With 2.4-billion active users, the Facebook community is the largest in the world. Its enormous reach has made it the holy grail of digital marketing, both for inbound strategies and sponsored advertising. Facebook communities (business pages) number in the tens of millions as brands tap into vast audiences with a view to increasing engagement and bringing revenue to new heights. That all sounds rather good, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, the reality is very different. In fact, one study even found that only a paltry 17% of marketers could accurately quantify their social media ROI. Considering how much time it takes to build and maintain a long-term social media strategy, that doesn’t paint Facebook et al in the most positive light. The real problem? Your Facebook community isn’t YOUR  brand community, and here’s why.

Facebook engagement rates are at an all-time low

While engagement doesn’t necessarily equal profit, it does help you benchmark how effective your inbound marketing strategies are. The more people engage with your content, the greater the reach of your brand. But before we start looking at the often appallingly low engagement rates on mainstream social media, we should first understand what constitutes engagement. And no, it’s not likes.

Engagement rates on Facebook (and most other social platforms) are typically measured in terms of likes, comments and shares. Likes are often considered small endorsements, and when someone ‘likes’ your brand page, they become a follower and start seeing updates from your Facebook community in their newsfeeds. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. The only problem is that the visibility of branded content from business community has dropped by 50% over the past couple of years. This is due to Facebook’s recent timeline algorithm update, which gives much greater visibility to content posted on personal profiles and encourages businesses to invest more in sponsored advertising to regain their visibility.

The main problem with relying on likes as an engagement metric is that most users who follow your brand never even visit your Facebook community. Comments and shares are a little more useful, since they require a little more effort, but even many of they rarely lead to more website visitors or any further interaction. Even with these relatively low-value engagement rates, the average in the retail sector, for example, stands at a woefully poor 0.8% for photos and just over 0.2% for status updates.

Of course, there are exceptions, and there are some brands that are still doing extremely well on Facebook. But for many companies, it’s a waste of time, effort, and money. After all, a brand community that’s nothing but one-sided communication isn’t really a community at all. Sure, you might want to try investing in sponsored advertising, but meaningful engagement normally isn’t something you can just buy in the days of banner blindness.

A real brand community is a fan club. But there’s much more to having an active fan club than having an impressive-looking number of followers, most of whom never have anything more to do with your company than clicking on the like button. After all, we’re constantly surrounded by distractions, and Facebook is one of the noisiest digital spaces of all. There’s also the fact that a lot of people, particularly millennials, are leaving Facebook. Depending on your target audience, there’s a good chance your Facebook community will become a digital ghost town too, if it isn’t already. That’s the exact opposite of a community.

Should you close your Facebook business community?

The short answer is it depends.

Of course, if your business is one of the few that’s still making a significant impact on Facebook, and your customers are highly active there, then the last thing you’ll probably want to do is close your business page. Even then, there might be a case for closing it down and starting anew on another platform. One small business owner recently did just that, despite having over 60,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram combined. The reason cited was poor engagement rates, driven by the fact that people aren’t capable of having relationships with thousands of people.

Things eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, where the interactions that do still exist become increasingly meaningless. Researchers describe this as Dunbar’s number, first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar in the 90s. The figure stands at between 150 and 250 – the cognitive limit to the number of people we can maintain meaningful social relationships with. The average number of ‘friends’ people have on Facebook stands at 338, although most of us know people with twice that and more. In conclusion, if you’re dependant on Facebook solely because of the numbers game, then it’s probably time for a rethink.

Many established brands have almost a decade’s worth of investment in social media behind them, so it’s hardly surprising it can be difficult to let go of. But social media marketing isn’t getting any easier, at least not if you’re relying on the major channels. After all, you’re not the one in control – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and all the others, rely on advertising revenue for their profits, and every algorithm update or other change to the platform is made, first and foremost, for their benefit; not yours. Add the constant barrage of privacy and security threats into the mix, and you have even more reasons to shun mainstream social media.

If you’re among the many brands which are having difficulties quantifying the ROI of Facebook marketing, yet you’re still putting a lot of effort into it, then it’s probably time for a rethink.

Building a real brand community

With the future of the Facebook community in question, it’s time for brands to retake control over their digital strategies and, in doing so, reduce their dependence on third-party platforms. If you’re not seeing conversions from your Facebook audience or, at the very least, website traffic, then you don’t have an effective community. And, rather than trying to make it work, a better approach might be to build something of your own.

Brand communities can take many different forms. Aside from channels like groups and pages on social media, there are many options for building your own community over which you have full control. Website forums are one such example, and there’s plenty of free and paid open-source forum software you can implement and configure with only a little technical knowledge. With the right approach, you can develop a thriving, close-knit customer community that revolves around meaningful relationships between your business and its customers and between customers themselves.  The forum experience differs slightly from social media in its interface and can feel dated to members unfamiliar with it.

Another option is to build a full-fledged branded social network if your own. Not only will this provide an instantly familiar experience to your customers (most of whom are no doubt used to social networking already); it also lets you cut out the fake profiles and spam and take back control. Instead of being at the mercy of massive global ad platforms like Facebook, you can choose the features and functions you and your customers need and preserve your branding to ensure your business remains at the centre of attention.

These purpose-driven communities might not have the reach of major social channels, but they can give rise to much more productive discussions around everything from customer success to support to product ideation.

Disciple social spaces help brands enjoy all the benefits of community with an independent, valuable, and trusted platform in a safe space that they own and control. Start building your brand community by telling us about your goals.