The Future of Media

A conversation with: 

Matt Navarra

Social Media Consultant
Matt Navarra Media

Hold Tight, Facebook Groups Are Just Getting Started

Facebook Groups and online communities are on the rise, but few brands have yet harnessed their full power. Hear from social expert Matt Navarra on unannounced Facebook changes for Group monetization, what it takes to grow a vibrant digital community, and what digital communities might look like in the future.

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Interview Key Points

  • Facebook groups are still young but community engagement is high
  • Facebook is testing group monetization options, and could allow admins to set a monthly fee for special access to subgroups
  • Community sponsorships and polls can be used to monetize groups too
  • Group monetization could disappoint members; expectation management is key
  • Public groups may grow faster, but private groups will have richer interaction
  • Groups should build a sense of camaraderie and support, and be self-sustaining
  • The future of communities is niche, just like the future of content
  • Digitial communities can stand out by specializing
  • Community growth is strong outside Facebook too – Reddit, WhatsApp, Telegram, Discord, and even old school web forums
  • For brands and publishers, Facebook offers the easiest path to build community
  • "Ready Player One" — style VR communities could be here within 10 years

Full Interview Transcript

Patrick Costello
Matt Navarra
Matt Navarra Media

Editor's Note:

After this interview was recorded, Mark Zuckerberg shared, "A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking", in which he notes, "Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication."

Matt Navarra was among the first to respond, asking, "Do you still see a future and a purpose for public news feeds and profiles that run in parallel to private messaging and groups?"

Mark Zuckerberg replied, "Yes, I think there need to be the digital equivalents of both the town square and the living room."

What remains to be seen is what Facebook considers "small groups" and how Facebook will foster the growth of those communities.

Source: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Interview Transcript:

Patrick: Hey everyone, today I'm here with Matt Navarra. Matt, thank you so much for joining us. I would love to start off with you giving folks an introduction of yourself.

Matt: Sure. Yeah, I'm Matt Navarra, I've been working in social media for around 15 years overall, and I started my career in social with the UK government in 2006, 2007 time. The digital communications manager, or extra I guess you would call it. I worked for the Intellectual Property office, I've worked for the Cabinet office and Government Digital Service in that time. And then, I went on to work for The Next Web, TMW, which is a global technology news and events company based in Amsterdam.

I was the director of social media and community for about five years and was responsible for the editorial output in terms of the social channels and the strategy. And so, was responsible for the events side of things for TMW conference which has about 20,000 attendees every year in Amsterdam as well. And now, I've moved roles, and within the last 6 to 12 months I've moved into a freelance independent social media consultancy role and I'm now working with different brands around the world in terms of helping with their social. So yeah, that's a part of history of where I come from.

Patrick: What first sparked your interest in getting involved in social media?

Matt: I had always been interested in computers and computing and that. I was one of the kids at school that was the nerdy, geeky one who wanted to play on the BBC and Acorn computers we had at that time, the really old-school green screen computers. And I just found it something fascinating about being able to communicate with people online. And then, the whole period of my life when I was in my late teens, or early teens I should say, which was the end of 1995, '96 onwards I would have AOL, America Online, which came with 500 hours free internet access, dial up and things. And I just found it fascinating and exciting.

So being online was always something that I found would be hopefully a part of my career at some point. And then, I realized also that marketing and business and communications is something that I seemed to be successful at, or I was gravitating towards. And so, I think they all came together at the right time really. And so I ended up working in a variety of roles for banks and doing PR and marketing for them initially, which wasn't something that I planned to be doing, but it was part of my interest and my skill set from university.

And then, I found an opportunity that came up for me to work in government as a sort of communications manager with the press and PR team. But that was when social media came online and they didn't have anyone doing that and they didn't know what to do with it and they were nervous, and so, I started there really. And I just under the table decided to develop social strategy and build a Twitter account and build a Facebook Page, and see how much I could get away with and hopefully, make a success of it. And it was successful, and it grew from there really.

Patrick: You're increasingly known for being an expert around online groups and Facebook Groups in particular. How did you get involved in online groups?

Matt: Yeah, I am surprised that that's become a part of my forte really. It wasn't a planned thing. I had been doing social media, as we just were saying there, for some time, and my area of interest or area of expertise I guess was working with digital and news publishers. I'd spent a long time with The Next Web, and that was what people probably knew me from. And I also got I guess known in some way or other for finding new things that were on social platforms, new features, new tools, or knowing information about things that maybe others didn't, and sharing that.

And people were sort of like, "Matt's the guy who always finds these weird things that no one knows exists and then shares it before Facebook announced the new feature." And so, that was really what I thought I was ... but you're right in saying that in the last 6 to 12 months I decided that I'd work freelance to set up a social media group [The Social Media Geek Out]. I had a Facebook Group. I hadn't done anything with it, it laid dormant, had no one in it. It was an idea that had come up a year ago and I hadn't developed.

And then I realized that, "Well, you know, this is as good a time as any to build a new community." And groups are extremely popular at this time and the big movement towards groups which made it all come into discussing. And so again, it was a matter of time, things coming together. And so, I decided to put this group together that I've got now, which we'll talk about a bit maybe, and try to understand a bit more about how often dynamics of the group are different from other formats of social media, and it's grown ever since really, my interest.

Social Media Geek Out Group

Patrick: You took a group then, from being dormant to really active and engaged. Is there anything that you would attribute that quick turnaround to?

Matt: I think I was fortunate in the sense that people had this sort of awareness of my role in social media for some time, and I had an audience already on Twitter quite heavily, more than anywhere else. And there's 30, 40,000 people that followed me on Twitter and knew me for what I just said I'd been involved in doing. And so, I think it helped me to easily bring people on board to this idea of a new group that I had developed on Facebook, because I made it clear it was going to be something similar to what people already expected from me on Twitter but a bigger version of it, with more people, with more content and more ideas, more discussion.

So, I think it was an easy sell in that respect. Which, maybe everybody has when they're starting a group from scratch. I already knew that from the Twitter account I had that people were very interested and found it useful the things I was sharing. And so, I had a strong suspicion of that. But more so, in a more developed community sort of way, in a Facebook Group or another kind of community it would also probably be equally popular.

So, I took that hunch that that would be the case and ran with it. And didn't really do much promotion other than using my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and sort of, sharing with friends and stuff. And it organically grew, and I haven't paid to promote it in any way. And in about six to seven months it's grown now to 6-7,000 people, add to that 1,000 to 2,000 a month, and yeah, it seems to be highly active and engaged, and so far so good. So yeah, I'm pleased.

Patrick: What do you think makes a Facebook Group successful from your own perspective or from external perspectives? What sort of metrics do you look at to say, "Yes, this is going really well"?

Matt: Yeah, it's a good question, because I think it's in its infancy at the moment in terms of people switching over to groups, in terms of brands and businesses, and who are wanting to build an outer community, and I think this is, for a lot of people, quite a new area. I don't really have any magic kind of metric or a particular sole focus at the moment, because I'm still learning myself.

But I think that for this particular group where it's all about sharing top tips, and tricks, and news about social media platforms, about getting help from others, things that if you're a social media manager, what would excite you, what would interest you, what would be useful to know in a sort of semi-closed environment, and that's what the group's all about. And I think what makes the group particularly successful, maybe more than others that are like it, because there are the groups that do similar things, is that I'm quite strict around the content, curation content, moderation, and the administration of getting people into the group. I don't want spam in there, I don't want people going hugely off topic. I'm quite focused on what the group's about.

And then, people in there are pretty good, 90 to 95 percent of the stuff that people submit I approve. It's very rare that I don't approve something, and I try to explain to people when I don't. And I think the other thing is that it broadens the sense of community in that there's tons of groups out there but what makes the difference between one group and another can be one of several things. But one of them being community, a sense of belonging and being in a shared space with people that are of the same mindset or have the same challenges and interests as you. And that sense of building camaraderie and helping one another and getting to know some of the personalities. I think that's important to bring out.

I also think it's important for people to empower the community itself to run itself and have a role to play or have a say in how that community is developed. Much like it would be if it was a community in the real world. And that's what makes it different from say, a Facebook Page or anything else like that. And then I think the other thing around it is around sort of, it's we have to be unique about or exclusive about it. Something that makes it stand out from every other group.

And I think if you're asking me about how that is for my group, I think it's to do with the types of content that I find that maybe you don't find other places or if you find them in my group first. And also, it's very focused and very clear as to what you'll find in this group, whereas others are a bit looser and a bit broader, and therefore, it can be a wider range of types of material in there. So, that for me is how I approached it, and so far it's been good.

Patrick: Well I'm curious to get your thoughts on monetization for groups. About a year ago, Digiday ran an article entitled "How publishers are monetizing their Facebook Groups" and they covered how a couple of different media companies are looking into monetizing those groups. One that they start with is Outside Magazine, and Outside Magazine selling group sponsorships. Do you see group sponsorships as a promising business opportunity? What do those even look like?

Source: "Outside Gearheads" Facebook Group

Matt: Well, I'll have to put my own interpretation into what that means. I'm not particularly aware of that particular example. Although I can say around sponsorships for me is something that I have been toying with or wondering how it could work, is around providing a lead sponsor. A lead brand to be somebody that puts their name against the group, has involvement in, and having their stamp there, their company on the cover photo, having some sort of say within how the group is, and putting their own content up there a bit more frequently. Maybe, running a Facebook Live if it was a Facebook Group. Every now and then, posting, promoting some of their own events, and engaging as themselves within the group. So, not just being a name that's stuck on there, but having a much more bigger role to play and in line and in synergy, in sync with what the group is all about. And it's something that I'm looking into for myself.

And I do think it's one of the few ways that groups can monetize and make a success of generating an income for those who need to. Often, that's important part of why that group's been created. But, I don't think it's the only way, there's pin posts and promotional, just like normal paid posts, is one other way. Having people do webinars in the group, and using live video features in there. And also, if they're an exclusive content, having subgroups is something else that people have done and continue to do.

Where it's like, the next level of your biggest fans in that group of people are really deep into what that group's all about. And if you wanna give them that extra bit more, and they wanna pay to get that extra bit more, then you have to create these subgroups. And then, one of the challenges of learning of course, are that many platforms, particularly Facebook in reference to this, don't have great Facebook Group monetization options. But they are coming, and we're talking days, weeks, or months at most for some of these features, which are on the horizon.

Patrick: What do you expect Facebook's support of monetization options might look like?

Matt: Well, they're already testing it with selective groups anyway. And it's my understanding, it tends to be a mixture of things. But, one of them being that that subgroup area where you have a group of people that are enjoying your content and enjoying being part of the community that you've built and developed, that you wanna give them something extra. And they wanna have almost an exclusive, top tier, VIP, whatever you wanna brand it as, level of access to give them that extra.

And so, you give them the ability to have a monthly fee Page with Facebook that brings those people in and gives them special access through the platform that they're in and the app that's set up to get access to those things and to engage in that kind of stuff that they've paid a bit more for. But, I suspect that there will be elements of being eligible for group administrators, particularly the larger groups to pay for the post. So, enabling you to make a post within the group, get seen, or give it opportunity to be seen by more people for getting extra reach.

I think that also could be ways to target the group just like a tweak of the existing Facebook, add platform products. Then the question really comes up around, do some groups ... are they better not having ads? Is it not the sort of group that would be appropriate to run ads in? And would it affect the community spirit, would people be disappointed if that was the way it went? And I think that's a very specific question to each type of community, that each administrator, and moderator, or owner has to ask themselves. For me, I think it's perfectly acceptable, and perfectly ensuring what they think the community would expect to happen and that they would be pretty accepting with that, but there may be some that wouldn't be.

Patrick: Jumping back to that same Digiday article I mentioned and tying into managing group expectations. Clique Brand's Executive Director of Creative Strategy, Michelle Plantan, noted that Clique doesn't put advertising in groups in order to, as she notes, "To preserve the safe space nature of the environment." Clique mentions that they instead opt to issue sponsored polls where they alert group members that responses will be shared with advertisers. First, what are your thoughts on preserving the safe space nature of the environment? And second, what are your thoughts on using something like polls to monetize a group?

Matt: Yeah, much of it is along the lines is what I was saying really, that I think that it has to come back to what the origins of the group are and what the expectations have been set out within the community, what the topic and core premise of the group, the community is all about. And local cultural expectations and differences that can vary from country to country, and all of those kind of things which a good moderator or group administrator would have a handle on. That should be a guiding light as to how tolerant I guess a group would be to having it, and whether it would be appropriate.

I can't think of an example at the moment, that would be a bit tough. Me, all the groups I've been involved in had been. But I'm sure that there are particularly sensitive subjects, or people that are the sort of audience that really are more sensitive to that, or just don't like that kind of thing and they come into the group community, invited to kind of close themselves away from that, to shield themselves a little bit, so I get that.

I think in terms of group poll results, again, it's one of many ways that people could help monetize the groups, to the benefit of the administrator or the moderator. With some of these groups it's going to be a one-man band or a small business, or it's a hobby, and so it may be more important to monetize it. Whereas for a large publisher or a big brand, it may not be about monetizing it or making a profit from it, it's more about growing an audience, developing a better understanding of the audiences' makeup and data about them, and being able to have a closer and deeper engagement with individuals.

I think that's quite an important one for many publishers and brands as we move into this phase of social media where community can be closed off. Content, it's sometimes more ephemeral as well. It's going to become a bigger part of how people use social and engage on social. And if you don't have a plan for dealing with that, and start having a better, more richer understanding of the audience and have a close relationship with as well, then being able to market to them, and have them as advocates for your brand, and being in these groups of communities and maybe where you even know that they're in, it's going to be difficult without having that understanding of the audience or growing that relationship.

Patrick: One other thing that I was curious to get your thoughts on, are for The Social Media Geek Out group that you've been ramping up. How are you managing expectations or communicating with users that there might be sponsorships, and handling that in the most tactful way possible?

Matt: Yeah, it's something that I was conscious of from day one that I would probably want to do, or more likely, I would need to do, because this wasn't set up as a thing to make money or to be a huge driver of income for me and my career as a consultant. But, I thought that if I'm going to do it properly and  make it successful, it will need a mixture of extra moderators and administrators to help me of which, for a time they might be willing to do it as a learning opportunity, and I wouldn't want them to do it for nothing forever, so that has to be considered.

But also, I am going to spend a lot of time on it over the next 6 to 12 months. And so, if I'm going to justify that to myself and some of the other things I could be doing which are a part of my business plans, then I need to find a way to at least get a modicum of income from it. And so, knowing that from day one I decided that I would be quite transparent, and clear with the community in how I engage with them as the lead moderator and owner of the group, that I wanted to do that.

Typically once a week, or at most, once every 2 weeks, I will do a group admin post. It will be hashtag group admin news or something along those lines, that would be personal from me and just give them an update on what's going on, what I'm working on, what things I'm changing. If I change rules, I'll make them known, and I'll invite them to comment on those changing rules. If I'm doing stuff that I think is causing friction, then I'll explain it and give people the opportunity to ask questions about that, which luckily doesn't, or hasn't happened very much at all.

And then, around monetization, I quite often will say to them, "I've had conversations with X number of companies. This is what I'm thinking of doing, this is how I think it would work, and I would like your feedback if you have any issues with that." And I explain why I'm doing it, to help, to enable me to maybe, be able to run this community that hopefully, gives it value. So, that kind of close communication and opening up the feedback channels and being transparent from day one, and not springing on it out of nowhere has for me, made if very easy and people have got no surprises about it at all. And there has been promoted stuff going on in the group, and I haven't had one piece of negative feedback in the six months that the group's been running, so it sounds like it's working so far.

Patrick: How do things change now that Facebook is allowing Pages to participate in groups? What do you think of that change?

Facebook's update was the first spotted in the wild by Matt Navarra according to Mashable. Source: Twitter

Matt: Yeah, I was thinking of this question before I joined this conversation, and I'm not sure. It's not something that I've had to do myself, so I have never felt this use case for me to join another community as a Page. But I can understand that, certainly for publishers, because having worked for The Next Web, we knew that that was something we would want to do, to be seen as engaging from the Page. And I know that some of the small businesses, and others, that don't necessarily want to do it on a personal level. They have wanted to work at a distance from it and make it more branded, or they want to not personify it, so whether it's a protection from trolls or that they want to keep all of their brand communications all in the same tone. Whatever it might be, I get that there's people out there that will want it.

In my group, I think there's probably, out of 6,000 members, there's probably less than 2 or 3% of them are Pages, so I don't have a huge level of interest. But, I think that those people who just want that distance from being an individual find value in it. I think it's good, particularly for publishers. I haven't seen many examples of big brands that have got Pages that now, have decided to create a group and wanted to stay in there. Which, as a brand, certainly a few publishers do that, to maintain that link between their Page and now their group is tied to a topic.

I would possibly argue that having a brand that isn't trying to have a much more human level of interaction with proper people from the basis of the business from the brand, it may be missing the trigger at times. But it isn't always possible or appropriate maybe to have individual team members that could be seen and known all about as well. So, I guess it depends on who you are and what your brand does.

Patrick: You mentioned that you haven't seen many brands jump into groups, at least in the Page format. Do you think that's going to change soon? We see folks loving comments that Wendy's puts up on Twitter for example in a very snarky, but entertaining way. Is that a big opportunity that they haven't tapped into yet?

Matt: I think we will see more if it. I think for several reasons. I think reasons being, and this isn't just Facebook groups, that's just because this example here is a Facebook Group, but groups of communities in general will be more appealing and attractive option for brands as the growth in messaging apps and interest in the private and ephemeral communities, all that kind stuff. Which has been talked about in length over the last year and will continue to be. I think that will drive that interest in there as will the platforms themselves, developing features and making it easier to create those communities and have those ways of interacting and engaging online.

So, I think that brands themselves struggle sometimes to figure out how to use Pages. And I think now, the Pages are also used just organically just by a Page or play operation for many, not for all, but for most. And again, the option of groups becomes an appealing one, and I think it's now the learning phase for them to identify what value they can get. And how best to use in their overall communications of online social strategy. So, I think it's early days, I think there will be more of it. But at the moment, as they say, I think people are still trying to dip their toes in the water and see.

And that goes for people who are thinking of using groups that exist that are made by others to advertise or promote or be involved in. And I've had that experience with quite a number of companies in the last six months who I've pitched the idea of being a sponsor, or being paid to promote a piece of content in the group. They've been fascinated, really, genuinely interested with the idea, and they get why it could be a good move. But at the same time, they're really cautious, and a bit sensitive to, is the money well spent and is it really going to work? It seems a bit strange and weird. So now, they're being a bit more brave and trying to experiment with it as well.

Patrick: You recently shared with Axios the following,

"Companies who don't adapt now towards more discreet online communities could find themselves playing catch up to maintain an engaged audience for years to come."

Could you share what you mean by “discreet online communities”? And what does it look like for a company to successfully adapt to those communities?

Matt: Yeah, I think I was referring there to the fact that we have seen this trend over the last sort of year or two of people wanting to be less public with the things that they share, wanting to do it in a much more confined or limited space. So rather than it being once to everyone public, sharing has been more, either ephemeral stuff like Snapchat, or story-based content, or it's been in private, secret groups, or even in semi-private groups and communities. And so, that's what I'm highlighting in terms of being discreet in online communities, and there being a shift towards them.

And that's to do with data privacy concerns, it's do with people understanding and being much more savvy around what's going on with social media, and what the implications are when things like harassment become a problem. Or if they go for jobs later in life, knowing that's created a history of posts for everyone out there. All of these learnings, and other factors that are going on around the world, are feeding this kind of changing shift in social. So, I think that's why we're seeing the shift itself.

And the reason why I think that companies need to be focusing on it is that, that's where a lot of people are going to spend most of their time, in terms of how they engage. They're not going to be posting out constant streams of public things, that are going to be lit forever like an Instagram feed. Stories, by its nature is that ephemeral stuff, that they are going to be only around for a period of time, and groups are going to become more private and maybe, more niche now, and maybe on different platforms.

So for brands, if you don't understand your audience or build up a really strong, close relationship with them to the point that they themselves will become the marketers, they're going to be carrying this identity they have with your brand, and develop the admiration of the brand into these communities, when you're not around, because you might not be in them. You're certainly not going to get any data or statistics from them if they're closed, and they're in encrypted messaging. You're going to be hoping and praying that they are so enamored by you and what you do as a company, what your product and services, that they'll carry that into these communities.

So, when someone is in that group is saying "Hey, has anyone got a good idea for what the best car is right now? I'm looking to buy," that there's going to be people in there when you're not around, say "This is the features of the product you want. This is the car that you want," and that's going on. And because analytics for this stuff, it's this dark social, as we call it sometimes, is going to be tricky. So, that's why I think if you haven't started to think about that, and started to develop a strategy for it, and appreciated that shift, then it's going to be playing a game of catch up and your rivals out there are going to be well ahead of the game long before you even   realized the impact on your bottom line.

Patrick: Is that a call for folks who are brands or media companies, to create their own groups? Are we going to see Kia Facebook Group? Or are we going to see something like Kia spin-out a car enthusiast group, and they happen to own and run it, and occasionally promote something about Kia?

Matt: Yeah, I think it's a mixture of two things. I think it's a mixture of brands or publishers, whoever, building their own community and so that they can have a closer relationship with their customers. And close, in the sense that the customer will want that and want to know more about the product. It has a relationship with some description. And that also so the brand has the opportunity to learn and have a much clearer understanding of what its audience likes, where it goes online, what it engages in, what turns them off, turns them on, turn them off, what frustrates them. All of this kind of stuff can be gained from having building these communities that you either built yourself or are somewhat tied to your company.

So, I think that for some companies and brands, and industries that will happen. And is happening and is not overly new, but it might become much more important. I think the other thing is going to be more about understanding that that is where the conversation is going to be. That's where your customers, and where people are going to be engaging, and sharing, and taking things where you're not as a brand going to be able to necessarily do a big deep dive analytics on it. You're not necessarily going to be able see the sentiment of those posts. You're not going to see the demographic breakdown of these customers.

But, it's going to be going on, and it's going to be going on more and more in closed areas. In places where you can't necessarily either be involved yourself or not know that you need to be, because you didn't know the community existed. So, that's why it's important to have a clear strategy of how to tackle that challenge, understanding your customers, having a closer relationship with them. And sometimes, it might mean building your own communities, sometimes it might be becoming a member of that community in some way.

Patrick: Where are these community conversations taking place beyond just Facebook Groups? We obviously have seen things in Reddit, for example. Reddit has long had very strong community engagement. But, what sort of players are there in the landscape, where do you recommend teams focus their efforts if they're trying to participate in discreet online communities?

Matt: Well, in terms of the ones that are more closed groups, or closed chats, the big names that people talk about typically are things like, WhatsApp chat groups and broadcast lists, Telegram, Discord, Patreon. All of these types of platforms, they're not new. Reddit like you said, is another one. And even the old-school forums, to some degree, have made a small comeback. Actually, a lot of brands have community, customer forums who people wanna see the latest thing that's going on or wanna be involved in product development.

The big example of this is Monzo. Monzo is a bank in the UK, and it's one of the new fintech companies, it's an online bank. But, they have a very established and deep online community, which is based around the typical classic forums set up here. They're not closed in the traditional sense, other than you have to sign up, and register, and then once you've done that you have a login. But, it's threads and groups, and chat around different subjects and public areas. And it gives them the ability to have a proper community of people who are feeding back on the product or are telling you what they think about your advert, or are raising issues and concerns or it could be just sharing fun stories related to the thing that happened when they were using their product.

Source: Monzo Community

So, there's a lot of that that's going on, particularly with what disrupts them. People like those who are changing the way we do banking or changing the way we buy clothes online or whatever it is. It seems to be a trend that they naturally suit these kind of things or feel one with doing it in that kind of way. So I think there will be more of that, and I think those companies have found it to be a very successful way of understanding their audience and the site building. It's a bit cliché word again but building a community, building a relationship with your audience.

Patrick: For teams that are trying to limit their focus starting out, what would be a general rule of thumb for places that they should start looking to build presence? Again, you've got some experience looking at Facebook Groups, is that one of the easier places to get going? Or, would you recommend that they really go out and hunt for something that's a natural fit for their organization?

Matt: Yeah. There isn't only one answer for everybody. It's the case of, what is your product? What is your typical audience member, what they look like in terms of age, sex, location? All of the basic demographic stuff. And then, where do they typically hang out, from information you already know from your own research, or from knowing the industry. And that would be the first starting point. Perhaps, someone who is heavy into Snapchat, and is of the age that engages in that kind of content as well. Then, things that are similar in that demographic, for groups of communities is where you would go.

And for me, Facebook was an obvious pick because, bigger platform, it's something that I'm very homey when using as a product. I knew a monetization option might be coming down the pipeline, so that was another reason to lend itself to that as well. Also, it's a nice stepping stone from understanding Facebook Groups for Pages, and other parts of Facebook going into groups, it's all very similar. So for me, that was a natural move. But, if you're into streaming and gaming and things, some of the other platforms like Discord might be more aligned with your audience.

So, there's plenty of platforms out there. I think it's more a case of finding out what your audience tends to prefer to use right now. I did toy with the idea of creating either a WhatsApp group, or Telegram group, but for me, the functionality and the things that I could do within there, and the way I could deliver the content wasn't quite as robust compared to all the things you would expect from the Facebook's Group setup. So, for me it worked.

But I've got a lot of friends who've got huge groups on Telegram and WhatsApp, talking hundreds of thousands of people highly engaged. Slack is another obvious one that some people... it's not a social platform in the traditional sense, but it's a platform for building membership in their community and an audience. [editor's note: examples include the The Information and Digiday member channels]. As long as people know how to use it, it's where people feel natural doing stuff, and it makes it easy for people to engage, respond, and share in, and share out things. And if you need to be able to manage as well, then that's a good starting point for any platform to consider.

Example Community Conversation from the Digiday Plus Townhall Slack Channel

Patrick: We've talked a little bit about discreet communities, and how folks would like to have something that's part of a more tightly entwined group that they feel some connection to. How does that relate to your decision as the administrator of a group to make it either a public versus a private group? What are the pros and cons of each, and which do you recommend?

Matt: I think that if you're trying to grow a group, and there's awareness of it, and make it easy to find, and build an audience as quickly as possible, then typically, but not always, the more public and easy to find it is, the better. The less friction involved in joining the group without having to have questions, which is one of the things that Facebook lets you do, is set questions for people to answer before they can join the group, and things. Then that clearly is having advantages there.

But likewise, there's many clever strategies that some people will see employed on the likes of an Instagram account where they're building a following around an Instagram account where it's actually the secretness, if that's a word. It's that level of hidden and unknown, of what they're doing, and having to be in it to see if they're missing out. It drives that huge number of people to want to join.

And so, again, it comes back to the sorts of people that you think are going to join. What their typical behavior is, and what sort of things excite them and resonate with them. And, what you're going to be doing in the groups to win at that strategy is creating that must see, gotta be part of it to be involved kind of atmosphere as well. The other thing to consider of course, is the type of content. And if it's something that's much more personal, if it has to do with religion or through sexuality, or to do with very topical, political discussions, whether it be to do with Donald Trump, or to do with Brexit, these are all things that can lend themselves much more to a private or secret group.

People feel much more at home, feel secure in doing that, and don't feel so exposed, if that's the right choice of words, to engage in those communities. And of course, you can have private groups and things, but people can still copy, paste, still screenshot, and still get things out there. So, no one should be going into these groups other than members or it's created with them thinking these are super secret, they never are. But, I think if people are looking to have ... do they have this on their spectrum, a degree of what this topic's about and how personal it is to them, and how open they wanna be in the community, then that decision the group makes to be private or public becomes an important one.

And of course, as well, how much sharing and how much you wanna enable people to make things go viral and make things kind of explode in terms of the content, the more public and easy and frictionless group set up you have on whichever platform you pick, then the more likely and easier that is going to happen. Those are much more niche, or much more protected, and shielded, and closed, and guarded, then that isn't going to happen. And that's probably the goal for a group that's doing it anyway, so that's really why it's private and set up that way.

Patrick: You noted that there are a lot of organizations that are not using fancy new community platforms, that they're using many platforms that might have already existed for some time. What do you think the biggest differences are between online communities 10 years ago and today? How much have they changed, in terms of how folks interact, how they're attracted to groups, how they get value from it?

Matt: One of the biggest things, of course, is choice. The number of platforms people have now is insane. Whether if you're counting a platform as a messaging app in a group chat, add that into the mix of the likes of the Facebook or a Snapchat community or any other platform like Discord and the ones we mentioned earlier. They've got a wealth of choices, so that's a big difference.

And it means in some ways, it's harder to grow a group because there's a lot of competition for other communities like yours, but also, it can lend itself to making really cool, interesting niche communities. And if you hit on a really pertinent topic that people haven't been served by other groups, or you give a very good version of community that hasn't been done anywhere else, then it can explode no matter what platform and it doesn't matter that there's a whole different choice out there, and that's one thing.

I think, also, the way the creative options that people have now to express themselves. And both to create it in terms of the way they format their content, the types of content, whether it be video, or images, or text, and whether it be articles, or PDFs, or it could be sound bites. But also, the level of privacy options that you can set around it, just friends, friends only, or people in this community only, or it can't be commented on, it can only be shared and read, but it can't be commented on.

I think all of these options make a very unique environment for groups here. And it gives the user a lot more power then, maybe they had a long time ago. But for groups, administrative, and moderated of course, it makes it tricky, because that wealth of choice of where to base your community, what's the set up and the format, what are the rules around it, and then promotion of it as well become trickier.

And I think one final interest I should point out to you is to think about picking your platform based on what you see in the future of that platform's going to be as well. And I think that question comes heavily into play with the likes of Facebook, which for many is under a lot of pressure at the moment. I don't think it's going to be going anywhere, anywhere soon in terms of downhill in terms of the product and things. But, for a business or a brand thinking of spending a reasonable amount of resource on something that they hoped to have a reasonable lifespan you have to question how committed is Facebook going to be to this platform of communities and groups.

Is it the flavor of the month now? Is it going to be around in 6, 5, 10 years time? Same questions publishers have had in making these decisions around using Pages and their gains from organic reach. Is Facebook a safe bet? I would say in the short and medium term, yes. In the longer term, probably question mark on that, but that goes for a lot of platforms. We're living in times of fast-pace in technology and what is here today might not be here in 10-years time because things change quickly.

Patrick: What do you think the biggest changes will be with online communities over the next 10 years?

Matt: I think it will mirror a lot of the stuff that happens with social in general and how people use social, particularly around basic security data privacy, around owning their online presence. And that continued movement towards more sense of control around what they see and what they put out there and how it's used by others, whether it be the data around your engagement or the actual content you put out there.

I think that an interesting if we're talking in 10 years, that it's perfectly viable to think about how AR and VR will play a role in communities, which I think is an extremely exciting and interesting proposition. Where, if anyone has seen something like, what is it? Ready Player One and others, it doesn't feel to me anyway, beyond the realms of possibility in the coming 10, 20 years, that people will go into these digital replications of worlds or communities where you're completely wired and you're plugged in and a lot of the engagement happens in a much more visceral way and a far more deeper, richer digital environment.

And so, that's bound to have an impact on how people engage and how people gather around a particular topic of interest, and what kind of interaction it enables you to do. And of course, there's a huge potential for brands and sponsors, and a whole new world of advertising in general.

Patrick: That's fascinating. I would love to share with the community any resources that you recommend they read, whether it's a book or podcast or anything like that, spanning Sci-Fi and day-to-day points of value for shaping how people even go about making communities or making them more engaging.

Matt: Well, I'm really excited because I've finally got Data Miner back. And I don't if anyone who listens to this who loves social media tools and products, Data Miner is a product that's very tied into Twitter and it's my favorite thing. But it was very expensive or it can be for some newsrooms, but it enables you to get alerts, breaking alerts within seconds of any major incident in the world that's going on. You can customize the topics, you can customize all sorts of stuff.

And for me, it's that social media is being alert to the most interesting things to do with whatever it might be and being the first to know, I love it. So, yeah, that's my latest play thing. But, I will definitely come up with some recommended tools and tips and things for people to use.

Patrick: Wonderful. Matt, thank you so much for your time.

Matt: Thank you for having me.

Matt Navarra

Matt is a freelance social and digital media consultant. Previous clients include BBC, ITV, United Nations, International Red Cross.

Prior to working as a consultant, Matt was Director of Social Media at global technology news and events company The Next Web (TNW), and a digital communications expert for the UK Government.

While at TNW, Matt was responsible for creating and implementing its editorial social media strategy to engage with a global audience of over 10 million readers, and 5 million social followers. He also developed the strategy and led a team of 15 people to deliver the social media output for one of the world's most popular tech festivals, TNW Conference, which generated 450+ million social media impressions in 2017.

Matt frequently appears on BBC News (TV/Radio), Sky News, NBC Europe and other channels as a social media industry commentator.