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Sept. 20, 2018, 11:09 a.m.
Audience & Social

Public or closed? How much activity really exists? See how other news organizations’ Facebook Groups are faring

We analyzed the data of groups as large as 40,000 members and as small as 300, from international organizations to local publishers. How does yours fit in?

When Facebook announced its pivot to Groups in the algorithm, publishers obediently pivoted as well.

Some were already there — nurturing communities around a common thread, an event, or a locality, or gathering subscribers/fans in one centralized place. Some, honestly, seem plain thirsty for the eyeballs heading to their site content. That’d been part of Facebook’s olive branch (bait carrot?) to the news industry, though Campbell Brown’s recent comments drove that stake into the heart of the traffic promise that the Page → Group algorithm preference had already wedged in.

But hey, maybe these groups could be a new opportunity for news organizations to circle up with those meaningful interactions.

“I do worry this news is going to make ‘pivot to groups’ the new ‘pivot to video,’” one engagement editor at a U.S. publisher told us when we reached out to dozens of audience development and social media folks with feelers about their group tendencies. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to facilitate more conversations with our reporters and editors about using our journalistic skills to build relationships — let’s put the nail in the coffin of chasing clicks and likes.”

Three-quarters of a year in, we wanted to see how those groups have been going. If your news organization has a group (especially if you run one yourself), you might have some questions about how things are going, especially for news publishers. Thanks to dozens of publishers who agreed to anonymously share their group insights with us, we hope to be able to answer some of these questions for you.

We analyzed the data of about 30 groups — as large as 40,000 members and as small as 300, from international organizations to local publishers. About half were public groups (so anyone can join) and half were closed (users have to answer screening questions to gain entry); some were pop-ups and others have been around for years. Most of the data we have is from July 2017 to July 2018, or from the group’s start date til then if the group was created in the past year. With so many variables we can’t quite make definitive claims, but here’s our attempt to generalize some of the data.

One last thing before we get started — we pulled together a list of various publishers’ Facebook groups so you could explore for yourself what else is out there. (We didn’t necessarily use/reach out to all of these publishers for data, and not all of the ones in our sample may be on this list. All of the numbers are what was available on CrowdTangle or in the group’s public description at the time.) And we welcome you to add your own news-related group or ones you like here!

First of all, are groups actually gaining members?

Facebook announced the most significant News Feed algorithm changes in January 2018, but publishers had noted the traffic drop-off to Pages starting significantly earlier. The company pointed to Groups not necessarily as a solution or a Page replacement, but as a new area of emphasis for the platform. Unsurprisingly, the number of groups from publishers began growing, and so did the traffic.

None of the dozens of groups we examined saw a noticeable decline in members — itself noteworthy at a time when “quitting Facebook” is the hot new trend and when there’s good evidence that people are turning to Facebook for news content less often. There were certain starts, stops, and stagnancies as some organizations promoted their group via email, social media advertising, mentions in articles, or other methods.

But the overall trend was up, and relatively steady. Between January 11 — the day Zuckerberg announced the de-newsing of News Feed — and June 1, the groups we have data for increased their total membership by about 60 percent.

How about active members?

Facebook’s encouraged “meaningful interactions” can come by way of more posts in the group, more comments on those posts, and more reactions to both. (One way you can measure this is through the active members category in a group’s Insights tab.)

But posters, commenters, and react-ers aren’t the only members of a group who absorbed or benefited from its content. There are many active members who are what redditors might call lurkers (but not in a bad way!). You can learn about them in the Group Insights tab on the Facebook Group admin dashboard. According to Facebook’s Help Center, an “active member” is a “group member who has viewed, posted, commented on, or reacted to group content” during a set period of time. That can give us a better assessment of how much, in total, the algorithm is surfacing these groups to folks beyond just the “conversation starters” (a badge awarded to certain Facebook Group members).

Here, the overall trend was still up, but not to the same degree as total members. Over that same span — January 11 to June 1 — the groups we have data for had an 36 percent increase of active members. That’s significantly lower than the rate of overall membership growth — which likely illustrates how increasingly crowded the Groups space is at a time when Facebook usage is flat to down. Quite a few groups saw total membership increases paired with active membership declines.

How did closed groups fare vs. public groups?

There are oodles of factors at play when it comes to Facebook Groups, but for the sake of the bigger picture, we also sliced the groups into public groups (an open group that anyone can join, no subscription to purchase nor specific demographic to fit) and closed groups (well, the opposite of the previous parenthetical).

The closed groups seemed to have more sustained dialogue, with fewer sudden drops or spikes. The public groups had many more members on average, as one might expect, though with a smaller percentage of those members being active.

What are other people still wondering about Facebook groups?

This data might help answer some questions, and raises several more (yay). While Facebook has been leaning more and more on Groups to promote healthy discourse on the site, that puts the onus on group moderators, who have few tools in their arsenal to do so — though Facebook has given them more. We didn’t analyze the content of the groups, but some moderators wondered if/when there might be a switch from them leading the discussion with posts and nudging comments to the members of the group breathing life into the group themselves. Some publishers are also coordinating multiple groups at once, meaning that there could be overlap between loyal followers in multiple groups.

And questions have already been raised about how much autonomy Facebook would/could/should give moderators of groups that bring in revenue (both for Facebook and for the moderator), if the company continues the test it introduced earlier this summer. Hey Facebook, better CRM service maybe?

Shan Wang contributed to the reporting.

Image by Tumisu used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 20, 2018, 11:09 a.m.
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