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Public Social Media Network or Private Online Community? 11 Tips to Guide Your Decision

Should you build an online community on a social media platform by creating a Facebook or Linkedin groups, or should you build on a community platform?


Would you build your house on rented land? Or move all your belongings into a hotel room?

The answers are obvious. No, you wouldn’t, because you’d be trying to create something permanent in an impermanent place that you don’t own, where things could change at any moment.

Could the same concept apply to building a community for your customers or members on social media? We think so.

Social media is an important part of any organizational strategy. But communities built on social media and communities built on platforms designed for community serve different purposes, behave differently, and provide a different experience to customers, partners, or members.

Some organizations choose to build their communities via social media platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn because they’re free and easy to get started. For some, this short-term solution is suitable.

But if you’re an organization where customer or member engagement is high priority, retention is a major KPI, and your customers and members need the support of the organization and one another to succeed in their jobs, you’d get much more value out of a platform meant for online community.

When making the decision between a public social network or private online community, your choice should be based on how they compare. We’re here to help you make the best-educated decision for your organization’s needs.

11 Benefits of Building Your Community on a Dedicated Community Platform

1. You have more engagement with your customers/members

Trying to build a community on social media isn’t easy. You can try to engage your customers or members, but everyone else is also there. The common distractions on social media (cute cat videos, anyone?) can divert your audience from engaging meaningfully with your content.

With a dedicated online community solution…

You’re creating a dedicated space for customers and members to engage with you. A community platform creates a two-way conversation between you and your customer, donor, or member. And get this: Engagement rates are actually much higher in online communities. The Community Roundtable reports that for those who work in social media, engagement rates average between .05-5% of their total followers, but comparatively, almost 50% of online community members are actively engaged.

2. Your customers and members can easily engage with each other

In many cases, today’s customers look for and rely on the tips, recommendations, and support that they can get from one another. But often, conversations in social networks are very one-on-one with the brand, versus a conversation between community members. Plus, your customers or members may not even know who each other are.

With a dedicated online community solution…

In a branded online community, you provide your members or customers with a dedicated space to invest and grow. They can network, problem-solve, grow professionally, arrange partnerships, form friendships, and become successful (thanks to you).

3. You can protect your members’ data

Bringing customers together creates valuable data around your industry – you might just be giving that away if you’re building your community on a social media platform. And they can and will use that data. This isn’t great from the perspective of giving away industry data, but it’s also not great for your members. They want to know their data is safe with you. Can you guarantee that on a social media site?

With a dedicated online community solution…

You own your own data, and you can keep your community members’ data private. You can look at different behavior patterns to show your members content relevant to them. You can base business decisions on customer and member data – from product roadmaps to messaging.

4. You add a huge revenue opportunity

On social platforms, your members are bound to see ads, which isn’t necessarily bad. The problem? Someone else gets the ad revenue. Let’s be real: Google and Facebook own the majority of the ad market. Why send members and prospects somewhere else when you could be bringing that traffic – and potential ad revenue – to your own site?

With a dedicated online community solution…

Ads are a great way to increase your organization’s revenue if you have control of the platform. If your members are going to see ads, you may as well make sure you’re benefiting from it – and choosing what gets promoted.

For example, the Massachusetts Society of CPAs (MSCPA) offers advertising space on its online community and weekly newsletters and use an advertising kit to promote the space and the engagement rates. They generated nearly $14,000 in non-dues revenue in a year.

5. Your community data flows back to your database

Social platforms don’t integrate with your database the way a branded community platform does. All the data lives in a social media silo, and you can’t leverage any of the industry specific demographics, committees, chapters, purchases, or events within the community.

With a dedicated online community solution…

Online community data integrations help you keep your database and contacts updated and accurate – plus, they add loads of engagement data to your typical transactional or demographic data. Rather than managing two disparate data sources, you’ll only have to work with one at a time.

6. You gain inbound leads and valuable search engine optimization (SEO) content

If your community is hosted on an unconnected, unbranded platform, the relevant content in that community isn’t helping optimize your website’s for search or increase your brand awareness. Plus, you lose the opportunity to bring in organic leads through searches.

With a dedicated online community solution…

As your community members create content, the community’s SEO increases – make sure you take advantage of that and bring new leads directly to you. Wouldn’t you rather bring leads to your website where they can download content and learn more about your organization, rather than to a third party?

7. You can manage your community more easily

Social media communities like Facebook or LinkedIn groups don’t give you many community management tools. For example, if a customer doesn’t renew, or a membership lapses, you’ll have to go through by hand and remove them from your group – no automation, sorry.

With a dedicated online community solution…

You’ve got maximum control over the structure and management of your community. Most online customer or member communities have several sub-communities where access is granted based on their data. This integration enables permission settings to be managed dynamically based on real-time customer or member data. Plus, community managers can use built-in moderation tools to address inappropriate content or behavior according to their community governance policy.

8. Your users’ experience is under your control

Facebook decides to change its look overnight? Great, your community just changed, too. Any changes to your users’ experience are under the social media platform’s control.

With a dedicated online community solution…

With an online community you buy or build, you’re choosing (to some extent) what their experience will be like. You have control over the backend and can explain why changes were made.

9. You can brand your community

Social media platforms generally have one or two images that you can customize with your own brand elements. Other than that? Your organization’s page, group, or community will look and act like every other organization on that network.

With a dedicated online community solution…

You can match your own website’s design and branding, making sure everything aligns. Let your community serve your organization’s objectives, rather than being at the whim of a social media platform’s objectives.

10. You can target & personalize content

On social media, your community is competing with content and interactions from your audience’s personal and professional lives. You can buy targeted ads, but they’ll cost you, and there’s little guarantee you’ll reach your ideal customer base. Not all of your customers are going to be active on social media platforms, especially considering the recent landscape where Facebook has made headlines for prior misuse of data and targeting. Your customers might jump ship on Facebook for personal reasons, and your business outreach will leave with them.

With a dedicated online community solution…

On the flip side, in an online community, the content and discussions become more relevant and focused. Your customers aren’t weaving their way through other content on their way to your community, they’re going straight to your community because they know and trust your content. Furthermore, you make them feel welcome and seen through personalization.

11. You have access to in-depth, meaningful analytics on your customers/members

Social media platforms offer plenty of analytics to help you understand your audience. The question is, can you use the data they produce to truly understand the needs and preferences of your specific customer or member group? Sure, they may provide insights into a broad swath of an audience and how they like to interact on that platform, but if you’re looking for meaningful insights about your own customers or members to guide your programs and strategies, social media communities won’t be the place.

With a dedicated online community solution…

Most online community software providers have advanced analytics tools which can be customized to fit your specific business needs. And the data that comes from these platforms can inform many of your organization’s goals, whether it’s retention, success, or marketing. Why? Because you get to listen into tons of conversations between your current customers and members, observe the topics that interest them, hear their concerns and feedback, and act on that data (using sophisticated reporting tools).

Pick the Right Platform for Your Needs

Each social platform – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and even Slack – has a place in the world and your organization. They’re all important and powerful tools. The trick is finding the right job for each tool. And it’s important to pick the right tool for your community.

Think through what your needs are. Are these online community platform benefits in line with what your organization needs? Maybe you need to build your community on land that you own.

After all, what is the real value of community for organizations? Learn more from The Community Roundtable.

Download the Community Roundtable's State of Community Management Report

Editor’s note: This post was originally published by Joshua Paul in June 2014 and has since been refreshed to make sure we’re bringing you the latest and greatest. 

Elizabeth Bell

Elizabeth Bell is the former Content Marketing Manager at Higher Logic. She’s passionate about communities, tech, and communicating about both effectively. When she’s not writing, you’ll probably find her cooking, reading, gardening, or playing volleyball.