Business Victoria’s brave Facebook experiment soldiers on

Regular visitors to this blog will be more than familiar with the Facebook Group I have been watching closely since its inception, Business Victoria’s ‘I am a Business Owner in Victoria’.

This group was established a few years back with the following stated mission:

“This Group is a networking tool run by the Victorian Government where people genuinely interested in small business can feel comfortable sharing, connecting and receiving help. This Group is not a promotional or recruitment vehicle.”

From the outset, I didn’t think a business group could survive the ‘warts and all’ culture of the more consumer oriented Facebook.

Surely the more professional and transparent LinkedIn was the more suitable place for conversations about business?


A valuable business ally


But over time it started to win me over as it grew and became an invaluable resource to the state’s business community, or at least close to 9000 members it now boasts.

Whilst clearly a great way to raise one’s profile in their industry of choice, the group became a valuable sounding board for pretty much anything to do with business.

Members put out calls for advice or recommendations on pretty much all aspects of running their business, from dealing with a tax issue to recommending a web professional.

Others used it to gain feedback on new design and name ideas while others shared their latest blog posts and articles to members.

One clear advantage that the Facebook presence had over LinkedIn was that Facebook is more of a 24/7 phenomenon. News and posts came to your personal world on a real-time basis as you checked in your spare time, unlike LinkedIn which is more of a workday medium.


Meanwhile in the shadows


As valuable as these benefits were though, it was only a matter of time before Facebook’s seedy underbelly started to make its presence felt.

Facebook’s much publicised flaws soon started to surface. Bullying, trolling, ganging up, undisclosed vested interest and more soon became commonplace, despite the arm’s length supervision by Business Victoria and the policing of the more legitimate and fair-minded business members of the group.

Multilevel marketers abounded too, flouting the group’s thin membership rules. Not to say that their business model is not a legitimate one, but their motives for joining are clearly somewhat more pointed than regular business owners.


Bullies have their way


So bad was some of the behaviour in the group that several members decided to leave – which is a win for the bullies and a defeat for its fundamental purpose of sharing business ideas and experiences.

Many of these challenges occur due to one overwhelming and obvious oversight: Members are not required to disclose the name of their business in their profiles.

Not only does this oversight mean that you may often have no idea who you are communicating with and what their context is, it clearly means the business in question loses a valuable promotional opportunity.

What self-respecting business operator would not promote the name of their business and inherent link to their website?


More stringency required


Business Victoria admins argue that some people don’t yet have a business, so can’t state a name.  I have argued back that they could at least have a working title for their business name, just to promote transparency.

Whilst this disclosure won’t fully eliminate the poor behaviour within the group, it at least provides the disincentive of tarnishing the brand of their own business, which is clearly self-defeating, whilst providing the transparency a government-led initiative should be providing for mine.

I’ve also argued that competitors should not be able to comment on a competitive business operator’s post without express permission – again to remove any attempt to hijack it for obvious reasons.

I think most fair-minded business operators would agree with this rule, but again no cigar on this just yet.

In the meantime, we continue to witness the development of this fascinating group and hope it emerges to become the powerful and untarnished business ally Victorian small business operators deserve and that serves as a model to groups interstate.

Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team, which services the website and web marketing needs of SMEs.


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