Where's the Community in a Platform?

Ask the average Facebook user to describe the service, and they'll say it's a place to stay in touch with friends. The more digitally minded will likely call it a social community. Ask most marketers (especially those actively engaged in digital media), and they'll refer to it as a social platform.

Although the difference may seem insignificant, it reflects a major shift in not only how brands use social media but how giants of the space -- Facebook in particular -- see themselves. The shift happened hand-in-hand with Facebook's renewed focus on generating revenue. It may be time to change the company's mantra from 'make the world more open and connected' to 'make the world more open and connected -- if you pay to ensure reach.'

While Facebook recently posted its highest-ever earnings (Q2 2013 at $1.6 billion), the social-media software company Expion reported that consumer engagement with brands has declined. Could Facebook's focused development of new services for advertisers -- and brands' increasing willingness to depend on paid promotion to ensure their content appears in users' news feeds actually be undermining engagement?

A platform is defined as a "surface raised above the level of the adjacent area, as a stage for public speaking." This is essentially the antithesis of community. Because so many media organizations have yet to embrace the benefits of dialogue with consumers, returning to a more traditional corporate monologue might seem appealing. After all, it's easier to understand, control and measure. But it also misses the true purpose of social media: To empower the consumer.

By playing to a select audience of paying advertisers, Facebook is undervaluing their true strength: a membership of over one billion individuals. Without an active, engaged and entertained community, hostility to brands will grow as users seek new, more personal online spaces.

Agencies and brands must focus on nurturing loyal communities. This is a long-term commitment, one in which the brand's community manager is as important as the media planner. After all, community managers are tasked to understand and maintain the relationship between the company and their followers on a daily -- even hourly -- basis.

Not all brands are experiencing a drop in engagement; there are important lessons to be learned from them. In this category, the Expion report identifies Tiffany & Co as the undisputed champions. Their consistent strategy of posting images of aspirational products, timely content (e.g., holiday or seasonal) and activity on a full range of social channels, such as custom filters on Instagram, has cultivated a community wherein the average post creates 30,000 interactions.

But not all brands are as intrinsically desirable as that luxury icon. This makes the success of a less established brand such as Newcastle Brown Ale an even greater testament to the potential of creative original content. By carefully developing a distinct voice and posting highly shareable content, the brand has developed a community, not just a following. The power of content, combined with paid promotion, can be massively effective for the brand, not just securing broader exposure, but actually enriching the audience's experience.

By no means should Facebook be chastised for turning a profit. Likewise, brands can't be blamed for wanting the maximum number of eyes on their messaging. But neither can be achieved by undermining the fundamental social interactions which makes Facebook what it still truly is -- a community.