It’s Friday night in Plano, Texas. You’re sick of cooking. Tonight, it’s time to eat out — but where do you go?
You might check the Plano Foodies Facebook group. In it, over 4,500 people post about their favourite local restaurants, upcoming specials and their own beloved recipes. You’ll also find posts from the group’s moderator — Plano Magazine co-founder and editor Jennifer Shertzer.
“We thought it would be really fun to see if we could get a big community going where we rallied around our restaurants,” she says.
For publishers, Facebook groups offer a unique opportunity to really get to know their readers on a personal level.
Plano, a city of over 250,000 not far from Dallas, has a thriving restaurant community. Shertzer thought that eventually, someone would try to create a Facebook group aimed at local foodies — so why not the local magazine? Plano Magazine, which she started with her partner and husband Luke in 2014, is focused on arts and life content. It was a natural move for them.
Many media outlets, both large and small, have been using Facebook groups (or similar tools) to connect with users. Conde Nast runs several groups that serve niche interests related to each of their brands — for example, The New Yorker Movie Club, which has over 38,000 members, is a place for cinephiles to chat about film. In the group, members get a chance to directly interact with New Yorker film critics like Richard Brody. “People often post in our group about films they watched years ago, that have stayed with them, but they’re unable to recall who is in it or what it’s called. The members of our group are so diligent that they’re often able to figure out which film it is,” Saira Khan, the director of social media at The New Yorker told the Facebook Journalism Project.
Shertzer quickly noticed that posts that came from Plano Magazine’s business account got little to no engagement. But if she posted in the group using her personal account, a discussion would start. “I think the big learning curve for me there was: people want to interact with other people. They don’t want to interact with brands.”
Indiegraf member The Discourse Cowichan also has a local Facebook group. Originally, the editors there had hoped to generate conversations about issues in their community, but eventually found it was too forced. The group needed to grow organically. “Facebook groups are a really important source of local information for people who live here, particularly with the decline of local newspapers,” says founding reporter Jacqueline Ronson. “But they can get pretty nasty, and lots of people eventually bow out. Our group has, with a couple of exceptions, been a place of reprieve from that, where you can expect good information and respectful engagement. And I think people appreciate the feeling of being part of a group.”
Shertzer isn’t looking to get clicks or ad revenue from the Foodies Facebook group. (In fact, she only posts content from the magazine about twice a month.) “If someone is going to be in Plano and go to Facebook and search anything about Plano foodies, I want us to be the first thing that comes up,” Shertzer says. “I want Plano Magazine to be seen as the authority on where you should be eating in Plano.”
She is, however, using the group to help build her newsletter subscription base. Each new member is asked if they want to give their email address. If they do, Shertzer adds it to Plano Magazine’s subscriber list, and notes that they are also a member of the Plano Foodies. Eventually, she may launch a food-focused newsletter. She may also plan special offers for members of the group, such as discounts on culinary events hosted by the magazine.
Till then, the group is still thriving through COVID-19. Every Wednesday, restaurants are free to promote the takeout or meal kit specials they are offering. And people are still looking to enjoy all the great food in their city.
“I consider successful engagement if someone can ask for a recommendation for a restaurant and they get multiple meaningful replies, or if someone just gets on there and posts, ‘Hey, we went to this restaurant this weekend, and it was great,’” says Shertzer.