“Why should I invest in a custom community on Ning – why not just focus on my Facebook Page?” It’s a question I’ve heard frequently since I joined the Ning team in 2009. While there isn’t just one answer, custom communities do offer several unique benefits including complete ownership of the relationships and membership data, the ability to communicate with fans when and how you want, the chance to create a branded destination, and the freedom to monetize fan activity.

However, the most important reason for investing in a custom community is the outcome – higher quality engagement with fans, peers, or customers. Real conversations and Interactions that are deeper than just a Like or a quick “Love it” comment. In a custom community, fans develop stronger relationships with each other. For a business or social leader, the end result is higher fan retention, increased brand loyalty, and greater activation of fans to achieve goals e.g., a social purpose, repeat purchase, co-creation of content, brand evangelism, etc.

To demonstrate this point, I analyzed fan engagement for five Ning customers who have active communities on both Ning and Facebook. Three are product brands and two are influential authors. I focused only on deeper interactions (posts and comments) within each Ning community and Facebook Page in May 2013. I excluded light interactions such as Likes because they don’t involve exchange of ideas – real conversation. At the request of these customers, I’ve kept their identities confidential.

The analysis illustrates two major differences in the quality of engagement within their custom Ning communities vs. their Facebook Pages:

  1. Fans in the Ning communities were much more likely to post something (a blog post, new discussion topic, a photo, or a video) over a simple comment.
  2. In the Ning communities, the vast majority of commenting were fans commenting on other fans’ posts. On the Facebook Pages, the majority of commenting were fans commenting on posts from the brand or page owner. In other words, most activity in the custom Ning communities were many-to-many interactions whereas on Facebook, most activity were one-to-many interactions.

The Study

All five social leaders have large communities on both platforms. The number of posts and comments on each platform was roughly equivalent. Note, if lightweight engagements such as likes and shares were included, overall fan activity on Facebook would be higher.

In 4 of the 5 examples, fans or customers who had joined a Ning community were much more likely to post something (a blog post, new discussion topic, a photo or a video), rather than just comment.

In all cases, the vast majority of comments in the Ning community were made by fans on fan posts, rather than fan comments on the social leader’s posts or vice versa. On all of the Facebook Pages, the majority of interactions were between the social leader and fans (one-to-many).

And (not Or)

A Facebook Page and a custom community can both play a valuable role in your social media strategy. The Author B in my study posts content on Facebook eight times per day on average. He’s casting a fishing net in a pond with more than a billion users. It’s an efficient, light-touch way for him to reach his fans and get a Like or a “Brilliant”, “Amazing” or “So wonderful”. As Richard Millington, a leading community expert, explains, “This is an audience, not a community.”

Author B has recruited over 39,000 of his most loyal fans to join his Ning community where they help and support each other. In the entire month of May, Author B only contributed 3 blog posts and commented 9 times in his Ning community. His loyal fans did the rest – posting blogs or initiating new discussion topics over 30 times per day. They are carrying out the philosophy and social purpose of Author B.

If you want to do more than fish in a big pond, build a custom community for your most loyal fans and create an army of brand evangelists.

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