After News Feed change, publishers see potential in Facebook Groups but are wary of going all-in
Publishers are experimenting with Facebook Groups -- which foster the meaningful interactions Facebook is prioritizing -- but want to make sure the investments pay off.
Long before Facebook announced that it would cut the organic reach of publishers’ Page posts on its social network, Vox Media’s Vox saw an opportunity to reach people on Facebook through Facebook Groups.
In late 2016, the news publication created a Facebook Group to help Obamacare enrollees understand how the 2016 US presidential election could impact their health insurance coverage. Then, in April 2017, it added another group connected to its in-depth politics podcast, “The Weeds.”
“We wanted to build a community where we could grow our loyal audience and also reward the people that had been with us all along,” said Vox’s social media manager, Julie Bogen.
Facebook sees groups in a similar way. Facebook’s version of a message board, these forums dovetail with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s goal for the company to encourage “more meaningful social interactions.”
In announcing last month’s News Feed algorithm change, Zuckerberg explicitly called out groups when detailing the content that will appear more regularly in people’s News Feeds. “You can expect to see more [posts] from your friends, family and groups,” he wrote. And in a company blog post announcing the change, Facebook’s head of News Feed, Adam Mosseri, cited groups in a discussion of the types of Page posts that would rank higher following the change.
However, while Facebook Groups shows promise in recouping publishers’ lost reach on Facebook, publishers are wary of going all-in on the feature. They are cognizant that the necessary costs to manage a group may not pay off in terms of site traffic or revenue.
“While we’ll be closely monitoring both our groups and a range of Facebook metrics in the wake of algorithm changes, I believe that it is still too early to make any major shifts in our strategy,” said Vox’s engagement editor, Blair Hickman, in an email. “Groups do take a fair amount of resources to build and maintain. And we want to make sure that it’s a smart way to spend our time because it’s in line with our editorial and engagement goals — not necessarily because of a change that Facebook has made.”
The cost of Groups
On any given day, Vox’s Bogen receives 30 to 40 requests from “The Weeds” group’s more than 14,500 members to publish posts to the rest of the group. Because it is a closed group, she has to manually approve each of those posts before they can be published. While she doesn’t need to manually approve the comments on posts, she does monitor them throughout the day, and they can be even more numerous than posts. A single comment on a post has spawned more than 400 comments, Bogen said.
In other words, managing a Facebook Group requires a significant amount of time and effort. How much? “The answer is infinity,” said Jenny Earnest, assistant social media editor at magazine publisher Outside, which created its first group last summer shortly after Facebook officially opened up the feature to Pages.
The real answer is that it can vary. Earnest and fellow assistant social media editor Svati Narula oversee Outside’s four Facebook Groups, three of which are closed, and they try to strike a balance between not micro-managing the groups and not being absentee admins.
Outside’s groups may not be as large as Vox’s, but they are active. Its “The Outside Public Lands Forum” group spans just shy of 3,000 members, but 69 percent of those members are considered active members, according to Facebook’s Group Insights tool, said Earnest.
Since the group grapples with the future of the country’s public lands — a hot-button political issue these days — its comment threads can get a little heated. To manage matters, Outside has pinned its group guidelines atop the forum’s feed. It also relies on group members to keep each other in check. “Groups do tend to manage themselves,” said Earnest. “If things get out of hand, other members will report the post and all the [group] admins will get notified.”
Bogen has seen the same be true of Vox’s “The Weeds” group, which also laid out guidelines with input from Vox Media’s legal team. Bogen has also made the group’s members aware that she’s the one responsible for moderating the group and the work that entails. As a result, “they work together and make my life easier,” she said.
The payoff of groups
In the same way that members of a “Game of Thrones” message board are more likely to preach about the book and TV series to anyone who will listen, Vox’s group members are similarly willing to tweet, post and otherwise share content from Vox, and particularly episodes of “The Weeds” podcast.
Vox’s “The Weeds” group “has really formed a community of friendships and learning, but also Vox evangelists,” said Bogen.
That evangelism is further fueled when Vox’s editors visit the group to ask for members’ help with upcoming episodes or articles. As an example, Vox assistant editor Karen Turner, seeking first-person essays connected to the #MeToo movement, published a post to the group asking for pitches and got 15 to 20 responses from its members, said Bogen. Vox even produced an AMA-style episode of “The Weeds” with all of the questions sourced from the group’s members.
Outside has similarly involved its editors in its groups as a way to not only fan their fandom but also to help with content creation. Outside’s gear editors sometimes turn to its “Outside Gearheads” group to see what types of equipment are being mentioned in posts asking for specific recommendations.
In addition to harvesting content from groups, publishers are also seeing opportunities to use groups to seed themselves deeper with a particular segment of their overall audience. Parenting site Fatherly created its first group last month for exactly this reason, according to its COO, Michael Wertheim.
Called “2018 Kids,” the group is aimed at expecting parents. In creating a specific space for this part of its audience, it also cordons off others so that a person with 16-year-old kids isn’t inundated with posts from Fatherly’s Facebook Page offering tips to swaddle a baby or detailing the pros and cons of breastfeeding.
“We’re experimenting with year-based groups, and if this first one works well, then we’ll do ‘2017 Kids,’ ‘2016 Kids’ and obviously do them moving forward so that we can really target out content,” said Wertheim.
But will groups actually pay off?
Before Fatherly rolls out “1978 Kids,” it will need to see “2018 Kids” pay off. Currently its social media manager moderates the group. “If we do have a full-on group strategy, we’ll probably hire a community manager that will spend all of their time on that,” said Wertheim.
For Fatherly to commit to a full-on group strategy, it will need to see how much of a community it can create and “ultimately is this something that can also drive traffic if we share our articles to the group?” Wertheim said.
The question is a big one, and the answer is unclear.
Vox’s Bogen declined to say how many new podcast listeners or site visitors “The Weeds” group has contributed. For Outside, “the goal was never really to drive traffic,” said its digital editorial director, Scott Rosenfield, though “monetization was always on our minds.”
Instead of using its groups to steer people to its site, where it can show them brands’ ads, Outside sees an opportunity to bring brands into its groups. The publication has already pitched the idea to “a number of advertisers” and is “close to signing a partner for a new group,” Rosenfield said.