Understanding the rising influence of social media community groups

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It is no news that with people spending more and more of their time on digital platforms, gaining the attention and -more so- trust of these digital users has over the years evolved into an increasingly competitive model in which users are monetized through ads.

According to data gathered in the Hootsuite-We are Social 2021 report, 47.4 percent of the population mostly in the 18-44 age range uses social media for about three hours daily on average, with YouTube and Facebook as the most consumed followed by WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook messenger, Twitter and Tiktok.

80.7 percent of internet users aged 16 to 64 are using Facebook, the social media platform that has maintained its position as the top used social media app for the world and for Egyptians, showing how it continues to integrate deeply into consumer behavior.

Every marketer and communicator knows that the most challenging aspect of their job is getting that diligently designed content and that carefully crafted message to reach the exact population segment to which their product, service or idea is intended. The appearance of a proportion of irrelevant ads or messages on our newsfeeds only proves that reaching the right user is no simple task.

There is constant innovation in the use of social media. In the past few years, a noticeable preference towards closed online communities of people with common interests has been observed as a pattern of digital consumer behavior.

Online communities are taking on new roles

An insights survey by Facebook on online communities in October 2020 states that “online communities in particular have taken on new roles, especially during the pandemic”. 91 percent of the survey’s respondents said that they actively contributed to a group, and 33 percent of those whose preferred group is online say they are more comfortable expressing themselves there as opposed to with family and friends.

In his book Social IMC, Randy Hlavac, a digital marketing expert and instructor at Northwestern University, writes that people form or engage with communities for two reasons: passion and trigger events. Passion communities gather people with similar interests such as fashion, self-care, fitness, travel, art, or bricolage. Trigger event communities attract people because of certain events or life stages they are going through such as groups for job searchers, home renovators, new parents or those looking to buy a car or enroll their children in a school.

Everyone on Facebook can think of a few such virtual communities that resonate with their lives or interests. They are the ones that we are more inclined to interact with, the ones that appear on our newsfeeds, or are maybe our go-to stops when searching for user-generated reviews on products or answers about specific topics.

On the Egyptian Facebook communities scene, we can think of many such groups.

To keep offering value, virtual groups are high maintenance

NGOs’ Hub- previously called Jobs in Development for You- is a group of over 91,000 members. This group was founded in 2010 by Sherine Nassef, a professional working in the development field, with the purpose of sharing career opportunities with those aspiring to join or to advance in the ‘fourth sector’.

“There is not enough knowledge on this sector; it is not just philanthropy,” says Mostafa Adel, currently the main administrator of the group after Nassef stepped down in 2020. “The group has evolved from a place to exchange info about jobs, into becoming a key destination for those looking for information and opportunities in this sector whether jobs, collaborations, scholarships, learning and training courses, and sometimes tenders/biddings,” he continued.

Usually built carefully by passionate individuals, such digital communities are high maintenance to ensure content quality that keeps engaging their members. “Gathering reliable information about job announcements and other opportunities and ensuring there is no duplication and that there is always value-added is a time-consuming process,” shares Adel. “We also limit personal posts about people looking for jobs, etc. so as not to dilute the purpose of the group.” Today NGOs’ Hub’s identity has matured and it participates as a ‘community partner’ in influential summits such as Startups Without Borders and Techne Drifts.

When online groups create safe spaces

Dina Hashish, founder of Golden Years Community- Egypt, a Facebook group currently with over 3,600 members, tells us that she established the group in September 2020 because as an only daughter she struggled with an information gap when it came to caring for elderly relatives.

“The idea of this group has been brewing for a while, but I think COVID-19 is what truly made it crystallize,” she tells Business Forward. The group provides members in their golden years with a space to safely engage with others and overcome loneliness and isolation.

“My aim is to provide a listing of all products and services that cater for people in their golden years; be it healthcare related, social and cultural activities, or simply products that improve their quality of life,” Hashish says. “The ease by which you can post a question and get the support of a number of people who possibly went through the same experience but would never feel comfortable sharing it face-to-face is an unbelievably powerful thing.”

Such closed groups allow for deeper, more meaningful conversations about topics their members care about. And unlike blog-based virtual forums and communities, closed Facebook groups exist on a platform the members already spend a significant chunk of their time on and hence are more accessible.

How sustainable are Facebook groups?

“I’m constantly talking to members of the group and learning new things every day. One needs to be very open to learning and changing course. A business plan can then follow if it will serve the community that you started off wanting to serve, in order to create sustainability,” Hashish says.

The Facebook survey mentioned earlier “also finds that community leadership is at the heart of great communities, and requires skill and effort to bring people together,” and we are seeing them on the rise, striving to bring value to areas in which their founders and leaders have found gaps.

Some of them have evolved to be more than just virtual Facebook communities. We look at the journey of three of these Facebook communities that have been founded in an entrepreneurial spirit and grew significantly to include viable business models. These three were also selected in the 2020 Facebook Accelerator Program, which identifies and supports 77 Facebook communities that demonstrate impact and scalability from all over the world.

Impactful ‘community startups’

The Egyptian Professionals Network (EPN) is one of these impactful communities established in 2019 and now gathers more than 9,000 members who are career-oriented and success-driven. Mona El-Kheshen ‘02, the founder of the group, tells Business Forward how she came home one day after a day’s work thinking how wonderful it would be to be able to have a career-focused discussion or debate on work-related situations with like-minded people. “Am I aware of any such group?” she asked herself, only deciding to create the EPN Facebook group.

Having worked in Egypt and abroad, El-Kheshen’s motive on a higher level was to have a platform that showcases the work of successful Egyptians, and which celebrates and empowers them. She tells Business Forward how the group facilitates collaborations, knowledge-sharing and exposure to new markets and opportunities. It is also powered by very responsive members who generously share in-depth answers to other member’s questions, while in many cases positioning themselves as subject matter experts. El-Kheshen also shares that a key ingredient in the relatability and success of the group was the selective approach to accepting new members.

Doaa Gawish ’02, was a corporate soldier for over ten years before she established The Hair Addict Facebook group in 2016 as a women-only platform to share hair-care tips and educate others about natural hair-care remedies that worked for her. Little did she know that the group’s #Heatfreechallenge would turn into a social movement that encouraged thousands of Egyptian women to embrace their natural hair.

“This challenge went viral and ladies all around Egypt joined. This is when I knew it would make a social change. Thankfully, being textured is no longer looked down upon,” Gawish tells Business Forward. The group now has over 231,000 members and has ambitious plans to encourage many more women all over Egypt and the Middle East to challenge beauty standards and celebrate their natural looks.

Today a group of over 92,000 members, Rahet Bally (Arabic for ‘my peace of mind’) is a popular mothers’ go-to community on Facebook for those looking for answers, recommendations or even just sharing or venting.

It started out when Nadia Gamal El Din ’11, founder and CEO of Rahet Bally, became a new mother herself. Having no siblings or friends with children at the time, she found difficulty finding reliable information and much needed ‘new-mom support’.

“I started by visiting a huge number of doctors and experts to bring them on board to Rahet Bally, to offer moms on the spot answers to all their questions, free of charge, in numerous fields. I managed to have over 100 doctors and experts in just one month.” Since then, Rahet Bally has grown to be more than that, with more pillars to support moms intellectually, mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally, some of which are behind a paywall, including a discount card for a number of retailers, a fitness program, therapy sessions and a social complex for mothers- The Cloud.

Introducing a business model

What is common about these three communities is how they gradually and unforcefully introduced revenue-generating products or services, creating a new model of ‘community startups’.

EPN, spotting a gap in the market launched UNLOCK, a company that identifies quality professional service providers and through a review-powered database connects them with potential service-seekers. The Hair Addict launched their own range of natural hair-care products, tools and remedies carrying the same brand name. Rahet Bally started offering a range of paid services that cater to the exact needs of the mothers among their members.

“I think it was important for EPN to have a sustainable revenue-generating model,” says El-Kheshen, “Facebook will remain our main engagement platform, but there is a need for a number of digital products that help our members connect with each other in multiple ways, and this requires resources as the community grows. We have transformed from being only a community to being a community startup, with a registered company and our first digital product- UNLOCK”.

These digital communities manage a tricky balance between being trusted to offer value to their members, while providing paid products and services along the way.

“We limit the commercial posts, making sure the group maintains a consumer-led platform that provides valuable content to all its members. We also keep an eye on the group as it generates a lot of insights and therefore, we take the needed measures to have a correct ratio of advertising vs non-advertising posts,” says Gawish about The Hair Addict group.

Despite launching a range of online and offline paid services and products, Rahet Bally regards the closed private group as a major support to thousands of mothers who find it a safe space to freely interact and access a wealth of resources.

“If the group founder or moderator manages to build a brand and create this type of bonding and loyalty with the group members, then people are more than happy to move in a revenue-oriented direction because they saw the value and can understand the benefit of whatever the product or service being offered through the group,” analyzes Fady Ramzy, an online communications expert and adjunct faculty at the American University in Cairo’s School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (GAPP).

Virtual communities have become a crucial form of social media engagement

Literature on social media points out that Facebook’s everchanging algorithms now favor news from groups to appear on newsfeeds, after content from friends and family, as opposed to ads and business-powered content, suggesting that group content has more organic reach power than standard pages.

“Just before the pandemic hit, Mark Zuckerberg clearly announced a vision for extreme support of Facebook groups, ‘re-emphasizing private interactions’,” says Ramzy. “This comes with a motive to bring back the perception of Facebook as a safe platform for conversations, especially with rising concerns about data privacy in recent years with the Cambridge Analytica case and so on.”

According to a recent report funded by Facebook, more than half of the platform’s users are members in four or more active groups, and more than 1.8 billion users are active on Facebook groups. “This shows that the vision of Zuckerberg is working. People are finding spaces where they can engage in high-quality conversations as well as networking and scouting for business opportunities; it is a global trend,” comments Ramzy. “Perhaps this is the main reason of success of groups like EPN and others in the Middle East. They are decent communities where people can exchange thoughts with those who are like them, and this is very relevant for marketers, content creators and tech-savy people.”

While this pattern tells a lot about digital consumer behavior, it also highlights the power of these groups for word-of-mouth and influencer marketing. “These significant groups have the power of generating micro-influencers. If a person is keen to share information and advice, he or she becomes a micro-influencer for this group creating a community of fans, and then perhaps moving beyond.”

Whether people join them to be around like-minded people or to seek experience-based advice from those who walked a path they are now going through, virtual communities have become a crucial form of social media engagement.

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