Opinions, it is said, are like bellybuttons. Everybody’s got one. And there has been no shortage of opinions about Google+ in the few short weeks since its birth. But there are some ideas and themes that I feel need a closer look. So now it’s my turn.
I do not offer a comprehensive guide to the features and benefits of Google+ – I’m a bit late for that. In fact, our Caz was one of the very first to offer a handy, and very popular, overview of Google+. Neither can I provide a techie guide to the hacks, add-ons, extensions and bastardisations promoted by others. I’m not clever enough.
But for what it’s worth, I can offer a few of my opinions on how Google+ is working for me and, importantly, how I think it may shape up as a future platform for social media marketing. I think much of Google+’s potential can only be realised after a bit of tinkering and experimentation. So put the kettle on and listen up.
Hello? Is anyone here?
The launch of any new social platform follows a familiar pattern. On day one, the network opens for invitation-only invitees and there’s a elite stampede as all the geeks barge past each other to get through the door. After a few shouts of “Who else is here?” and “How does this work?“, the various learned nerds emerge into the daylight and declare that the new service “looks nice” but is, perhaps unsurprisingly, “a bit too geeky“. In the meantime, our non-industry friends, the civilians, those quite happy with their current social networking platform of choice, feel no desire to abandon what they know in order to join us in our mirrored hall of geeks.
But Google+ seems to have weathered this inevitable early stage and now regular folks, those not obsessed with the hype and buzz of social media, are actually joining in. The graphs, diagrams and geeky cartoons of the first few weeks are gradually being displaced by photos of cats, cars, bikes and cakes. The normals have arrived. Thank goodness.
Get in there now
At the moment, the key question among those working in social media seems to be: This is great, but where are the corporations? Where are the brands? Where is the marketing buzz that, like it or not, has become part of the fabric and feel of Facebook? It’s known that, for the time being, Google is, with a few exceptions, maintaining Google+ as a brand-free space, but this will certainly change.
So if you work in marketing or social media, should you switch off and come back later? I’d suggest not. Rather than waiting until brands are made welcome, then rushing into Google+ in a panic, I really feel it’s worth getting to know Google+ as an individual – now. Then when the time comes, you can be less clumsy and more savvy when launching your brand on Google+. This is a new environment, with its own nuances and evolving protocols. And if you get familiar now, you’ll be better equipped when the moment comes – you’ll be able to interact with some credibility, rather than with the appearance of of a corporate bandwagon-jumper. And there will be plenty of those.
Circles – It’s not about making them, it’s about using them
As the central defining feature of Google+, circles are what it’s all about, as any of the overviews so far will have made very clear. But are we using them correctly? Have we grasped their possibilities? Are we missing the point?
The first temptation within Google+ is to start sorting people into circles. What fun! Simon? Mountain bikers. Beth? Colleagues. Mark? Ex-colleagues. Ross? Oh. Mountain bikers and colleagues. But then what? What’s the point of all this circling if it doesn’t get you anywhere? Why go to all that bother of deciding if that ex-colleague is a ‘friend’ or an ‘industry contact’ if you don’t end up using that distinction for anything meaningful?
My tip: Don’t decide your circles by how you know someone, but by the kind of thing you say to different people. Don’t look first at your friends and contacts. Look at the kind of thing you share online, then consider who likes to hear which strands of it. For this reason, I don’t have a cyclists circle, but a mountain biking circle and a cycle campaigning circle. I feel that way, I can more accurately share things with people who may want to hear them. Why is this so important? It’s all about relevance. By saying the right things to the right people, we can express ourselves without fear of boring or bombarding the wrong people.
Most importantly, having made yourself a bunch of circles, remember to use them. Rather than publishing everything by default as public, consider each post. Don’t be greedy. Who gets to see your fifth cake recipe this week? Everyone you know, or just your ‘cake baking’ circle? Trust me, the others will thank you for it. Remember – opting away from the ‘Public’ sharing default isn’t just about privacy – it’s about relevance.
If you find that you’ve made more circles than you need to, and some never get used, just edit them. Simplify them.
Don’t be spooked if a stranger ‘puts you in a circle’. It’s just like being followed on Twitter. I have seen a few startled comments, and even arguments, from people who seem to expect Google+’s following protocol to match that of Facebook. I’ve even seen some of social media’s big journalist names get sniffy about being followed by mere fans. I think they’ve missed a key point. This isn’t Facebook. It’s Google+. If someone you don’t know follows you, they can only see what you share as ‘Public’ – no more intrusive than recognising than the public visibility of a non-private Twitter account.
So what about the private stuff? The for-friends’-eyes-only stuff? The daft party photos, the expressions of workplace anger or the pictures of your kids? If you hadn’t guessed – that’s what circles are for. In short, we now have a way of combining the different social norms of Twitter and Facebook, deciding who gets to hear what.
When Google+’s big brand moment comes, circles may offer an effective way to segment followers by interest, location, age, gender or anything else, using circles to ensure you say the right thing to the right people. We’ll have to wait and see whether the functionality of circles remains similar for brands as it is for individuals. This is definitely one to watch, and could be the way Google+ could rise above Facebook in its ability to intelligently target messages.
Another quick tip on circles: They can be used to filter what you read as well as what you say. Check out the ‘Stream’ list on the left of your page if you want to catch up with your Dungeons and Dragons chums, or if you’d like to focus on work colleagues without the chatter of your friends. I’m not completely comfortable with this side of circles, as it seems to depend on your friends having taken the same approach to sharing as I’ve encouraged. And how about being able to listen to multiple circles? Show me what’s being said by my London friends and my Brighton friends, but not my Manchester friends? This may need further experimentation…
Google+ as a threat to LinkedIn?
Until now, the generally understood differentiation in most people’s minds has been ‘LinkedIn for business, Facebook for private‘, and understandably so for the health of many people’s work/life balance. But Google+ offers us the possibility of neatly defined streams of information, tailored to each audience. Boozy party photos to the ‘friends’ circle. Astute thoughts on last week’s conference to the ‘clients’ or even the ‘People I’d like to work for’ circle. However, with only one profile, the ability to easily portray several personalities on Google+ may be as hard to achieve as it is potentially confusing. Perhaps LinkedIn is safe for the time being.
Google+ as an intranet?
Mention the word ‘intranet’ and people shudder. Many an awkward workplace conversation has revolved around company information being posted to a hard-to-use intranet, beloved of the IT department, but viewed by nobody. “The announcement about the second floor carpet has been public for sometime – here it is on the intranet!” Sound familiar? At NixonMcInnes we use Yammer – the plucky upstart of internal communications, with the immediacy and openness of Twitter, but designed for internal work use.
The ‘circles’ functionality of Google+ could perform a similar role to Yammer. Want to share a link, a question, a moan, an announcement, with your colleagues, but no-one else? Make a ‘Colleagues’ circle and publish to it. Work in a big company? Lots of departments? Many project teams? Simple – make a circle for each team – remembering that people can belong to as many circles as you’d like to put them in. Could the free-of-charge Google+ be considered a threat to Yammer’s paid-for service? Possibly, but it could even help them. Google+ may introduce more office managers to the idea of ‘internal social media’. Having been enlightened to the benefits of this kind of communication, many may prefer Yammer as a tool. Either way, we all end up communicating at work more easily.
Google+ and Google +1 are not the same thing
Concentrate now. This bit’s important. Google have made things complicated by using very similar names for two different (albeit related) services. Thank you so much, Google. Despite their determination to confuse us, it’s worth being clear about the distinction. Google +1 has been around for a while, and is a way for users to ‘vote for’ an item, thereby influencing its visibility within friends’ searches. However, without a place for these +1s to be seen, shared and displayed, +1 has been a little lost until now. The ‘social proof’ for +1 has been lacking. If I ‘Like’ a website or product, I know my friends will see my recommendation through Facebook. The act of ‘Liking’ something is given meaning by the visibility and community of Facebook itself. Conversely, why would I bother to ‘+1′ something? Until now…
Google+ gives +1 more utility. So, yes, ‘Plus’ and ‘Plus One’ are related, but different, in the same way that Facebook’s ‘Like’ mechanism is different to the act of posting a status update on the site itself.
What to remember when the brand moment comes: If you’re toying with the idea of social bookmarklets, badges and icons on your site, don’t just add a trendy multicoloured ‘g’ without considering what you’re actually inviting people to do – add a +1 vote? – follow you on Google+?, or share some content through Google+? Be clear about what you’re offering people. There is currently no official ‘Share on Google+’ button (though unofficial ones have been hacked), but this could prove a valuable tool. Even before brands are formally allowed on Google+, the provision of sharing mechanisms on sites or blogs may give a brand an early chance for its content and message to make it onto Google+ through the actions of others.
(UPDATE: Since I wrote this blog post, Google made some important changes to the +1 button, bringing its relationship with Google+ much closer – I’ve included this in a more recent blog post ^CA)
So there you have it. My thoughts so far on what feels like the start of an important new chapter in social media. And there’s lots more to explore, like the best ways to use further features like Sparks and Hangouts. Google+ will change, and the way we use it will evolve, both as businesses and as individuals. But the sooner we make ourselves comfortable, the more confident we’ll be when businesses open their doors within Google+.