The Hidden Mass Audience: Why Community Is Bigger Than You Think

Remember online communities? 15 years ago, it was the future of communication. Back in the day, Usenet newsgroups, IRC chat rooms and bulletin-board forums ruled.

Remember online communities? 15 years ago, it was the future of communication. Back in the day, Usenet newsgroups, IRC chat rooms and bulletin-board forums ruled. Before clickbait and News Feeds and selfies, people transcended their local communities to indulge their multiple specific passions in high-definition. The common bonds of shared interests created sacred spaces online.

Online communities are valuable because they are niche, tightly characterized and real–in other words, everything a modern advertiser might want from online targeting. After all, in the years before hypertargeted programmatic technology, this is how advertising was done: Messages were placed in specialist publications, be it lifestyle or business, that mirrored readers’ particular passions and, therefore, delivered brands a relevant recipient base.

The trouble is, it never happened. All of the promise of online community was never quite met with by marketers with the same zeal as their users.

Why not? Who killed online community? Mark Zuckerberg did. More accurately, the rise of social networks–from MySpace to Facebook–did. A product of the rapidly growing internet population, it was the networks that rose to become the de facto social opportunity.

While Zuckerberg started a social network, he’s now running one of the largest media platforms in the world. In today’s age, these networks have become some of the world’s top marketing destinations.

Facebook made $17 billion from advertising last year. The site is pushing toward 2 billion monthly active users–a stat that gives marketers the impression that it boasts scale–something community, the forebear of social networks, appears to lack by comparison. At the heart of this explosion is a marketer proposition that is actually counterintuitive in reality.

Facebook ads target users using a series of granular characteristics, which it identifies by examining the statuses left in that big blank box at the top of the screen. Those cues are not always reliable criteria against which to advertise, simply because of the way that people use Facebook itself.

Conceived to replicate the network of existing relationships–first from college, and then from all over–Facebook’s “social graph” ignores one crucial fact: Not all my friends are like me. They don’t share the same interests as me, the same hobbies or the same world view.

Facebook advertising actually estimates the passion and engagement of people’s real interests.

The social network later introduced groups, designed to foster conversation around vertical topics. These were an afterthought–their layout mimics the fleeting nature of the News Feed, in which everyone quickly moves on. Because these connections are loose, they fail to capture empathy in a way that can be effectively packaged up to advertisers. This is the reason why Facebook has had to bring on individual targeting based on history tracking to be able to keep up with the advertising process.

In the shadows of massive social media networks, something different has been happening. Communities, seemingly overlooked by modern internet users and written off as too small-scale to satisfy advertisers, have actually been blowing up.

Reddit, a site where people discuss all manner of topics that are subdivided down, clocks almost 25 million unique visits per month. It’s not alone. DeviantArt, a community where digital artists share and discuss their work, saw more than 12 million visits in October. CafeMom, a support community for new parents, had more than 3.4 million views over that same month.

You can’t tell me community doesn’t scale. Sites like these have grown to some of the largest properties on the web as whole. Isn’t it time that advertisers finally embraced them?

Even midsized community sites boast an innately advantageous brand environment. These days, consumers–especially millennials–don’t want to be marketed to; they want to engage with a brand personally.

Communities like groups, forums and boards offer brands just that opportunity. The sell here is not just a display advertising environment, but an interpersonal one. By inserting themselves into the discussions of passionate and qualified participants as they contemplate the products, brands can be a part of the discussion at the point of purchase consideration.

This was the hope companies had when they came aboard Facebook, before getting sidetracked by scheduling a whole load of inconsequential, peripheral stuff for a social content calendar.

Naturally, there are some points of etiquette any brand in an intimate community environment should heed:

  • Don’t expect overnight results–be in it for the long haul.
  • Don’t pitch, participate.
  • Contribute as a subject-matter expert.
  • Be accessible.
  • Be consistent.

Once advocated and since forgotten, I think it’s a safe assessment to say we should turn our attention back to community. It hasn’t gone away, nor has it diminished. It’s advanced. Is it safe to say that, for 2017, advertisers have finally found what they are looking for?

Kristin Mehiel is the head of sales, market development and strategic partnerships at Experts Exchange, a network and online community for technology professionals.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.