Social Media Platforms are not Proxies for Online Communities.

Lush’s Instagram post announcement

Earlier this week, Lush — the natural, handmade beauty company announced that it was deleting some of its social media profiles. Their reasoning? They were “sick of fighting algorithms and didn’t want to pay to appear in feeds.”

The response from the press, LinkedIn posts and replies to their tweet have a recurring response: “isn’t it ironic that Lush are quitting social media? don’t they know that online communities are imperative for brands these days? There is a general consensus that a brand having a social media presence is equivalent to building an online community. A quick Google search showed that while Lush has a “Community Favourites” product page on their site, I couldn’t find anything else relating to an online community for their customers.

LinkedIn commentary

But it got me thinking…are social media platforms the best place for brands to build their communities?

Community Talks

First, I want to differentiate between the type of community I’m talking about here. Online communities by businesses and brands can have slightly different objectives to those where the community itself is the product. In the former, community development can be a long-term business tactic for providing support to customers, increasing awareness of new and existing products, sourcing valuable information about target customers, gathering feedback on new ideas or existing products.

In the latter — people gather online around a shared interest. Member to member communication is fostered and encouraged, and offline events aren’t uncommon. A few examples come to mind: Rapha’s cycling enthusiasts, Product Hunt’s Makers, Buffer’s community of social media marketers, or Toptal’s burgeoning group of remote designers, engineers and business experts.

Social media companies – Facebook – in particular, have oft positioned themselves as the perfect conduits for “bringing people together. For those working in community management, you too will agree that this is one of your main goals. However, social media platforms shouldn’t be used by brands as substitutes for doing the work of building real, healthy digital spaces — the types of places online communities thrive.

Why Not?

1) Today, due to how newsfeeds and content algorithms work if a brand has a large social following — what they have is a distribution channel for pushing content. Yes, you can engage with people on social platforms, but it’s single sided, brand –> user. Online community platforms ought to facilitate user-to-user engagement.

2) Brands continue to have delusions of grandeur regarding how much people care about them. People do not care about brands. They care about the product & service — what the brand does for them. The brand “love” is secondary. Take Nike — a hugely successful brand with a massive social following. They don’t have thriving, “WE LOVE NIKE” communities. Their communities — Nike Training Club and Nike Run Club are where people who are running and fitness enthusiasts gather. The people who follow brands on social are not automatically members of this brand’s community..

3) It’s easy to conflate social engagement with community engagement, but they’re not the same. Most communication between brands and consumers on social is around providing social customer service. Social platforms have become an essential and timely channel for consumers to reach brands when they have a problem. An estimated 67% of consumers now use social media to seek resolution for issues.

4) Social media platforms optimise for clicks and reach. Take Instagram — attempting to curate a community where “ephemeral content sends folks straight to the sunken place of limited engagement returns” is not a practical approach.

Social media following ≠ community

If you’re a brand and you have thousands of followers on social – congratulations. But if you want to have two-way conversations with customers, and, more than that – to foster a space where fans of your product/service can gather, then you’re doing yourself a disservice by relying on closed platforms where users are the product and weekly changing algorithms promote disinformation campaigns.

Instead, do the work required to build thriving online communities of your own. Build a forum on your site, or use Slack or Vanilla to curate a space where those can gather to create together. Prioritise being social without social media. Of course, use your reach on social to promote your community — but don’t fall into the trap of believing your social following is all it takes to build one.

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