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Why Facebook is suddenly smitten with Groups

Now that half a billion people self-identify with groups, the social network is getting serious about its intentions for this oft-forgotten product.

James Martin/CNET

With the private social network fad in the rearview mirror, Facebook appears motivated to remind us that not only did it think in smaller sizes long before it was cool, but it has quietly grown its private spaces audience to 500 million people over the years.

That Facebook has an astonishing number of people -- nearly 41 percent of the network's total audience -- cornering themselves off into nooks and crannies isn't surprising. Groups have long been a convenient way to converse in closed circles. Rather, the unexpected thing here is that Facebook is choosing to just now draw attention to Groups, a product that it rarely talks about publicly, and one that's not particularly representative of Facebook's new mantra of being a mobile-first company.

Speculation, kicked off by a Bloomberg profile of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, would have it that the company is readying the release of some type of standalone mobile application for group communication. Indeed, plenty of clues point in that direction. But Facebook isn't ready to commit to that vision -- at least publicly.

"I don't think we've necessarily made any plans, one way or another, around breaking it off as its own individual experience," Facebook Groups product manager Jimmy Chen told CNET. "I think it's a core use case that Facebook, the company, should be really good at. The tactics for how we do that are still up in the air."

And, yet, Facebook is being oddly outspoken about Groups, the private social network that predates the once-trendy Path and other mobile apps like Everyme and Couple, which seem destined for future obscurity.

Not Groups. During Facebook's most recent earnings call, Zuckerberg boasted uncharacteristically about the success of Groups, even calling it a "core product."

The company never reveals anything it doesn't want you to know, nor does it offer up stats about its singular products, save for purchases like Instagram and WhatsApp. Facebook, for instance, still hasn't shared how many people use Messenger, a much more talked about product with its own standalone app.

Why, then, does Zuckerberg want to draw attention to Groups?

The most probable answer is that Groups are good for advertisers, an audience that Facebook needs to keep happy should it wish to continue to make billions every quarter. Affiliating yourself with a pact of people, especially if related to a hobby, is a stronger signal of your tastes than a "like" or a follow. That Facebook is sitting on affinity data for 500 million people is a powerful message not lost on advertisers.

Company-watcher Brian Blau, Gartner's research director of consumer technology, suspects that Facebook's sudden revelation was meant to remind advertisers that they can target their ads against Groups, which are likely representative of members' true interests.

Currently, advertisers can only reach group members through right-hand column placements inside groups. Facebook does not target ads based on Group membership, a company spokesperson said. That's not to say Facebook won't go in that direction eventually. And Altimeter Industry analyst Rebecca Lieb concurs with Blau's view.

"Groups are self-identified target audiences," Lieb said. "[Facebook] has been looking at so much data -- big data, third-party data, ad-network data -- but other advertisers just want to reach specific people who like specific things. It's much simpler than the data, actually."

The groups-are-good-for-advertisers theory matches up against Facebook's recent statements on the product and its newly unveiled intention of pointing people toward even more groups they might like.

Chen said that Facebook believes that sharing in closed spaces should be a core principle of the network. "As a person in society, you're a member of all sorts of different types of social groups, be they clubs, or teams, or societies, or an alumni group, or a neighborhood, or a fan group. And we think that Facebook should be the place where you go to share with those types of people."

The new discovery page for Facebook Groups. Facebook

On Monday, the social network even made an update to a Groups discovery page to highlight groups that your friends belong to and groups that are relevant to where you live.

"The more groups that I belong to, the more I'm demonstrating my preferences and my affinities to Facebook, and the more data Facebook has about me," Lieb said.

An alternate theory is that Groups, like WhatsApp and Messenger, promote private communication, making it an essential tool in the social network's strategy to reach another billion people. It's yet another product that the company can pitch to people disinterested in the public realm of sharing. And maybe it's one of the applications that Facebook will eventually let people use anonymously.

"One theme that should be clear from our work on products like Messenger, Groups, and Instagram is that our vision for Facebook is to create a set of products that help you share any kind of content you want with any audience you want," Zuckerberg said during the fourth-quarter earnings call. "A lot of the new growth we see is coming from giving people the tools to share with different size groups of people."

Whatever the reason, though, one thing is clear: Facebook has a renewed interest in this oft-forgotten product, and we should expect to hear more on Groups in the months ahead. At the very least, Facebook will work fast and furious to make the Groups experience on smartphones, now obscured from view in the mobile app, more than the afterthought it is today. Facebook can't, after all, have what it calls a "core product" be sub par on mobile.

"We haven't invested as fully as we are now," Chen said, referencing the Groups team's attention to mobile. "We think, to take the next step, we can do a lot better to make this a ubiquitous tool for everyone."