Digital Marketing Redux   //   June 3, 2024

Why brands see Facebook groups as a low-cost way to foster community

Throughout 2023, Grove Collaborative customers began to notice that something was missing from the household supply company’s website. Luckily, they had an outlet to speak up: Grove Co.’s invite-only, VIP subscriber Facebook group.

Some users said they missed the Free and Clear products because of allergies. Others didn’t care for scents. At least one customer used it to clean guinea pig cages. “They are sensitive little critters and it’s best not use scents around them,” the post said.

CMO Jennie Perry said the product hadn’t been selling well so the product team had decided to discontinue it. But after seeing the VIP customer feedback, Grove’s team reversed course and continued to keep the Free and Clear scent available across all products.

Grove is one of many companies that’s found a relatively low-investment way to stay close to customers by having a robust Facebook group. With tens of thousands of customers weighing in on products and shopping experiences, the groups are part post-purchase loyalty strategy and part focus group. And at a time when newer and splashier apps like TikTok are commanding interest — and pulling ad dollars away from Meta — the humble, organic Facebook group remains a strong feedback loop for many brands. 

Meta’s latest earnings report said the company is seeing healthy growth, with about 3.24 billion daily users across all of its properties including Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp up from 3.19 billion last quarter. But on Facebook, particularly, overall use has flattened. Since 2016, the percentage of U.S. adults who have said they use Facebook has stayed roughly the same. About 60% of time on the app is spent watching videos.

Still, some brands are finding that groups are thriving. A Meta spokesperson told Modern Retail that the majority of Facebook users are a member of 15 or more groups. About 100 million group joins are made each day

Other brands that operate active Facebook groups include Instapot, which has roughly 3 million users in a public group swapping recipes. Peloton has a private group for members nearing half a million people. However, smaller direct-to-consumer brands have taken to administering smaller groups where they focus on interacting with the members however they see fit. Travel startup No Reception Club runs a Facebook group of about 7,800 people that includes brand updates but is also a valuable advice forum for parents looking to travel with young kids. Portland Leather Goods, known for its handbags and totes, has an “Insiders” group of more than 122,000 people. Users frequently share posts of their collections to effusive praise, while admins who work for PLG post about upcoming drops or sales and answer any questions.

For years, brands have used groups to form an online community and tap into a goldmine of data. But in this current environment, the strategy is proving to be even more cost-effective. From an operational standpoint, a Facebook group requires a brand to check in multiple times a day, even if it only posts itself occasionally. But unlike ads, there’s no up-front cost to play.

While Grove has a community manager for the group, Perry said it’s a daily must-read for many members of the team. That includes dropping screenshots in a cross-department Slack channel where different teams, from customer service to operations, can stay in the loop. “There are a lot of eyes on the channel because the data is so valuable,” Perry said.

Grove dubs its Facebook group The Pantry, which is open to customers who are existing subscribers. Perry said the company will occasionally clean out the members list with people who are no longer active and open it up to invite newer members. But she said keeping it at its current size allows Grove to have a more intimate conversation and relationship with its VIPs.

The brand will occasionally post its own messages, like opportunities for free samples or early access to sales. It might run polls on potential new scents or product names or have AMA sessions with a health advisor for the brand. One recent poll asked users what kind of soap refiller they are — such as, if they wait until the bottle is empty or like to keep it full. But Perry said the true benefits lie in the customers’ interactions with one another — like trading ideas on how to reuse the small concentrate bottles or best practices for cleaning wood floors.

“We announce new products but that actually isn’t as valuable as it is when a customer says ‘I found this new thing, has anybody else tried it?’ And then you’ll have 15 other customers comment ‘I did and I love it,’ or ‘No, it doesn’t do this.’ And there is constant communication like that.”

Claudia Ratterman, director analyst with Gartner, said organic content typically doesn’t get as much engagement as sponsored ads. Ratterman said that can be mitigated by pages or groups full of authentic content. Customers are most likely to engage with brand content they find informative and entertaining, like behind-the-scenes videos or tutorials. Gartner research shows that about 53% of people say they’ll engage with brands on social media.

But, Ratterman said, investing in organic reach can be a time commitment for brands and may not immediately increase sales. It’s more about giving customers what they are looking for in terms of authentic content — and building loyalty in the process.

“It’s a long-term vision versus the short-term of, ‘do we make a quick sale?’” she said. “If you show me a more authentic community, you’re building that trust you don’t get on ads. You’re getting to see the real side of the brand.”

Ratterman also said that R&D can be a costly process for brands. Cutting out budgets for focus groups for a Facebook poll could be a money-saving swap, and help test out an idea before spending more to develop and scale it.

This tactic has been useful for many of the DTC brands that operate Facebook groups for loyal fans. Brian Tate, founder of breakfast brand Oats Overnight, said the official Facebook group is a key way that the brand receives feedback about its new flavors.

About 80% of the company’s $150 million in revenue is driven by direct-to-consumer sales, the vast majority of which are subscriptions. Roughly 260,000 subscribers receive Oats Overnight deliveries on a regular basis, including a rotating “Flavor in Development” made by the in-house food science team. Subscribers can fill out a post-order survey to share thief feedback on the prospective flavor. But over on Facebook, around 82,000 Oats Overnights subscribers can also weigh in.

“We’re getting around 2,500 comments a day just talking about oatmeal, which is pretty wild,” Tate said.

The four-year-old company now has about 45 flavors, most of which were developed through this digital feedback loop. As far as the group itself, Tate occasionally jumps into the chat, as do Oats Overnight’s community manager and social team. But it’s largely a hands-off operation, Tate said. He said he’s open to criticism around flavors people don’t like or why — like a decision to remove chunks of banana from a flavor that otherwise was a hit.

“I think when you’re a big company it’s very challenging to do this because you’re looking at the customer through retail data and focus groups, which is pretty far removed,” he said. “Facebook groups [are] a way to bridge that gap and keep us close.”

Over at Grove, The Pantry is also inspiration for new products to add. Commenters may ask to see specific third-party brands sold on the marketplace so they can add them to their subscriptions. For example, since 2020, customers have been asking Grove to carry products from the period care startup The Honey Pot. A Grove spokesperson told Modern Retail that when the calls first began, the company didn’t have the inventory to supply the marketplace. But the conversation has continued and Grove Co. now aims to start selling The Honey Pot in the second half of this year.

There’s also overall consumer sentiment to absorb. Grove’s Perry said that includes people who may criticize the company around its sustainability goals and branding — some people will offer ideas on how to cut down plastic or improve the recyclability of packaging, while others may debate non-toxic claims. like where and how it decides to use plastic or why it sells products manufactured overseas that may have a high carbon footprint. “They are at the bleeding edge of sustainability,” Perry said of some of the group’s members, “and they have a high bar.”

But that, too, is valuable feedback. Perry said such concerns help the company frame its own conversations around sustainability. It often images one of its top commenters during conversations, wondering what they would say about a decision.

“We get a tremendous amount of benefit from the learning of just listening to customers,” she said.