The Google+ Brand Problem

By now you’ve all heard of Google+, Google’s latest, and in my opinion, best attempt at building a social network that people would adopt and find to be part of their daily lives.  Indeed, it’s growth has been astounding, gaining 10 million numbers in around two weeks.  I actually happen to really see real potential in Google+ and have been an active participant in the early stages of the product’s growth (psst: Circle me here) and think the first product launch has been an amazing success in terms of answering questions about whether Google as a company can build something visually attractive and usable (yes), of whether Facebook and Twitter ever face a real threat in terms of the social networking sphere (yes), but above all, whether a deficit in product feature set based on real-world usage built up over 7 years of Facebook, 5 years of Twitter, and even it’s own largely failed attempts in Google Buzz and Google Wave (features of both of which have made prominent appearances in Google+) can be made up in short order.

I think the answer for this question is also yes, in fact, I think they’ve already innovated in a few key ways:

  • Clarity in the definition of the audience for your content through Circles. One of Facebook’s biggest failures has been privacy of content, and Twitter has made it simple for two audiences – either you’re public or you’re private.  Facebook groups have largely failed because they were a bolted on afterthought that never really made it into common usage patterns for more users.  Twitter’s privacy model is simple, but leaves a lot of middle ground in terms of subsets of audiences. In fact, when I made the decision to have a private and a public Twitter account back in early 2010, it was to “group” users into different content audiences.  But Google has gone one step further, allowing you to make your content appeal to as much or as little of an audience as possible, and reminding you of this fact every time you share content.  This, I think is the biggest single win in Google+.
  • The ability to find and connect with other users quickly. Need to find someone on Google+? Just type in their name in the search box.   Doesn’t get any more simple than that.  People “Circling” me has grown at an astounding rate through use of recommendations, it took me more than two years to get this number of followers on Twitter.
  • Video chat with purpose. Hangouts really are just video chats on the surface, but the key difference is their use case is defined in the title.  Rather than the esoteric “video chat” title many apps have, giving the product a name like Hangouts suggests to users “What it does”, rather than “what it is”.  Apple has done this in the past with countless products, which at their surface are nothing more complicated than others on the market, but are just marketed based on use case.
  • Sparks as plug-in content sources for discussion. The concept of introducing curated interest graph level content through Sparks just one layer away from conversation and sharing is a potentially powerful tool for direct content discovery.  The integration there will only get better, and be extremely beneficial for the media sources who are included there.

This is not to say there aren’t problems and issues with Google+ as well, but in my mind, these fall into the “this is a version 1” kind of bucket, and are to be expected of a product still in early beta.  I think the biggest single question that needs to be answered is far more philosophical.

Back in 2007, when I was working for JetBlue, and this new shiny toy called Twitter came along, we realized that this was somewhere we’d need to be – even though we didn’t exactly realize quite how or why yet.  We saw the buzz growing out of our early adopter friends and realized that they were on to something here – it wasn’t just a service, it was a real-time communication platform akin to a telegraph, more real-time than a website, and more accessible than a telephone in certain situations (i.e. stuck on an airplane with just your cellphone to communicate).   So, I took the step of signing up for username “@jetblue”  with my JetBlue corporate email address, totally expecting some sort of privacy / trademark control to kick in.  And, nothing happened.   We had the username, and the bigger issue was that we didn’t know quite what to do next.   We didn’t even tell our Marketing / Corporate Communications leadership that we had it for some time, because we didn’t even know how to describe what we were trying to accomplish.  We were one of the first, if not the first, brands on Twitter.   I sent an email to Biz Stone, and asked if there was anyway to snag a spot on their featured users list, and to sort of “out” ourselves as authentic representatives of the brand (this was long before Twitter even thought about the need to verify people), and after about three months on the list, we’d grown to a few thousand followers in a time when Twitter had less than half a million total users.

Being first definitely helped, but over time, we needed to provide value to our users.  We started with a few Sales and Marketing messages (the first tweet is currently credited as “Woo-hoo! I am the official airline of Springfield! Aye carumba!”, which was a reference to a sponsorship with 20th Century Fox helping to promote The Simpsons Movie, one of the most fun campaigns a Simpsons geek could work on), but, it became obvious that the users wanted something different.  It was from there that Morgan Johnston (G+, Twitter), still at JetBlue, and Corporate Communications team, adopted Twitter as important and took the initiative to build it into the real time support and information system that it Twitter is for them today (and yes, the Marketing messages did end up finding a home through @JetBlueCheeps, something I entertain myself in thinking is the legitimate stepchild of my original marketing version for the JetBlue Twitter – except it too is much better).  We sort of pushed our way in and expanded the intended use cases to include “non-human” entities, to Twitter’s credit, they were always supportive of.

Google now faces a similar crossroads.  With dozens of brands clearly wanting to establish their beachheads early on in the lifecycle of Google+, and dozens of brands and already having done so, Ford, and  news organizations most prominently among them, and Google’s stated intentions as to not allow existing “non-human” entities, save for a pilot program, has left many brands with the decision of waiting for Google to open up their pilot for feedback vs going ahead and creating profiles on the existing personal profiles platform with the risk of losing out on the early-adopter graph.

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic echoed the confusion perfectly in this post.  Morgan, ironically enough, is waiting for JetBlue, while others like Dan Lewis at Sesame Workshop are pushing ahead.  Dan Patterson at ABC News Radio initially decided to shut down and delete their profile, but then brought it back when he realized the needs of his community, and with the reality that many other brands have taken the same course.   I’ve claimed a profile for AOL and a few of our other brands, but I’ve also added our names to be included in the trial.

Make no doubt about it, brands represent an important part of the growth and longevity of Google+, especially for “regular people” who are trying to find the use case for why they should care about any other social network besides Facebook.  Initial interactivity on Google+ is so high because most of the content is starting to help define the initial interest graph of its users. At the point, the key decision determining if people stick around is finding enough people creating content interesting to them. That’s ok while most people inhale great “how does this work” content from people like Ben ParrCraig Kanalley and Robert Scoble. But the reality is the first wave of users have moved on to “what’s next”. And Google needs to answer the brand question quickly to build another layer of trusted sources here. Save “hyperinfluencers” who have carried their Twitter audiences here, the best content sources will come from brands they trust.  This will help to make Google+ a “can’t live without” service for people who create and consumer content for business and pleasure.

It seems that the ball is now in Google’s court to decide what identity is, and how to support it with previous precedents set on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Foursquare, Quora and countless other platforms.  This is certainly the first product battle of Google+ young life and can only be answered through swift, decisive, and possibly unpopular action.

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