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How I Turned a Facebook Group Into a Thriving Startup

'Want to float an idea for a new startup?' asks this boating expert. A Facebook group could be just the place to find your new crew.
How I Turned a Facebook Group Into a Thriving Startup
Image credit: jwdorris | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Founder and Captain, Boat Planet
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

This past summer, Facebook announced that it was removing more than 5,000 ad-targeting settings from its platform in response to accusations that those options enabled discriminatory behavior by advertisers. While that may have been beneficial to users, it makes it much harder for businesses to reach the right audiences with their ads.

In addition, Facebook posts don’t have the organic reach they once did. In fact, according to research from Social@Ogilvy, Facebook business pages with more than 500,000 fans see an organic reach of just 2 percent. As Facebook continues to change the algorithm behind its news feed to make the platform more about connecting people and less about displaying posts from businesses, you're going to find it harder -- and more expensive -- to reach your audience with Facebook ads.

And yet you have to try: While some brands may use these changes as an excuse to start advertising elsewhere, what you must keep in mind is that Facebook is still the third most popular website in the world, trailing only Google and YouTube. So, if you’re an entrepreneur, that means your customers are very likely using Facebook. And if you want to attract their attention, you need to be hanging out where they are.

Related: 5 Reasons Why You Should Still Be Advertising on Facebook

What’s the solution, then, for businesses looking to build their brand on social media without draining their bank account? Answer: Create a Facebook group. Just the way I did.

Finding your audience

After I sold my internet marketing agency almost two years ago, I recognized the opportunity I finally had to pursue a startup in an industry I’d always been passionate about. What I didn’t know was what problem I wanted to solve. So I set out to create a Facebook group for boat owners who love boating at the No. 1 recreational lake in the country, Lake of the Ozarks (LOTO). 

Both the purpose and name of the group would be simple: It would be a community where like-minded boaters could ask questions, share tips, show off their boats and find help if needed. I named the group LOTO Boaters.

I started by inviting several of my boating friends. Soon, the group grew to include a couple of hundred members, most of whom I recognized from seeing them out on the water.

But then something crazy happened. The power of Facebook groups lies in the ability of every member of the group to invite friends they think would also enjoy it. Once we had a couple of hundred members, it didn’t take long to reach a couple of thousand. Within a year, the group had 25,000 passionate boaters, marine professionals and local experts.

Then a pattern emerged: After a few months, I noticed a recurring discussion being posted several times a day. Boaters were asking for recommendations on whom to trust to work on their boats, docks and boat lifts. Most boaters know that maintaining and upgrading a boat is a time-consuming and often expensive process. If they’re paying good money for these services, they want to be able to trust the professionals doing the work.

I also realized that these professionals were just like any other entrepreneur. They were looking to gain customers’ trust and earn their business. Advertising platforms for marine professionals were pretty limited -- most businesses relied on local magazines, radio ads or billboards to showcase their services.

Bingo! I had discovered a problem in the boating industry. I then set out to fix it by building a means for connecting boaters with trusted marine professionals; and Boat Planet was born. If you’re an entrepreneur looking to build your own online community on Facebook, keep these tips in mind:

1. Provide value. (Seriously.)

This piece of advice gets thrown around a lot these days, but it’s especially applicable here. The fastest way to grow an online community is to provide valuable information to group members. The Vitamin Shoppe is an example of a brand that’s doing a great job of this. The company has started half a dozen or so groups around niche topics related to the health and wellness industry, and it uses these groups to serve tailored content to its audience.

Related: How to Drill Down Into Your Buyer Personas to Create Hyper-Targeted Content

Hopefully, you have some sort of expertise in the industry you are passionate about. Be ready to help new members looking for wisdom or advice. If they ask questions in the group, jump in and answer them -- or at least point them to a resource that can help. Don’t try to sell here. The goal is to become a trusted source in your industry where people go to find information and answers to their questions.

2. Give more than you take.

Facebook is already full of ads, which is why people are spending less time on the platform in the first place. In fact, the average amount of time users spend on the site is 35 minutes per day, down from 40 minutes three years ago, according to Sprout Social.

An easy way to turn off group members is to promote your company relentlessly. Remember, you want to provide value to your members, and throwing disruptive ads in their face is not the way to do that.

Related: Four Ways To Give Your Customers Value

Similarly, be ready to dedicate significant time to your group. It’s very time-consuming to moderate a Facebook group of tens of thousands of people, and it’s especially difficult if you’re trying to launch a startup at the same time. Make sure you have a trusted team of moderators so you can focus on the big picture without getting bogged down with the details.

3. Seek feedback and build relationships.

Ask group members what they think about your idea before you spend your life savings developing it. You can do this by posting questions asking whether your idea would solve a problem or meet a need. If your group isn’t excited about your idea, chances are good that others will be similarly apathetic.

At the same time, build relationships with your group members. I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to meet local business leaders and fellow boaters as a direct result of my group, and that's helped grow the Facebook group as well as my business. When you get to know your customer base and regularly receive their feedback, you'll find it easier to discover how you could better meet their needs and solve their problems.

Social media can help entrepreneurs take their startups to the next level, but traditional social media marketing tactics can be expensive and futile. Sometimes, the best way to see results is to get creative in the way you reach your customers by taking advantage of Facebook groups.

Not only can you grow your business without the high costs, you can also reach your ideal audience and provide more value than ever before.

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