Owned-social networks are replacing Facebook as a way for brands to market to their communities

Matt Phillips
Matt Phillips with Blewbury's social media app (Source: Oxford Mail)

Two months ago, I helped Blewbury in Oxfordshire become the first village in the UK to launch its own social network. We were inspired by the MP Matt Hancock, who during his tenure as digital minister launched a social network for his constituency.

His decision to call it “Matt Hancock” attracted much media attention. But behind the choice of name sat another story: communities are not well-served by social media. His plan to create a troll-free digital space for constituents worked; today you’ll see a community engaged in civil, on-topic discussion about West Suffolk.

This is an example of an “owned-social” network – a channel for people to chat that’s created and controlled by that group, rather than Facebook or some other tech giant.

Launching our community app was instructive. First, people are more sick of Facebook than I realised. Trolling, fake news, privacy abuse and bad corporate behaviour have tarnished its brand. Second, communities get fragmented information from lots of different places: word of mouth, email, WhatsApp, leaflets, posters, and Twitter feeds on top of Facebook. It’s a mess. And finally, people really care about their local community.

This matters to brands and businesses, because it holds true for any community, not just a village.

Once categorised as above-the-line (indirect, mainstream brand advertising via TV, posters and print) or below-the-line (direct, targeted, sales-led material like newsletters and direct mail), the tech platforms have blurred marketing lines and convinced advertisers to “target niche audiences at scale”. Or “use us to target communities”, in other words.

Communities are attractive to advertisers as our shared interests – be it a passion for a music or film genre, a place, a cause, or an idea – create strong emotional bonds. Advertisers benefit by association.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the target community is interested in the advertiser. The social media marketing gold rush reflects the fact that Facebook groups, Instagram stars and YouTubers represent the least worst route to communities. But to work, there has to be a mutual value exchange between community and host.

Brands could therefore use owned-social networks in one of two ways: to host a community that’s already engaged in your company’s social purpose (if it genuinely has one), or to sponsor a community that has a purpose that the business genuinely cares about (if it doesn’t).

“Cause-led companies” have a clear purpose, and attract natural allies. Think of brands like Ecover, or The Body Shop. For their founders, “why” came first, product second. Because the cause of the business and the cause of the community is aligned by design, these brands are a natural fit for owned-social. Charities and not-for-profits also inhabit this space.

There are also “credible campaigners” – brands which adopt a cause. Unilever’s Dove wasn’t created to change how women are represented in media. Yet Unilever deserves credit for advancing this cause, and the intent behind Dove’s marketing is genuine. Brands that move into a campaigning role can use their clout, and owned-social, to drive positive outcomes.

Finally, there are “passion products” – great brands with personality, style, and enthusiastic advocates. Apple and Harley-Davidson fit this category. These brands may not be campaigners, but have a clear identity which people relate with. Owned-social can give a brand the means to offer its biggest advocates added value.

Social media will continue to grow as a channel as long as advertisers see it as an effective route to customers.

But expect owned-social, and this idea of building communities around a purpose or passion, to become a staple of modern marketing.