In Defense of the Insular Social Network

A recent study that directly compared major social networks to private communities raises some fascinating questions about the role scale plays in social networking. But is scale really what matters?

This past week has been a pretty good one for thinking about the scale of online communication—and what you would do if you had $19 billion to throw around.

In the span of a few days, we saw an app basically unknown to much of the American public get bought by Facebook for $19 billion. As a viral Tumblr hilariously pointed out last week, that’s more than the GDP of Iceland, a small country that nonetheless has a beautiful landscape and slightly more people (320,000) than the number of employees on WhatsApp’s staff (50).

And much like Iceland, WhatsApp is a nice place for American audiences to visit, exotic even if many people speak the same language, but they probably don’t have many friends there.

Despite the network’s scale—450 million users worldwide—the collective reaction to the buyout in the press was one of disbelief. Why did Facebook essentially buy the social media equivalent of Iceland?

From a business perspective, Facebook’s purchase is a good lesson on thinking globally, something many organizations need to be better at. But there’s a lesson you could take from this when staying at home as well.

It’s a good reminder that the the network that matters the most to you and your members isn’t always the one where the most people are. It’s telling for me that I can load up WhatsApp and see that most of my contacts haven’t touched it in nearly two years. Just because I’m not there personally doesn’t mean I can’t see why it’s caught on in India, though—just that value isn’t merely a numbers game.

Oranges, Meet Apples

A recent study from Virtual Management, Inc., the 2013 Association Operations Survey, had a few points of interest on this issue mixed in its breakdown of AMS usage and marketing focuses.

In the benchmarking report, the company did something interesting that deserves a close look. Rather than merely compare the uptake of common social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, it compared them with private community networks that are specific to the nonprofit space. We don’t usually think in terms of Avectra’s MemberFuse or Higher Logic when we talk about LinkedIn, nor do we directly compare MemberClicks or Socious to YouTube. But this study does just that, and the results show that these private community systems are small in terms of market share in comparison to the big names. Higher Logic was the biggest (with 3 percent of respondents saying they use it), but that seems like nothing compared with Facebook (with an 82 percent share) or even Google+ (with 22 percent).

A megaphone is still a useful tool. But sometimes, it’s nice to have a party where you know everyone, too.

(A caveat to that last point: Is it possible that we don’t think of social networks as the same thing as private communities, and that this may have affected the results?)

Another surprising stat from the study was that just 15 percent of associations have a private community that they use regularly. Another 10 percent have one they use occasionally. And there’s a significant chunk of the market that doesn’t have any interest in using such a solution (8 percent of respondents have one, but don’t use it; 31 percent don’t have one and have no interest in using one).

For providers, all isn’t lost: There’s still a lot of potential to win over boards that haven’t made up their minds (15 percent of respondents say they don’t have a private community but would use one; 21 percent have no opinion on the issue). But the study does underline a disparity between the needs of many associations and where the market actually is.

Scale vs. Value

But let’s flip this point. Let’s say you work for one of the 3 percent of organizations in this survey that use Higher Logic or one of the 1 percent that use MemberClicks. Is your social network useless because there’s a better chance of reaching an audience on Facebook? Of course not.

To be blunt, looking at numbers such as these misses the point when we’re talking about value. Sure, there are reasons it might be nice to have more people using a certain social network (for one thing, more people might see what you have to say), but there are plenty of reasons why something smaller might make more sense, too (you’ll probably have a better chance of getting someone on the horn for Higher Logic than you will for Twitter).

And just because these networks are huge and have so many users doesn’t mean they’re the right fit for your needs. If your association has tens of thousands of members, it’s possible your more focused goals might be lost under a giant umbrella. Many associations have a narrow focus for a reason, and relying on a large social network may dilute those goals.

Of course, it’s probably important for your community to be on Facebook or Twitter. A megaphone is still a useful tool. But sometimes, it’s nice to have a party where you know everyone, too.

That’s where the private community comes in handy. It’s a different kind of tool.

(Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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