The Ultimate Guide to Public Social Networks vs. Private Online Communities


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Social networks, social business, social media, social strategy, and social communities. After a while these terms become blended within an organization, especially for those people who don’t focus on these tools and strategies every day.

One of the largest areas of confusion is the difference between large public social networks, like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+, and smaller private online communities, like online customer communities, partner communities, and member communities.

While there are similarities in the interface and nature of connecting with others online, the differences in strategies, functionality, and how they are used by your target audience are vast.

14 Must-Know Differences Between Public Social Networks and Private Online Communities

Both large public social networks and private online communities are important. However, they serve very different purposes, behave differently, and provide a different experience to customers, partners, or members.

While “social is social” on the surface, the differences can appear nuanced with only a little digging. How can you explain how your organization can leverage both public and private social networks to increase engagement and value?

It starts with being able to articulate these differences. The following are fourteen of the major ways that public social networks and private online communities are different.

The Basics


Public Social Networks: These platforms are mainly free to participate in and create a central profile or page for your business or nonprofit organization. Some public social networks have a tiered pricing model, as we see with LinkedIn’s premium accounts. However, that mainly provides more access for individual use, rather than for your organization’s presence on the network.

Private Online Communities: Private online community software does have a cost associated with it. Most business-grade platform license and service agreements range from $20,000 to over $200,000 annually.

Where Members Are

Public Social Networks: According to PEW Research’s Internet Project, over 73% of adults use public social networking sites. Many organizations initially view it as an advantage that a large portion of their target audience is already using the major social networks. It makes joining the community easier and the familiarity of the interface lends itself to creating a comfortable environment for new community members to take steps toward participation.

Private Online Communities: Businesses and nonprofit membership organizations that launch private online communities must create, staff, and execute processes to grow awareness of their community, market the benefits of joining, and turn new members into lasting contributing members.

How Members Use It

Public Social Networks: According the research from LinkedIn and TNS, there are two mindsets when it comes to the large social networking sites – personal and professional. Personal social networks are used to follow friends and family, get information on personal interests and hobbies, and for entertainment. Facebook is commonly in this category.

On the flip side, in professional social networks, like LinkedIn, people see themselves as investing their time to network to advance their careers, get updates on brands that they might do business with, and stay up-to-date on industry current events.

Public Social Networks vs. Private Online Community Software

Private Online Communities: Private online communities are focused on helping people become more successful in their jobs, industries, or with particular products. People join and participate in private online communities to:

  • Build personal brands within a niche
  • Help others
  • Get answers and support
  • Stay informed
  • Access exclusive information
  • Find partners
  • Ask experts
  • Have a voice in the future direction of a company
  • Get job or career advice


Walls vs Groups

Public Social Networks: Networks like Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and LinkedIn follow a decentralized model where individuals (and organizations) connect to each other to form the network. Aside from lesser-used functionality like LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups, and Google+ communities, discussions take place on the “walls” or timelines on the profiles of the individual members of the networks.

Public Social Networks vs. Private Online Community Software Platform

Private Online Communities: Communities are designed to bring people together around specific topics, issues, and shared values. While each community member maintains their own profile and can follow and connect with others in the community, the primary discussion areas are centralized groups, rather than the timelines of individual members.

Learn more about whether you need groups or “walls” in your online community.

Data Ownership

Public Social Networks: The large social networks, like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ own all of the profile and activity data on their networks. They have full rights to analyze and leverage this data for advertising and targeting purposes. Information on public social networks cannot be exported.

Private Online Communities: Your organization owns all of the data in your private online community and it can be exported for integration, reporting, or other purposes.



Public Social Networks: Continuing with the theme of minimizing complexity, public social networks provide little ability to segment your messages, content, discussions, and community members. While LinkedIn is experimenting with message segmentation by profile data, like industry, location, and seniority, organizations can’t target engagement based on specific customer segments, member types, or other attributes of their target audiences.

Private Online Communities: Online community software platforms allow organizations precise control over who sees what. This helps keep community members engaged and getting value from the community by providing highly relevant content and conversations to each individual member. Private online communities commonly segment groups by committee or board membership, customer or member type, which products customers use, and geographic location.

Group Management and Moderation

Public Social Networks: A few of the public social networks, such as LinkedIn groups, permit the creation of subgroups for divisions like members-only, chapters, and special interest groups. However, access to these groups must be managed manually. This means that a member of your staff will have to manually make sure that each group’s membership matches the data in your CRM or membership system on a regular basis.

Given the limited types of engagement opportunities on public social networks and the length of time that they have existed, these platforms have all of the moderation tools that you need to report spam, delete user activity from your timeline, and block repeat offenders.

Private Online Communities: Private online communities are designed to give business and membership organizations maximum control over the structure and management of their community.

Most online customer or member communities have several sub-communities where access is driven by data from a central CRM system or membership database. This integration enables permission settings to be managed dynamically based on real-time customer or member data, rather than have access to specific groups, files, and content be managed manually every day or week.

When it comes to moderation, private online communities give organizations control over the platform’s terms of service. Community managers can then use the full suite of moderation tools to address inappropriate content or behavior according to their community governance policy. Online community software also includes listening tools that alert you when specific terms are used in forum discussions, documents, or other areas of community.

Branding and Uniqueness

Public Social Networks: Each public social network has one or two images that you can you can customize with your own brand elements. However, aside from those aspects, your organization’s page, group, or community will look and act like every other organization on that network.

Private Online Communities: Business-class online communities have the flexibility to match your website’s design and branding. Private online communities also have a broad feature set that enables your organization to create a community that fits your specific strategy and target audiences.


Usage and Results

Public Social Networks: The primary strategies behind large public social networks involve broadcasting content and ideas. The goals here is to increase the reach and awareness of your organization. Companies on the advanced side of the spectrum and with plenty of resources are also able build and maintain relationships with people in these public arenas.

Private Online Communities: For businesses, private online community strategies drive customer engagement and retention, increase the number of advocates in the market (including those people active on public social networks), and lower support costs.

Increasingly, online customer communities are being utilized to drive innovation and product improvements. These platforms provide a secure environment where product ideas are shared and customers provide feedback on the problems that they would like solved.

Nonprofit membership organizations, like associations, leverage private online communities to improve the value of their member benefits package and increase ongoing member engagement.

Targeted Engagement

Public Social Networks: While some social networks allow you to target posts by demographic data, like job function or company size, companies can’t restrict messages by your organization’s natural segmentation – by customers vs. non-customers, by partners, by product usage, or by committee involvement. Also, most interactions occur inline, meaning that your target audience must be using that social network on their laptop or mobile device to see the update.

Private Online Communities: Along with profile and demographic information, online community software enables organizations to send targeted email messages to community members based on specific segmentation data, group membership, discussion participation, event attendance, and other online social behavior.

Message Penetration and Competition

Public Social Networks: In public social networks, your information and discussions are competing with content and interactions from your audience’s personal and professional lives. It is up against everything from consumer brands and entertainment to updates from friends past and present, sponsored posts based on personal/professional interests, and family wedding photos.

Private Online Communities: While often private social networks are checked less frequently than public social networks, the content, discussions, and people are much more relevant and focused. Both social activity from peers and from your organization have very little competition in reaching community members.


Media Types

Public Social Networks: Most public social networks allow you to share text updates, links, photos, and video.

Private Social Networks: Along with sharing text discussions, links, photos, and video, private online community platforms enable community members to share documents and other files, audio, and presentations.

Engagement Opportunities

Public Social Networks: To keep things simple to attract as many users as possible, public social networks tend to have fewer options for engagement. They usually consist of status updates and photo/videos, as well as comments on those features. While in the past the large social networks have had more options either built-in or through plug-ins/apps, they have largely been discontinued.

Private Online Communities: Private online community platforms provide an array of engagement opportunities for organizations to select from when they are rolling out and growing their community. These include discussions, polls, surveys, idea submission, video libraries, file and document libraries, event registration, member directories, blogs, and social networking.

Like forum discussions, many of these engagement opportunities, such as idea submission and resource libraries, enable community members to engage by both submitting new entries and commenting on existing postings from other members.


Public Social Networks: The reporting model for public social networks is built around how people engage your content, updates, and visual media. Aside from the tracking of “likes” over time, the central metrics involve statistics about which social media is getting people to interact with (“like”, comment share, etc.) your post and which is not.

Public Social Networks vs. Private Online Community Platforms

While this is useful for content planning, the anonymous nature of this data prevents you from using the information to optimize your communication for specific community members, address the issues of specific customer groups, or leverage the data in additional analysis.

Private Online Communities: Private online community software provides detailed analytics on social activity and member-specific participation, as well as reporting on membership, events, and revenue. These reports and dashboards can be customized to fit specific business requirements.

Public Social Networks vs. Private Online Communities

This data can even be pumped into your CRM or association management software. Private online community reports can also be automated, scheduled, and delivered at a specific frequency to stakeholders’ inboxes.

Public Social Networks vs. Private Online Communities Takeaway

While it is important to know differences between the large social networks and private online communities, it is especially important to be able to articulate these differences in a business context for stakeholders throughout your organization.

The bottom line is that developing your public social networking and community-building strategies should not be a “either/or” discussion. There is a very strong business case to invest in both platforms.

To help you learn how these platforms can work together to increase customer/member engagement, Socious has developed a new webinar outlining these steps.

Find out more and reserve you spot today!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joshua Paul
Joshua Paul is the Director of Marketing and Strategy at Socious, a provider of enterprise customer community software that helps large and mid-sized companies bring together customers, employees, and partners to increase customer retention, sales, and customer satisfaction. With over 13 years of experience running product management and marketing for SaaS companies, Joshua Paul is a popular blogger and speaker on customer management, inbound marketing, and social technology. He blogs at


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