and usually comparing between the last category because in my career I've worked the most with startups and independent entrepreneurs—but if I were working with a large enterprise or another use case, that recommendation would change.
I usually use those categories as a starting point for comparison for any particular project. If a believed a project could not possibly succeed without leaning on network effects heavily (because the brand had no established audience yet, limited staff bandwidth, a very tech averse audience, or for some other reason), I might still recommend Facebook or another platform in that category. It really depends.
I've done some writing in the past on how I evaluated moving off of Facebook, and how I got my community members bought in on the decision that you're welcome to check out for more context on that decision-making process.
The benefits you're getting from using Facebook aren't as good as they seem.
When I hear folks talking about why they want to use Facebook groups (or why they feel like they couldn't move off of Facebook even though they dislike it, i.e., the "necessary evil" argument), there are usually three core reasons:
Network effects: they believe that Facebook groups will provide higher engagement because members already use it habitually.
Audience growth: they believe that Facebook aids discoverability for their community.
Member friction/learning curve: They believe that if they tried to move off of Facebook, their members would be unwilling or unable to learn a new platform.
I won't argue that those things are benefits to using Facebook groups—they're good benefits. But, I disagree with the assumption that these benefits outweigh every other decision you might make in designing your community.
Yes, Facebook groups have network effects and the benefit of habituated members, which makes them feel more "noisy." But, as community builders we can't simply stop at believing that more engagement is always better. We should be optimizing for quality over quantity, and not letting a feeling of "noisiness" be the sole deciding factor in how we design communities or gauge success.
Yes, Facebook groups are discoverable, and can help you find new community members. But let's not forget that building an audience does not equal building a community. There are easier (and more effective) ways to get leads for your business that don't dilute the quality and intimacy of the experience for engaged community members than using a Facebook group to try to growth hack an audience. Plus, not every community is optimized for acquisition. On the contrary, most communities should be optimized for retention.
Yes, people already know how to use Facebook groups, and there's friction in learning a new product. But, like any other product (and a community is a product), you have many tools at your disposal—like effective onboarding flows and ongoing email marketing that's integrated with your community experience—to help teach your members how to use your community and build habits.
Running a successful community off of Facebook takes a different approach.
There's an assumption among some community builders that the only way to have a successful community is through completely organic member engagement. This feels about one degree removed from "if you build it, they will come"—something we mostly agree is a fallacy of building new things. It's the same thing with community.
When we build a new community, we should expect things like building an audience for the community, teaching them how to use it, helping them build habits, and seeding engagement to be a big part of the work—just as we would with any other product.
The unique cocktail of benefits that Facebook groups do provide has made it so that a precious few communities can skip those essential steps and are still able to create engaged communities (usually because the business already has some credibility and audience that they've worked hard at establishing outside of Facebook, that gives the impression of completely organic growth—and on the opposite side of the spectrum, Facebook's not exactly a magic bullet for sidestepping traditional marketing and audience growth if you're truly starting from scratch).
When community builders who have been lucky with Facebook try to reproduce this apparent magic on a different platform, skipping those core components of strategy doesn't work the same way, which causes them to write off non-Facebook platforms as less effective. In reality, they really just require a different strategy. I'll admit that building successful community programs off of Facebook is harder and requires a more in-depth strategy, but I've come to believe that those extra steps are worth it—they tend optimize for deeper outcomes.
Most importantly, I wouldn't assume that the tools are inherently ineffective just because you haven't learned or optimized the strategy needed to use them effectively. There are many thriving communities running off of Facebook to turn to as examples.
If it's working for you, that's great 🙂 If it's not, you have other options.
Lastly, I want to say that if you are running a community on Facebook Groups that's accomplishing everything you or your business want it to accomplish, that's great! You're the expert in your own community, and as the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
But, for those of you out there who are begrudgingly running a community on Facebook Groups: if you've ever felt like there are no other options or that switching will doom you to failure, I hope this has helped offer a different perspective! I'll be writing and sharing soon a comparison of platforms in the consumer/creator-focussed category to help get to know these options better soon.
*Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. That's because writing a blog and working with consulting clients is a part of my business as a creator, I believe there's value in helping folks discover and understand the tools on the market, and affiliate links are a simple way to monetize the time I spend producing this content. I don't include or exclude mentions or links based on affiliation—if I'm not an affiliate but I believe something is still worth mentioning or linking to, I will still do so.
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