A case for LinkedIn Groups and Communities

Are groups the problem feature on the LinkedIn platform?

What makes a thriving LinkedIn group? How do we begin to address the problem with groups that a lot of LinkedIn users experience?

Back in October I asked my community builders group what their ideal topic for live interviews would be, and I was surprised that the consensus was asking for more discussions around the use and experience of LinkedIn groups. Whilst LinkedIn has always been a platform that I love, I've often felt that the groups feature was in need of some further development to be taken seriously. LinkedIn groups have a fairly poor reputation for many reasons which I'll address in this article. Most LinkedIn users I know actively network on the platform without even taking part in group conversations. So I embarked on a discovery journey as to why LinkedIn groups work, why they don't work, and what we can learn from some very positive LinkedIn group experiences.

I myself manage 3 small groups on LinkedIn, none of which I'd consider to be thriving nor offer a large group experience, so I asked my network about the most engaged and thriving groups - where were they and who was running them? As part of my community conversations series on LinkedIn Live I set out to interview a few stand-out examples. My question led me to Greg Cooper, who runs a few small and locally based business groups in the UK, Tsufit who is responsible for one of LinkedIn's best groups - Step into the Spotlight has over 13,000 members, and Jeff Young who runs LI Tips for All Levels of Experience with over 2000 members and adds a lot of value to members looking to learn more and share more tips about LinkedIn.

I have and always will be a big believer in community but let's be clear on the definition: a group does not make a community. Communities should be round-tables, where more than just one person contributes, not a speaker to a silent audience. They should facilitate the connection, introduction, or shared sense of purpose between members, and help people to become better at a desired outcome or better connected in some way (depending on the group's purpose). Think of a campfire, not a solo hike up a mountain. Unfortunately a lot of groups are more like the latter. Communities must bring a sense of connectedness and belonging to other members. Only a small portion of groups achieve this. By reputation most LinkedIn users believe groups to be the place where people pitch their wares but don't start or engage in round-table discussions.

As Greg Cooper explained in our conversation, "Some of the best groups become communities. A group is any bunch of individuals who have a shared interest. When a shared interest becomes a shared identity and a shared purpose it becomes a community. Members have an invested interest, responsibility and shared ownership of making the group work even if they aren't a manager or an admin."

All three conversations were different but highly insightful and helped me formulate the following key takeaways on how we can improve the experience of LinkedIn groups. The considerations for this are for users as participants, group admins as aspiring community leaders, and for LinkedIn in the areas of education and product development.

LinkedIn Groups for LinkedIn Users

Join groups, know where to find them, and participate in them often. One of the challenges for groups on LinkedIn is that not a lot of users know where to find them, or where to access the groups they are already a member of. The communities tab does offer this feature but its hard to find on mobile (its via the profile picture). Once you've joined groups don't be shy - participate in discussions, connect with members and ensure you are putting in some time to get something from the groups engaging.

Join some suggested groups that LinkedIn provide as this is an improving feature. Under the My Network tab (scroll down though the options) are some group suggestions based on your industry, location and activity. Not a lot of LinkedIn users are aware of what groups exist so this is a good place to begin. You can also search for groups via their name in the search area, and refine your results to show groups. You need to know the names of the quality groups though in order to find them this way so suggestions can really help if you're just getting started with groups.

Find groups through a shared connection or interest. A little know LinkedIn feature is the ability see which groups any LinkedIn user is a member of (as long as the group is not hidden). If you have a special interest or niche industry go to some LinkedIn profiles of Thought Leaders in this area, scroll all the way to the bottom, select interests and the groups tab to see what groups they are a member of. Its a great way to approach someone with a common interest (via a group once you've joined) but also a potential way to find quality groups.

Connect with other groups members. Groups remain one of the best ways to find connections with a common interest, location or industry. All groups of which you are a member allow you to click on all members and see a list of who else is in the group and send them a message. View this as a way to seek out new members and invite them to connect based on this common group membership or on the conversations that are taking place in the group.

Turn on notifications for your target groups. This is a new feature that has come into existence since my group conversations began and I know its a very welcome feature. Whilst you can be a member of up to 100 groups there are probably only 3-5 in which you will have the time and interest to participate in. Turn on notifications for these groups and watch and engage more closely. While you're looking at your groups memberships I'd also recommend leaving the inactive groups or those that no longer fit your role or purpose.

Start conversations by posting in groups or answering others' questions. This activity provides an opportunity for feedback, to demonstrate some of your value and knowledge, and it can open the door to some valuable conversations. Tsufit suggested based on her experience that group members ask an interactive one line question to engage with others. Greg Cooper and I discussed a BBC study showed that typically only 1% of an online group is actively participating. Users should seek to be that 1% and be a part of a group's growing engaged percentage.

Share quality groups with others. Once you've found a great group don't hide it from others. Group members can invite people from their networks to join groups and ongoing growth is one of the great ways to ensure an ongoing quality experience. Recommend the group in conversations or posts. If there is one valuable thing I learned from this conversation series is that good experiences need to be shared to change perceptions and improve understanding.

LinkedIn Groups for Group Admins and Managers

Show-up consistently and remember nothing great was ever built in a day. Community is a buzz word right now and everyone wants it. I hear the following a lot - let's just start a group and build a community - with little thought and time planning put into it. Building a community is not that simple and its a lot of work. Group Admins need to spend time and energy to create groups and growing it can take a long time. Many current group managers believe you can create a shell, invite a bunch of people, put in very little effort and are then surprised that conversations don't flow. The reality is you need to provide moderation, support, encouragement and continual conversations with your group members. If you're not willing to put in the time then don't start a group. The group manager is the special sauce behind the group and the quality of your activities will shine through.

Create clear and engaging rules. Tsufit's Step into the Spotlight group helps people do just that, to get seen and get known. She has some of the most engaging rules I have ever seen and shows the thought she has put into the groups purpose, and the rules reflect the effort she puts in to keep the group running. She will sometimes break her own rules to help members promote themselves - and she mentions this in the rules. The purpose of the group after all is to Step into the Spotlight. But Tsufit strictly enforces no posting of articles, no teaching posts, no hashtags. She does this not only through the rules and throughout the group on a regular basis. This latter part is really important and what is often missed by group managers. As Tsufit explains, rules should model for how others talk to one another.

Actively share your rules and create advocates. Just as Tsufit reinforces her rules through content and moderation, so does Jeff Young who continually shares the rules as a way to create advocates. Creating group advocates will not only help engagement grow but also enable them to invite others to the group. Jeff uses the weekly recommendation post to reiterate the rules once each month, and encourage others to invite their connections who might benefit. Jeff explains that a group manager can see this on outstanding invites feature of a group and in his group's list many of the invited members are not his connections, they have come from advocates for the group. I loved this quote from Jeff,

Your group is worth the time because the value is there others will join and then that value is largely being created by other people and other will join.

Restrict promotional posts. Overt pitching does not create community. Users want safe spaces that are not primarily set up for pitching and where they fee safe and welcomed. Use the one recommended post each week ask people to talk about themselves as everyone wants to do it. As a group manager you do regularly need to check in on your group to ensure members are following the rules, and either remove posts that don't meet guidelines, or switch on post approval to help keep content as you'd like. If you do find that people are wanting to pitch and share then create a regular post where they can do this in the comments. As Tsufit says 'do some promotional posts to get that out of the way so that people can then go back to talking to one another.'

Clearly define a set purpose and value system. Rules alone aren't enough. But don't decide this for yourself. Survey your members and ask them who they are and what they want. Community and group manager don't survey enough in my opinion. If you have some enthusiastic group members interview them arrive on a clearly defined purpose. Use Canva to create a group banner that states this purpose and add it to the about section. Share it with the group and embody this purpose and the group values as a group manager. Greg Cooper explained "Getting to know your members is one of the best ways to create engagement."

Actively promote your group. In my conversation with Tsufit she was very clear on how she endeavours to continually reach out to interesting people breaking the mould and invite them to be a part of the group. She finds the "big mouths" on LinkedIn and invites them to join because its fitting with her group's purpose. I also loved Tsufit's suggestion of buying a bespoke url for the group so that it can be shared in interviews and by word of mouth and then point this to the LinkedIn url. For example - www.spotlightgroup.biz. Use the banner on LinkedIn and the Featured section as part of your personal profile to help people find the group. Link your group to your company page so its clearly visible to LinkedIn Page visitors.

Don't focus on the wrong metrics. There is no 'right-size' for a group and managers are often too focussed on this. A small group of coaches or trade association members, local businesses or niche interest areas can all work, as can some larger marketing or entrepreneurial groups. Greg Cooper runs local business group in Bristol to support their offline LinkedInLocal events, as well as a small customer support group of past and present clients of 500. He was previously involved as a moderator in managing a b2b social media group of 20,000 run by Jeff Simmons. Both sizes work in Greg's opinion. There is an Adobe Photoshop group of 350,000 on LinkedIn and TEDTalk group of over 1 million. The size of the group has little to do with its success. Managers that focus on quality content and connecting members to one another (and measuring this satisfaction) are on a better path.

Know your features, use them, and educate your members on how to use them. Managers need to know the tools available to them, and use them. Examples include the recommended weekly post and the notification settings. Educate your group members on how to find the group, invite members and also how to turn on notifications. Greg's recent post is a really helpful example of this. But also consider how else you can better support your members. For example If you run a local or industry based group invite your members to follow the local or industry hashtags on LinkedIn to help them engage with content outside of the group.

Start conversations. Perhaps one of the most important tips that I don't see enough managers doing is modelling correct behaviour and starting conversations. If you don't know what to talk about go back to surveys for members or ask them what content would better support themCommunities are about conversations so group managers need to actively participate in and start these. Tsufit explains

"Your group is not a billboard... you should water your group like they are seeds, nurture it and let it grow."

LinkedIn Groups for LinkedIn HQ

LinkedIn HQ have tried to address some user feedback and feature development in the past but little has helped improve the experience of groups. For many users they are the problem child of the LinkedIn features and the experience for most LinkedIn users as group members and managers is lacklustre. A number of people in my network and industry, and myself included, have built Facebook Groups instead, which is not a desirable outcome for LinkedIn where engagement is moved away from the platform. One of the places LinkedIn trainers have peer-to-peer discussions is on Facebook. But I live in hope and this exploration of groups has shown that thriving groups can exist, but there is a long way to go to make these work well for the vast majority. The following is a 'wishlist' for LinkedIn split into two areas - education and learning; and product development.

Education and LinkedIn Learning. LinkedIn could really utilise LinkedIn Learning platform to better educate their users.

  • Provide further resources for Group Admins and Managers. Despite LinkedIn Learning’s resources and courses, there are none that really show how to build groups and engagement well on LinkedIn. Making this a priority would really be of benefit to all LinkedIn users and in particular those looking to better support their groups

  • Provide further resources through LinkedIn Learning and other education channels such as newsletters and content to allow users to know more about groups and how to gain more from the group experience.  

It's a BIG job but two left-field suggestions that Greg Cooper and I discussed that's worth noting here,

  • Consider a clean-up. Reach out to inactive groups admins and let them know that there is a desired timeline for activity, point them to some resources on how to better achieve this and retire groups whose managers don't respond. Having inactive groups sitting dormant whose purpose has expired serves no one.

  • Greg raised an interesting idea in our live discussion - perhaps Group Managers should have a time limit from the moment they open a group to complete a freely available LinkedIn Learning course on the basics of LinkedIn group management. So for example, anyone can start a group but within 3 months of doing so must complete the short modules in order to improve the group experience. If they don't complete the free short course then the group is archived. This is extremely hard to implement but using LinkedIn Learning to develop such a course would be a great start.

Product Development. LinkedIn users are screaming out for more features for groups, and in many cases these existed in the past but have been removed. Here is a summary,

  • Bring back the pinned post feature at the top of the group newsfeed

  • Bring back the group activity so new members can see how active a group is before requesting to join

  • Provide better notifications (Edited note: this has improved since these conversations started on LinkedIn, as Greg Cooper outlines in this post). Bringing back the email notification once a day or week is also another idea to help manager build engagement.

  • A feature I love on Facebook and would love to see on LinkedIn - allow for pre-determined member questions when joining. This enables me to build content around member needs and to know in what direction to take conversations.

  • Improve the UX in finding groups on LinkedIn. On mobile this is really difficult to do as the communities tab is all but hidden. The suggested groups also need some improvement. Simply suggesting on a user's industry isn't enough.

  • Other features discussed as part of this conversation series were internal events and LinkedIn Live for groups, sub-groups, and creating some smaller messaging threads within a group.

Conclusion

Groups are still a very viable channel - Jeff Young.

I agree with Jeff but many LinkedIn users feel that LinkedIn have neglected the groups feature too long. I believe they key to turning it around is building greater understanding and education to get us to improve the experience. I really believe there is a case for LinkedIn groups but it begins with some commitment to groups from LinkedIn themselves and committing to the education tools readily available to help users increase their understanding of options. In particular we need greater understanding for those running groups on how to build community and engagement, as well as general positive approach from the wider LinkedIn community. You can watch the conversations in full by following these links to the past interviews here: Greg CooperTsufit, and Jeff Young.

I'd love to hear your further thoughts and experience of LinkedIn groups in the comments.