This post is authored by Joel Don, ISA social media community manager.

Are you thinking about building an online community for your automation or industrial controls business? If yes, then the next question might be where to build it, since you are more than likely considering Facebook or LinkedIn, or even Google Plus. The leading social networks encourage users to establish and grow communities on virtually any imaginable interest, topic, subject, industry or business domain. And they provide easy-to-use, turnkey setup tools to help you get started.

Group or page?

For Facebook or LinkedIn, groups are the focus for communities. Groups largely rely on the contributions and engagement of members, while Facebook and LinkedIn pages are more or less interactive news feeds with most content generated by page managers.

Online communities are certainly not new. Long before the Web, dial-up, text-based bulletin board systems (BBS) were extremely popular as discussion forums, and are considered the progenitor of today’s social networks. People like to form online communities to learn, discuss, network and share. Though BBS systems were displaced by Web-based communities, they still remain a dominant force even today, reformulated as independent forums and business-based discussion groups. More about that option later.

The mega social networks Facebook, LinkedIn and Google propelled the community concept to new levels. They are major hubs, and as a result, deliver millions of potential group members. That’s why communities can and should be an important part of your overall marketing program. But remember, people generally join communities to ask questions, exchange ideas and network. You probably already have well-established marketing and public relations programs as well as websites for customer and prospect outreach. There’s no reason to simply copy-and-paste those activities to a Facebook or LinkedIn group, unless, of course, that’s what your members expect and want. Before you start a community, establish the purpose and always deliver on the promise.

Which platform is right for you?

So if you are ready to create an online community in the automation or controls space, let’s dig in and sort out the options. I’m going to cut to the chase on your social network choices. For now the focus will be Facebook or LinkedIn. Google Plus offers “communities,” but the fate of Google’s competitive social network offering is currently in flux after recent announcements. Google is building a track record for retiring service offerings that, although popular, no longer fit with its business objectives.

That’s why it’s important to remember that hosting your community on an established social network means you’re a renter, not an owner.  For example, this week LinkedIn made several changes for groups. Gone are custom group header images, the slider for highlighted posts and several other manager and member features. To be fair, LinkedIn also installed a few long-overdue improvements. You can expect Facebook to change the playing field as well. If you are not comfortable establishing your community on someone else’s turf, you can nearly as easily self-host a discussion forum on your own web real estate via any number of turnkey, open source forum software applications. These applications are like the old BBS networks on steroids, and are fully capable of managing any sort of online topic or business-oriented community.

Ultimately, your choice on where to locate your community might hinge on the online destinations preferred by your members. That could be any social network offering a groups or communities feature, or your own company website. When deciding on location, consider how you can grow your community with the least resistance. LinkedIn is positioned as a business network and may already have a critical mass of desirable members. But if you determine most of your potential members tend to spend more time on Facebook, your group may actually see benefit from the concentration of members already active on a specific network.

It may or may not factor in your decision-making, but both Facebook and LinkedIn limit the number of groups a member can join. With Facebook, it’s virtually unlimited at 6,000 groups. LinkedIn, on the other hand, limits you to 50 groups. LinkedIn is more restrictive, yes, but that also means you’ll tend to have more dedicated members who must choose groups carefully, and which may be an advantage.

Structurally, Facebook and LinkedIn groups are similar, but there are some distinct management differences:

  • Public vs. private. Groups can be set up as public/open or private/closed. On Facebook, you can be added/invited by a friend to a group, or request to be a member via group manager confirmation. LinkedIn offers a similar arrangement, though open LinkedIn groups don’t necessarily require an invitation or admin approval for membership.  You’ll have two choices when you set up a LinkedIn group. Originally LinkedIn groups were private, members-only. To make group content searchable to non-group members and search engines, LinkedIn enabled groups to be designated as “open” status. Before you set up the group, you’ll need to decide on open vs. closed (aka members only). You can convert from closed to open, but you can’t go back. Click this link to see the differences and decide what’s best for your group.
  • Knock knock. If you set up a private/closed group, be prepared to check in regularly to approve or deny membership requests. If you do not have time to actively manage your group, you will need to enlist members to help or hire a group manager.
  • Who’s in charge? In addition to checking on membership requests, you will need to regularly monitor posts for inappropriate content and spam.  Luckily, you have options.  You can assign managerial/rules enforcement roles to other trusted members. Plus both Facebook and LinkedIn enable any member to flag content for manager review.
  • The controls winner. LinkedIn is more granular when it comes to managerial control.  While Facebook enables you to delete a post or comment or remove a member, LinkedIn also enables you to place a member in moderation, effectively a form of probation. Every post or comment is then first submitted to the managers for review.  You can also add restrictions to newcomers to LinkedIn or members who have few or no connections, which helps control drive-by spam and people who set up fake LinkedIn accounts to post marketing and sales messaging.

If you build it…

Setting up a group at Facebook or LinkedIn is easy; it can be done in minutes.  Monitoring posts and comments will be an ongoing commitment to maintain the quality of your group, which is also a reflection of your brand.  Groups that aren’t actively managed will easily become cluttered with spam or peppered with “link-droppers,” i.e. people who post a link without a discussion prompt or reason to click the link. Groups are supposed to be about discussions within the group.  Dropping a link without a prompt or explanation drives traffic away from your group to a news site or company page. As manager, your roll should be to encourage discussions and engagement which contributes to the concept of “community.”

The main challenge will be marketing the group to build that community so that you have active participation and ongoing discussions with plenty of comments.  You have several options, including promoting the group on your website and in your email marketing outreach.  You can also share a link to the group in other social channels such as blogs, Twitter, YouTube, etc.  One admonition: be careful trying to promote your LinkedIn group in other LinkedIn groups.  Since everyone is capped at joining 50 LinkedIn groups, managers may be concerned about solicitations which could result in member loss. Facebook at a 6,000-group cap is obviously not so much of a problem, but still exercise caution in a post that might drive traffic out of someone else’s group.

Are you ready to build your community?

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