Facebook Groups were recently updated, receiving an aesthetic and functional overhaul to make them “start looking and behaving a lot like Pages and Profiles,” as Adam Ostrow put it. Although the changes are “aimed at making it easier for members to communicate and share their activities,” they don’t really resolve the core issues that make Groups the train wreck that they are.
Before I spell out the fundamental problems with Groups, I want to make clear that I’m not opposed to Groups per se. I think they have the potential to be enormously beneficial, in terms of social utility, marketing value, and as a key component of Facebook’s monetization strategy. Done well, Groups can be a tremendous social utility for users. One of the primary reasons Facebook is a much better social networking platform than MySpace and other competitors is the quality of the connections and relationships it fosters. As the landing page clearly proclaims, “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” I have 500 friends on Facebook, and they’re all folks I’ve known personally at some point in my life – family, friends, co-workers, students, professors, colleagues, even folks I haven’t seen since high school, some 20 years ago. I’m not barraged by friend requests from strangers and spambots, and the requests I make are generally the result of recognizing a new connection in my newsfeed among my existing friends, or a suggestion from Facebook’s highly accurate recommendation engine. As the site says, my friends on Facebook are the people in my life. Unlike MySpace, where finding people I actually know is next to impossible, Facebook allows me to connect and communicate with folks that matter to me. In short, the social value of Facebook is that it expands my personal network without inundating me with thousands of useless connections. But this is also the site’s primary limitation – I need a way to connect and share with like-minded people who aren’t in my personal network (or by extension, in my friends’ personal networks). Groups are an obvious solution to this problem, though their current composition isn’t getting it done (more on this in a minute). Still, there’s a lot of potential here.
From a marketing perspective, Groups allow users to cluster together around shared affinities, transforming a teeming mass of hundreds of millions into discrete, manageable sub-communities. Not only does this make it easier to deliver targeted content and marketing messages, but it also encourages the kind of social interactions that brands crave: active, engaged enthusiasts sharing ideas, encouraging participation, reviewing and recommending products and services, and evangelizing the activities, interests, and lifestyles that drive consumer behavior. Of course, this ties in directly with the value of Groups in terms of monetization, as these high-value sub-communities would be prime real estate for online advertisers. Moreover, Group pages offer unparalleled opportunities for interactive marketing to consumers that actually desire engagement with relevant brands. Given Facebook’s size and the level of participation among its users, Groups could revolutionize online advertising and generate a revenue stream that would make Google’s AdWords pale in comparison.
So, there’s a lot of upside here, but as I said at the outset, Groups as they’re currently constituted aren’t even close to realizing this potential. Here are the problems:
- Fragmentation: Allowing users to create Groups provides a lot of flexibility and variety among the kinds of Groups available, but it also results in serious overlap and fragmentation. For example, a search for “football” on the Groups main page returns more than 500 results, the vast majority of which are utterly indistinguishable from one another. This fragmentation not only compromises the social utility of Groups by making it virtually impossible to find one that fits your needs (more on this below), but also undermines the marketing and monetization potential of groups. Even if marketers can differentiate between Groups dedicated to American football and those dedicated to soccer, their advertising options are basically limited to banners and interactive ads that require a minimal amount of engagement by brands with each Group. Fragmentation makes it extremely difficult for brands to take seriously the advice heard often from social media and interactive marketing consultants – to truly engage users in social environments. Monitoring and participating int the social conversation on hundreds of redundant groups is impossible. Add in the problems of administration, moderation, and ownership, and the existing structure of Groups presents a monetization nightmare.
The Solution: There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Facebook can retain all the benefits of user-generated Groups by simply adding public Groups created, administered, moderated, and owned by Facebook. Anybody can join, anybody can contribute, and the official sanction makes it a more attractive destination for folks like me who don’t want to comb through hundreds of options just to find other folks who want to talk football. Sure, there are far too many potential Groups for Facebook to try and cover them all, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what the big ones are, or which marketers will find the most appealing. Let users create the Group for left-handed underwater basket weavers. Football? Hard to say you didn’t see that coming. As an added bonus, Facebook-generated groups present a great opportunity to generate sponsorship revenue. Why not sell a sponsorship for the NFL Group to CBS Sportsline? They can integrate existing content, enable cross-posting between their message boards and the discussion app in Facebook Groups, and attract members based on the value of their brand. These kinds of collaborations would not only create a novel revenue stream, but augment the Group experience for users by injecting great content. Seems like a win-win situation.
- Anemic Search Functionality: OK, so, maybe a search for a “football” Group is a little too broad. How about if I just want to talk about the NFL? I can refine my search by selecting a specific Group Type and Subtype. In this case, I select “Sports & Recreation” and “Professional Sports.” Again, my query returns more than 500 results. Not very helpful. So, let’s refine the basic search term, this time querying “NFL football.” Again, the search returns more than 500 results, and again, there’s very little to distinguish between any of these Groups. Refining it to search the Group Type “Sports & Recreation” and Subtype “Professional Sports,” I still get more than 500 results. As a user, how am I supposed to find a group that’s right for me? Trial and error? Based upon the associated image? Or maybe by the somewhat arbitrary and seemingly irrelevant Group Type designation? Facebook’s Group search functionality doesn’t allow me to sort results by size, or by most recent activity, or by creation date, or to find Groups my friends belong to, or to find Groups with members in any of my networks, or Groups whose membership reflects my other interests. Weak. Want people to start using Groups more? Start by making it easier to find ‘em.
The Solution: If you’re going to force me to comb through hundreds of results, at least give me the tools to do it intelligently. Fix your anemic search functionality. A search query should reveal a snapshot of a group’s membership so I can find one that fits me. How about letting me find a Group for football fanatics composed primarily of over-30, left-leaning, social media enthusiasts in Austin? All the data is there. This ain’t rocket surgery. Make it happen.
- Confusion between the functions of Groups and Pages: Although the distinction between Groups and Pages may seem obvious, the comments to Ostrow’s Mashable piece on the Group’s overhaul reveal a significant amount of confusion among users. If the intention of these latest changes is to make Group functionality more similar to Pages, this confusion will probably grow. Facebook explains the distinction between the two this way: “Keep in mind that while Groups and Pages now look the same, they still serve different purposes. Groups are for fostering member-to-member collaboration, while Pages remain the best way to broadcast messages to your fans if you are a business, organization, public figure or other entity.” Seems fairly clear. Unfortunately, a lot of folks who really need to be making Pages are being encouraged to create Groups. This not only contributes to the problem of fragmentation, but also results in a lot of underutilized Groups. If you want to promote a brand, celebrity, or band, create a Page. If you want to control the messaging and content, create a Page. If you want to enable users to interact with each other around a shared interest that’s generally broader than any single brand, celebrity, or brand, create a Group. Although this confusion isn’t entirely Facebook’s fault, the lack of interaction between Groups and Pages is certainly a contributing factor.
The Solution: Figure out an elegant way to link Groups and Pages (and Groups to other Groups). If I’m a member of a Group dedicated to NFL fans, I would like to have access to Pages for Adrian Peterson and Nike fan gear, and Groups geared to fans of the Houston Texans. Having all of these pieces accessible in one spot would make for a much richer Group experience. Content is still king, even in social environments, and the plethora of Pages and Groups related to any given Group are an enormous untapped resource. Start tapping.