The Point: Why This Matters

  • Popular, safe and more engaging. Private social networks are becoming more popular because they offer safer, more engaging spaces with no programmatic ads or intrusive targeting. Brands are interested in these platforms because they own the data and customer relationships, and there are more ways to monetize the community.
  • Howdy partners. Brands can engage with private social networks by partnering with established communities, running campaigns on owned channels and investing in building a sustained community.
  • More scalable communities. For brands with large-scale communities, more scalable end-to-end community platforms like Mighty Networks, Circle or Discourse may be a better fit.

“When I want to be seen, I go to Insta. When I want to be heard, I go to my favorite channel or server, depending on who I want to talk to.” — Yuki, 21, gamer and fashion vlogger.

Private social networks are the latest addition to the basket of communication channels, and customers are choosing them in droves. Brands want to be a part of it, but unfortunately, the familiar "social media marketing" tactics will have the opposite effect. To get it right, brands need to understand the culture and purpose of these spaces and create a new CX paradigm for that context. 

What Are Private Social Networks?

Platforms like Discord, Slack, Telegram, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Twitch and Mastodon offer a no-code way for anyone to gather like-minded people into private, member-only spaces. Unlike public social media platforms built to monetize "users" through advertising, private social networks are built on subscription models to engage "members."

Ad-funded social media has a "sticky content consumption" model designed to lure users down content rabbit holes at every click and spend more time on-site. Private social networks focus on the depth and quality of engagement and eschew anything that could disrupt it. 

Users love them because:

  • There are no programmatic ads or intrusive targeting.
  • They are safer and less toxic than public spaces.
  • Members, not algorithms decide who sees the chronologically posted content.

Brands are showing interest because:

  • They own the (first-party) data and customer relationship in perpetuity, rather than being at the mercy of the walled gardens’ ever-changing policies and obscure algorithms.
  • They are discovering more non-disruptive ways to monetize the community.
  • There are far fewer distractions, and most exchanges occur on topic-tagged channels, making it easier to analyze interactions.

Analytics firm Trust Insights runs its own private Slack channel, Analytics for Marketers. Co-founder Chris Penn offers up the strongest argument in its favor. A multi-touch attribution analysis revealed that Trust Insights' Slack community delivered 5% of total conversions, second only to email marketing. “More than Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or any of the public channels, including organic search. And this doesn’t even include the ROI derived from retention, loyalty, evangelism, word-of-mouth and public content amplification,” he added. 

Related Article: CX Provider ActiveCampaign Extends Slack Integration

How Can Brands Engage With Private Social Networks?

Public social media enables reach, product discovery and conversion. But most of that is about acquisition. Customer retention is a different story altogether. Keeping buyers engaged is as challenging as keeping a kid focused on a book in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. That's where private social networks can be valuable. Done right, they can become powerful engines of value-driven engagement and retention. A few strong models are already emerging.

1. Partner With/Sponsor an Established Private Social Network Community

Online Geniuses, the largest Slack community of over 25,000 marketers, partners with select sponsors to offer members "perks" in the form of privileges and discounts. This is a great way for brands to hit the perfect target audience and get community love without actually building their own community.

member perks

member perks
D2C brand Nomad List’s Slack channel charges its base of 10,000-plus remote workers an annual $180 membership fee. Brands spend $20,000 a month to reach them via nonintrusive, CX-friendly partnerships. Think insurance for remote workers, co-living platforms or remote work gear. 

Aside from curated sponsorships, said Penn, the best way for brands to get involved is to “become a valued and valuable member of the communities you’re interested in.” It can take weeks, if not months, of regular participation and providing value without anything in return. To overcome that hurdle, private communities like Spiceworks offer sponsors “Community Brand Rep” services — people placed within the community specifically to engage with tech buyers regularly and meaningfully, if sponsors themselves lack the bandwidth. 

2. Run Campaigns on Owned Channels on Private Social Networks

During the Comicon 2021 weekend, late-night quick service restaurant favorite Jack in the Box, which wanted to engage more deeply with the gamer and cosplay community, experimented with a Discord server. During the first 24 hours, Jack in the Box welcomed around 5,500 members — more than five times the platform’s benchmark for members in a branded community.

run campaigns

The promotion eventually netted over 7,500 members over the weekend, during which they also auctioned a custom NFT and leaked/revealed a new product to these superfans. 

3. Invest in Building a Sustained Community

Building a community is not for the fainthearted. However, brands serious about meaningful customer engagement, retention and nurturing superfans are going all-in. And no-code private social networks like Discord and Slack are making it easy and affordable with advanced functionalities, high-fidelity audio and video, and integration. 

Luxury sneaker startup Cult & Rain has chosen Discord to create exclusive NFT experiences and explore the possibilities of the metaverse while feeding its fans' need for exclusivity. Cult & Rain founder George Yang describes Discord as its own ecosystem. “It’s like Instagram, Twitter, Reddit and LinkedIn all wrapped into one, with 24/7 engagement from people all around the world.” Nike, Gucci and Fendi are all looking to hire full-time managers for their Discord communities, given the platform's easy affinity with Gen Z audiences. 

For brands where large-scale communities are central to the business model, a more scalable end-to-end community platform like Mighty Networks, Circle or Discourse may be a better fit. For example, Discourse provides UiPath with a stable white-labeled environment, customized functionalities, complex integrations, and, of course, data and insight. Older community-first brands like Lego’s long-running Lego Ideas community already have home-built platforms.

Learning Opportunities

Since Mark Zuckerberg famously declared “The future is private” in 2021, Meta has built more closed-community features into Messenger. Twitter already offers Circles. However, audiences — especially those under 35 — and brands targeting them — may remain wary, since these platforms are still fueled by the user data-plus-ad-revenues combination.

Related Article: Deciding on the Best Social Media Platforms for Customer Connection

Elevating CX With Private Social Networks 

At the intersection of individual wants, community purpose and brand goals lies the perfect CX. 

Here are some considerations to deliver it.

1. Mindset

It’s all about what motivates members, not brand goals. If members get what they want, the brand will eventually win. Most new-age private social networks are populated by younger, savvier audiences who have already rejected the broadcast ad model and marketing schemes. Brands focused on "community," "exclusivity," "value" and "engagement" to facilitate rather than control the community will score. In other words, bring a "collaborate and co-create" mindset rather than a "convince and convert" mindset.

Ailidh Smylie, head of strategy at communications agency Socialize, advises brands to be flexible yet consistent. “Stay true to who you are as a brand, but understand the context in which you are operating. For example, brands that advertise across one or more subreddits always perform better when they’ve taken the time to explore the culture of the subreddit and listened to what people have to say.” 

2. Purpose

Private social networks may not be ideal for reach or direct sales. However, they are invaluable for brands to understand target buyers, get instant and ongoing product feedback, experiment with messaging, ask for reviews, invite user-generated content and address customer service needs. Sephora’s Beauty Insider is a successful example of a loyalty program, community engagement, product reviews and Q&A forums all rolled into one platform. Smylie adds they are perfect for spotting microinfluencers, who she said are 60% more likely to convert consumers than larger "influencers." For members, smaller, trusted networks offer places to discover peer-vetted products and solutions, as well as to extract more post-purchase value by learning from peers. Power users and superfans can be invaluable both within the environment and beyond.

3. Functionality and Friction

The UX is central to CX. One advantage of private social networks is that members can log into the primary network once and toggle between all their servers or channels. Checking into Slack or Discord is something they do as a daily habit — there is no extra effort needed to "go to" the brand community. Getting members to log into stand-alone private communities daily, however, could be challenging.

If audio and video interactions are important for a brand’s audience, Discord offers excellent fidelity. If text and content sharing is primary, then closed LinkedIn communities or Slack work great. Does the community need subchannels? Is there gated and paywalled content? Do members expect incentives? How large do the group events get? Does it host workshops and courses? Clarity on the functionalities that matter helps create stand-out CX by choosing the right community environment.

4. Synergy, Not Silos

Public social media is not designed for communities but works great with top-funnel audiences for reach and product discovery. Private social networks are not designed as broadcast media but are great for lower-funnel goals such as engagement, retention, cross- and upselling. 

Instead of isolating the experiences into silos, create a seamless CX that follows the customer’s journey. For example use public social media to recruit members into the private social network, as Discord themselves recommend in their community best practices. In 2021, Chipotle used the "follower-to-fan" approach to drive people from their Twitter page to their RacetoRewards Discord server, promising exclusive access to content and experiences they would not find on public social media or elsewhere.

chipotle tweet

Insights from private social networks help improve the broader marketing strategy, too. For example, said Penn, "topic analysis" of community conversations helps not just to better understand audiences, but also to improve the larger content strategy and even the product development roadmap.

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