While social networks have enjoyed the spotlight for many years, branded – or owned – communities never went away.
Popular owned communities like Flyertalk, Essential Baby, Whirlpool, Mumsnet, American Express, Gaia Online, ReachOut, not to mention countless customer service communities, have balanced an on-network community with a strategic presence in social media for many years. These entities still add value and interact tactically on social networks, but a deep dive community experience helps them achieve a core objective or mission.
In recent years the realisation by later adopters that social media isn’t free, or easy, combined with rising cost barriers and noise in our most trafficked channels, has seen a renewed interest in owned community.
So what are the advantages in doing it for yourself?
Here’s a few:
Communities should take effort to join and are designed to move new members through a combination of qualifying factors (for example: I’m a new mum who lives in Melbourne who wants to connect with other new mums in the area).
Boundaries allow like-minded people to come together and promote a sense of belonging. Social networks have infamously low boundaries (it’s one of the reasons they’re so great at other things, like information dissemination).
As community builder Peter Block writes:
Social fabric is created one room at a time, the one we are in at the moment. It is formed out of the questions “Whom do we want in the room?” and “What is the new conversation that we want to occur?”
Community isn’t about serendipity – about letting down the drawbridge, inviting in the masses and seeing what happens. It’s about choices and lines in the virtual sand. It has an articulated purpose and a curated collective around that purpose.
With an owned community your joining requirements and initiation rituals can take the form they need to.
Control can be a dirty word. Some see it as the antithesis of social media. Yet control as intention is at the heart of the community experience.
A defining feature of community is that its members seek control and influence within the community as a driver of participation.
And the host or creator of the community needs to be able to control the experience and change it to suit the needs of members over time.
If you monetise your community you need to be able to control that process.
Social networks have notoriously inadequate moderation tools. The ability to accentuate the positive and prune the negative isn’t a priority for those platforms. But healthy communities require a relevant level of moderation to nurture the culture desired by host and members alike.
Community managers need to be able to remove obstacles to purpose, and this can be an uphill battle on third party sites where you have don’t have the tools to do the job or the influence to have them created.
Community platforms (such as Discourse, Lithium, Jive and more) have better moderation functionality than social networks and many offer the ability to customise tools to suit your needs.
When a third party platform goes down and you’ve got all your relationship eggs in that basket, you’re in trouble. No site is foolproof, and your own community might easily have downtime or other issues. But you have agency over those issues in a way you simply don’t if your CRM is tied solely to a third party social network, including (usually) the means to contact your members to keep communication lines open.
You’re also vulnerable to functionality changes that may or may not enhance the purpose of the community and held hostage to changes that third parties have every right to make, but that might be at odds with member needs.
People don’t usually mind providing information about themselves relevant to the need they’re looking to extract from a product or experience.
On social networks you only have access to a fraction of the data required to measure and optimise the experience for your fans and followers. You rarely have enough to contribute to meaningful CRM (that’s not what the platform is for).
Own the building blocks and you’ll have the blueprint to create the ideal community for hosts and members, including the products, services, tools and outcomes you require or desire. Take care not to surrender your relationship building efforts to someone else’s database.
For many communities of purpose, pseudonymity is important for open and impactful engagement and interaction. Your members need to be able to define their identity as they desire, in relation to the purpose of the community, and this isn’t easy on major social networks.
Offering members freedom over how they define themselves helps promote a sense of belonging and disclosure – two critical elements for lasting community.
Hundreds, even thousands, of content rich interactions taking place on your own network regularly is SEO catnip.
This doesn’t just improve your digital footprint, but importantly, helps you and your community become synonymous with the topic of the community.
This means you’ll attract and have a chance to recruit more relevant members, and you’ll increase the odds of your members achieving their collective aims (e.g. to offer peer support from those experiencing housing distress).
Create your own discoverability magnet.
Choose your own adventure
Social media are the spokes to your community hub. They’re nodes that will flow in and out of your community to help you tell your community story, recruit new members and achieve community goals.
An owned community lets founders (and members) define who the community is for and craft its experience and content around that function. It enables members, not only fans or followers.