I've been involved with starting three Facebook groups and one blog page, and have founded two Quora Spaces and a Reddit sub-forum. This is about passing on what I learned from that experience.
To back up, I started into exploring social media coupled with an interest in tea some time ago, about seven years back. Or really more like nine, but this blog started seven years ago. Basing that online channel exploration around a subject theme helped, since daily life both is and isn't a shared interest. Using a subject interest as a focus really works better for joining groups and discussions.
Tea wasn't the only subject interest I had, of course, or the only grouping I naturally fell into. Back then I had just spent about 15 years pursuing an interest in Buddhism (which included being ordained as a monk once), both as philosophy and a religion. For living in Thailand the expat theme came up, that of being a foreigner living abroad. Thailand was a recurring theme, for being here, and travel in Asia came up a lot, which is really what led to the tea interest, for running across it a lot.
Enough about me though, on to how founding a social media group works out, some factors to consider going in, and decisions and details that come up.
back in the day in that religious role
I don't tend to see people discuss why to start a group, since it's usually an outcome related to having a well developed subject interest. Blogging is different; people often ask how to be successful at writing a blog, before they fully narrow down what they have to say. That's even with the theme of blogging being on the way out, now largely replaced by profiles in Instagram and the like, and discussion in Facebook groups. Social media sites like Twitter are something else, but that format lends itself to relating to a narrow subject theme; you just follow profiles tied to a theme, and stick mostly to discussing that, or sharing posts about it.
If someone didn't have a really well developed interest in one particular subject starting a social media group would make no sense. It would also be natural for someone to love a sports team, and certain foods, or travel, fitness, or fashion, to identify with these themes, but not to want to talk to people they don't already know about them.
writing this reminded me that I wasn't in any alumni groups, so I joined one
A commercial interest can help drive these sorts of pursuits. Someone interested in fitness might only want to keep track of new references about the subject, but someone working as a freelance personal trainer would need to go further with making connections, and gaining exposure. A tea vendor could start a tea group for the same reason. They tend not to, but it does come up. A social media tea group can even be limited to only relating to one particular vendor, like this Yunnan Sourcing Fans group. That group has 3000 members; that sort of exposure could definitely have a positive impact on business.
It would be a little odd to start a group mostly to see how starting a group would go, but that could work. It would still need a theme, since a "group about nothing" would go nowhere. Regional themes can make for an easy fall-back. I'm from a rural area in Pennsylvania and a local group there has been interesting for re-connecting me to some local news. It almost goes without saying that a graduating class theme could also work. Or any interest, really. The narrower the better, and it's best if you have a really strong connection to the subject, because otherwise continuing with discussion and moderation tasks could become tiresome.
How it went for me
I started with helping two online contacts set up tea groups, one of which I'm still the main moderator for, and most active participant, the International Tea Talk group. At least in terms of membership count that goes well; that group currently has 13,800 members. In both cases I helped add some friends with a shared interest to get the group membership base started, and let the groups grow organically from there, or else not develop.
How the theme and activity level worked out is really something else, more mixed, part good and part bad. It works best if you can set up an active core group that promotes ongoing on-topic discussion, and a feeling of community, but the members who are most active in groups tends to change over time. In many groups most posts are either blatant spam, ads, or else information sharing designed to push the boundary between discussion and advertising.
I met some really interesting people through that one group. If someone said something interesting, or their background was really unusual, I'd say hi by message, and I've talked to a fair proportion of the tea industry that way, people all over the world. When the pandemic first became active in China and Italy I talked to people in both countries about that, people I had already spoken with. It helps having an established blog that's related, because it automatically sets up subject credentials that are hard to replicate in another way. Just being a group moderator doesn't carry much weight. To be clear I'm nothing like a celebrity, but it's easy to reference my degree of interest and background at a glance here.
The other tea group I helped initiate died of disinterest. I learned that my approach to tea and that contact's weren't a close match, so I became less active. Sharing ownership of a group is an odd theme; it might be as well to avoid that. It worked out well for the other group mainly because the other primary owner is inactive, eliminating most of the potential for conflict over direction.
I also started two Quora Spaces, a bit later on, that site's equivalent to groups, but also in between FB's "group" version and that of topic pages as function goes. One is about tea (Specialty Tea), back to that central exploration them, and the other is About Foreign Cultures. Those have 5400 and 11,200 followers, so there seemed to be some interest. I never hear much about that interest from fellow "Quorans," and only one contact on Quora really seems like a friend, someone who I've met "in real life" a couple of times since.
Related to membership equaling interest, a group can be quite large and still somewhat inactive, or most posts can just be self-promotion. Those Spaces aren't mostly about followers adding content, so I post almost everything that appears there, along with a function supporting sharing on-topic answer posts from others. For whatever reason people submit quite a bit of answers to be posted related to culture but not many in the tea space version. I suppose that is a narrower topic in terms of general following, not just related to the follower count.
Even when page or group stats seem to indicate a moderately high degree of following, for example that stat of 3.2 million combined answer views on Quora, it's not always clear what that means. I doubt people actually read the answers that many times, and someone scrolling past one in a feed doesn't mean much, or in the Facebook feed context either. Those two Spaces' stats confirm that posts and topics compete there for interest; there's not as much traffic as the follower numbers would imply. I don't even check that related to the International group on FB; it's not relevant to me, so I don't keep track.
Life-cycle of groups or forums
A bit on this already came up, but to some extent any online group, or even forums, tend to have a natural life-cycle. I suppose I don't just mean that they drift off to becoming inactive, also that the patterns related to that seem consistent across types and context themes. It's not completely unrelated to a person's life cycle and perspective, related to youth being about exploration and development, maturity related to building on already established themes and direction, with prior direction and activity level eventually narrowing and tapering off. Renewal is possible, with a theme change, or membership change, but more often cycles of renewal tend to taper off too.
An expat forum was a clear example of all this, one of the places that led me to explore social media as much as I did. It was originally called "Orient Expat" and later converted that to Expat.life when political correctness made that a poor choice of naming.
That forum really stood out, for a number of reasons. There was an active core group of 8 to 10 main members, with another 20 or so regular participants, and lots of people coming and going, just checking in. Individual country forums allowed for discussion across the broad region (not so much based out of China and Japan, more in South East Asia), and then discussion of general issues bridged across that. This Wayback Machine capture register shows it's life-span:
it wouldn't have to relate but I would guess activity level equates to capture counts
Of course the "Xpat.life" site version continued that run, but the writing was already on the wall. The founder eventually lost interest, after banning more and more people for less and less serious transgressions.
Facebook groups were going to kill it anyway, drawing all the oxygen out of the room for group participation, as they also killed off Google + eventually.
The positive lessons from there still work though, about setting up a core group, enabling themed discussion that still allows for some range, and trying to support Q & A and news posting, and also general discussion. There was a "shout box" feature there, a nice function enabling chatting beyond post commenting. I haven't replicated all those things in any given group that I've started, and Facebook groups just aren't set up to.
Using groups for promotion
This could work. I've already mentioned a commercially oriented group, and of course I add blog posts to the tea group that I moderate. One main benefit of setting up your own group is choosing the rules, allowing or dis-allowing whatever you want. A group that's essentially a business page would be unlikely to gain popularity, I suppose unless that business or brand is so successful that it may work to leverage the association, for an entity like Disney, for example. Of course then a highly successful business wouldn't be seeking to increase exposure through a group or other media outlet (in the same sense), only to serve other functions, to add a communication channel, or develop a new form of association or information distribution. That Yunnan Sourcing tea vendor fan group serves as an exception; it's more active than the average tea group, and much more active than the three different more conventional forum-based sites (Tea Chat, Tea Forum, and Steepster, with the last split between a discussion section and review functions).
For a typical small business, one selling something, or offering a service, it could be a real challenge to link general subject interest and relatively direct marketing. Another example of a forum--not the same thing as a group, but related--comes to mind related to this.
Tea Chat was one of the main tea discussion channels online at one point, probably the overall main one. They managed to balance commercial interest (they were owned by Adagio, a retail tea vendor) with that discussion hosting role by essentially dropping out all connection to tea sales, by not marketing there. But then that cost them most of the exposure and business benefit, so eventually, probably related to changes in management, they changed direction and instead emphasized product exposure.
The conflict between the two themes caused a rift immediately; they ended up deleting posts or topics that ran counter to that positive exposure, and added "fake" accounts for testimonial purposes (allegedly, but some of that negative feedback came from the former main moderator, who was removed from that role). Maybe a balance could have been struck, but the group probably never would have become as popular if that commercial theme had shared focus initially. It would be problematic to emphasize only marketing for one related business, and perhaps even more problematic to allow open input from competing businesses.
Blogging dying out--giving way to Instagram following and the like--leads to less conflict of a similar form for mentioning blog links, which most larger Facebook groups simply don't allow. Which is probably reasonable; to keep commercial or self-promotion posting in check it's necessary to establish clear rules, and a natural cut-off includes preventing blog link posting.
Rules and related issues
It wouldn't work at all to start a group without commercial-scope restrictions; if people joined it that group would immediately become an advertising platform. Setting a cut-off can be problematic, because any restriction would invoke grey areas. For example, not allowing ads doesn't necessarily prevent photo sharing or information posts by business profile members, which would essentially be ads. Not allowing commercial profile members (from FB, or elsewhere, if personal and business accounts are mixed) is one way to move the limit back further.
All groups would also need to set a limit related to discussion being civil, or eventually a test case would come up. Other scoping would relate to subject theme. Tied to a topic like tea that's clear enough, but there's always something, like herb tea (tisanes), or people selling tea packaging machines. In one philosophy group scope restriction was really problematic, and tone; lots of people were more interested in communicating politically oriented opinions, which isn't conventional philosophy. It was funny how the owners of the group I'm thinking of leaned into that bias by promoting their own political agenda there, and discussion of the subject philosophy more or less dropped out.
Options / channels
I've mentioned setting up groups in Facebook and Quora so far, but not so much about a failed attempt at a Reddit sub-forum. I don't love Reddit culture but I'm active in r/tea there. As an experiment I set up a sub-forum related to non-fiction Youtube video channels, but it didn't gain any traction. Then again I just posted a few times to it, and didn't do much with promotion before pulling the plug, setting it to "inactive." In general Redditors definitely wouldn't want to be sold something, or in my interest case to discuss tea in the same form I tend to. I do answer questions there though, in the main "sub," or post blog links sometimes, which tend to be ignored.
r/tea on Reddit; there are 229,000 members, which adds a need for clearer rules
Facebook is obviously where the people are. I liked some aspects of Google + but disinterest killed that channel. It's also worthwhile noting that Facebook pages can serve a related but different role (as for this blog). Those aren't as group-discussion oriented but can serve as a contact point or for exposure.
New channels are cropping up, which is about time, given how long Facebook has served as a singular main arena. Discord groups or Slack discussion groups serve some of the same function. I don't love the Discord format; it looks like an old main-frame environment, I guess on purpose. I think Slack is more a communications app than a media based social platform, like Whatsapp and the like. We use Line in Thailand, the Japanese version. "Groups" in the sense of shared messaging is possible on any of those, but it's not the same, as Zoom video meetings aren't.
Then I guess there's always "in real life" as an option, connecting through sites like Meetup. A Facebook group would work just as well to coordinate that though, and their media sharing and discussion and message functions enable limited exchanges to occur with or without that face to face step ever happening.
I started an "in real life" local meeting group but then never held more events
Private online settings that split the difference between old-style forums and these main-channel groups really haven't been developing, at least not much. This post is mostly about how someone might use an easy-to-establish group form anyway, not about forums, or customizing a new website based version. I've checked out one recently though, to see how that might be set up, related to a former mob / mafia captain telling stories on video through a Youtube channel (that group site and Youtube channel).
I'd definitely recommend at least checking out the mob story videos
If someone doesn't feel like there's anywhere they fit in online they could always try to start their own group. The same would go for promoting a commercial interest, or ramping up blog exposure, whatever it is. In most main channels there are almost no technical challenges to doing that, just a few details to work out initially, and a monitoring demand to keep up with, filtering the input.
Pages work well for setting up a contact point, sharing information or media, or letting people follow a theme topic, but groups add discussion and participation depth to that.