Is Facebook Really Useless as a Community Platform?


I read a recent post by another online community guru, Richard Millington, who proclaimed that Facebook is a useless platform. While there is some merit in his sentiment (more on that later), I think it diverts the focus of what’s really important when initiating an online community.

Is Facebook really useless?

No. Facebook is the largest social network in existence. For big brands, this can be good. Their marketing or PR firms are trying to cast their media net as wide as possible. Exposure is important, deep engagement or collaboration are not. For this, putting up a Facebook page is a reasonable strategy. For smaller brands, local businesses, or even musicians, Facebook is hugely important. These businesses are trying to keep existing fans and customers engaged and up-to-date, while also letting their fans go out and do some grass-roots marketing on their behalf. And they’re trying to do this with as little capital as possible. Here too Facebook is a very reasonable platform to build off of. The network has huge reach and the platform costs virtually nothing to build off of.

But are these communities? That depends on what community means to you.

Before any deliberation on which online community platform to go with, you first have to define who your community is, what members do there, and what your community goals are.

What’s Your Definition of Community?

Dawn Foster, another online community guru, talked a while back on what an online community manager is, and more important to my post here today, why online communities exist in the first place (I wasn’t there but you can view her slides here).

(Credit: Dawn Foster. Check out her Fast Wonder blog)

These are some solid reasons why an online community might exist. And just this far, any software platform might work, Facebook included. To answer your platform question, then, you need to consider another dimension: Engagement and Interaction. Whether your community exists for innovation, collaboration, evangelism or loyalty, you have to think about how your community members are interacting with each other. What level of engagement is going on here? What types of activities are they performing to stay connected or to work towards the community’s goal?

Let’s take a look at two examples, one from each end of the engagement spectrum.

On the shallow side of engagement, you might have a community focused on a product, and it’s goal is to increase customers, or customer satisfaction. The business running the community would put forth media (blogs, videos, status updates) that resonates with their audience, like keeping them them up-to-date on new products and events. The audience soaks it up, and their ultimate interaction with any given media might be simply clicking “like” or “share”. This type of community is more like traditional mass media – one way or barely two-way. Facebook would work here.

On the other side of the engagement spectrum, you might have a community who’s goal is to improve a product. Here you will have a community that relies heavily on multi-way interactions. The community goal requires that members collaborate and share in deep ways in order to push things forward. In this community, they will likely require rich collaboration features such as document-sharing and version control, workflows, permissions and privacy controls, groups, and more. Facebook would likely not work for this type of community.

When you define your community, think about it’s purpose and goals, and also think about the level of engagement that will be required to achieve them. Facebook may be exactly what your community needs.



  1. Hi Ben – great post. It’s something “non-FB” (or pre-FB) Community Managers have been discussing a lot over the years. Working with both private and public sector online communities – both on and off Facebook – I can recognise that Facebook does have a lot to offer. After all is makes sense to fish where the fish are.

    However – and I think this is what Rich’s addressing – Facebook pages are often mistakenly referred to as communities. They’re often not much more than a broadcast medium that allows comments. It is very difficult to foster peer-to-peer interactions, the barrier to entry is so low there’s no sense of membership, there’s no reputation system etc. So I think you’re right when you say it’s suitable for shallow engagement.

    But for a long-term option with better controls companies/orgs should consider a proprietary community platform (which can always be complemented with a Facebook presence.)

    Hopefully companies/orgs will test the waters with Facebook and it’ll give them the confidence to boldly wade out a little further.

  2. Thanks Alison, good comments. One thing you said was interesting to me: “…the barrier to entry is so low there’s no sense of membership”. I can understand that a bit of intrigue and allure around membership can drive a stronger sense of membership. But what about ease-of-access and convenience? Don’t you want your potential or desired members to be able to join easily?

    With the community I manage, I’m trying to reduce barriers to entry in order to reduce premature abandonment during registration process. In my case, reducing potential for abandonment is more important than the achievement of membership.

    Curios what your thinking is on this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s