The PR and marketing implications of Google+

What does Google’s much-hyped social network mean for PR and marketing pros? Here’s a break down from someone who’s spent the past week testing the network.

Google+ has dominated the online conversation cycle with discussions analyzing the pros and cons, debating Google+’s chances of unseating Facebook as the social network, explaining how to use it (there’s already a list of tutorials), and speculating about its future

It even occupied about half of yesterday’s episode of FIR.

For those unclear on Google+, it’s the new social network Google has cobbled together from a variety of the technologies it has developed over the last several years. That’s not a criticism; Google has done a masterful job of weaving these technologies into a well-integrated network that bears some similarities to Facebook and to Friendfeed.

What I haven’t seen yet is much discussion about the implications of Google+ for communicators, marketers, and PR practitioners. While it’s way, way too early to be sure of what Google’s latest (and best) attempt to enter the social media party will mean in the long run, it’s not too hard to draw some early conclusions.

Monitoring. There’s no escaping it. Google+ is one more venue you’ll need to monitor for brand references and other mentions. Most of the monitoring services haven’t had a chance to add Google+ to the lists of social media channels they follow. Radian6, for example, told me it’s not monitoring Google+ yet; I haven’t heard of any competing service that is doing so.

But monitor you must, and right now, that won’t be easy. (You can’t search it for key words, a bit odd from a company whose primary product is a search engine). With what you learn through your monitoring, just as with any intelligence, you’ll need to make the same kinds of decisions about responding or reacting that you’d make if the comment appeared anywhere else.

Targeting. If Google+ provides an advantage to communicators over other social channels, it’s the ability to reach a well-defined, targeted audience. Consider a Facebook page that’s been “liked” by thousands of people. Some may like the product, some may like videos or photos; others may have liked the page to get a coupon, a few because they’re investors interested in watching the company’s marketing efforts. You post a status update and it goes to all of them (assuming your EdgeRank is strong enough for the update to make it into the newsfeed).

With Google+, you can create distinct circles for different classes of people based on characteristics you can glean from their Google profiles. For instance, you could share information that would interest moms of young children with just those people. (You also need to make sure the messages are interesting, entertaining, useful or otherwise valuable, lest you be blocked.)

A company presence. I’m not positive, but I think Ford Motor Company was the first organization to establish a presence on Google+. This is a regular account, just like mine or, say, Scott Monty’s (the head of social media at Ford). Unlike Facebook, which limits profiles to individuals, just about anybody or anything can have a Google profile, which means they’ll be able to have a Google+ presence. (MySpace allowed business profiles, too—recruiters had a fairly decent presence there, so this isn’t exactly breaking new ground.)

So far, Ford has only posted two items—one sharing a Ford Story post about safe summer travels, the other offering a free copy of a new video game to the winner of a caption contest.

There’s more to come for businesses, though. Jeff Huber, Google’s head of commerce and local, has confirmed the eventual arrival of Google+ pages for organizations. Mike Blumenthal’s blog post on pages didn’t provide a launch date because “we want to make them *great*, and we’re coding as fast as we can.”

It’s pointless to speculate how business pages might work, but there will undoubtedly be opportunities for communicators once they roll out.

Gameficiation. It’s not too early to think about the potential for Google+ to host Facebook-like games, particularly with the experience of Marriott’s Facebook game designed to entice people to come work for the hotel. Among people who like digging into code, some have found references in Google+ to content that might be prepped to announce games. If adding game mechanics to some of your communication efforts is something you’re looking at, Google+ could be another channel for you.

Search engine optimization. One huge opportunity—one that will materialize if Google+ attracts a critical mass of users—is to close the loop between people who search for content and those who engage in social channels. As Glenn Gabe put it in a post on his Internet Marketing Driver blog: “You can target users in Search, and follow them to Google+. Yes, you will be able to reach them when they go back to their friends and family to find recommendations or to share information.” That’s not possible with Facebook.

Enterprise. I’m already seeing some speculation that Google+ could replace tools like Yammer and’s Chatter based on the Circles feature. There’s certainly some utility here, but I don’t see it duplicating the functionality of those services (at least, not in its current form). Yammer and Chatter both let anyone attach content to any update. Also, the groups you can form apply to everyone, while Circles are uniquely yours. That is, I can have you in my “Cool People Who Really Get Communications circle,” but that doesn’t mean you share that circle or have one just like it with the same people in it.

Other observations

CC Chapman sent me a Google+ invitation almost as soon as they became available, so I’ve had plenty of time to dig into the service. I shared most of these observations on FIR #606, but here’s a summary:

The big question: Does Google+ have legs?
If the volume of buzz it’s been getting were an accurate measure, it would be hard to dismiss it. But the buzz around Quora was equally noisy a few months ago and there’s virtually none today. Quora’s future remains one big question mark.

I like Google+—a lot—and believe we’ll see improvements and tighter integration with other Google services. Mashable reported today that Google plans to retire the Blogger and Picasa brands, weaving them tightly into Google+.

(You can already store an unlimited number of photos on Picasa as a Google+ user, so it makes sense to drop the separate moniker and brand it as an integral part of the Google+ suite.) As for the future of Blogger, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the ability to blog within Google+ just like you can on MySpace.

There are other great features on Google+ (more on these in a bit). Ultimately, though, these solve few problems people have with Facebook or Twitter. Circles is the cornerstone of Google+, addressing concerns about Facebook that have been the focus of a lot of conversation. But out of the 750 million people reportedly using Facebook, how many really give a damn who sees their stuff?

Among those reading this story, it could well be a sticking point, but I’m thinking of the non-tech-immersed folks who represent that majority of Facebook users. There’s my brother-in-law’s girlfriend, her daughter, my wife’s former hairdresser and other family and friends who love Facebook. Google+ might appeal to them, too, but the transition would be a hassle—not just moving their own accounts over but connecting with all the friends they already have. They won’t do it.

Circles. The concept is great, but in the long run, they could wind up causing confusion. First, as Dave Winer pointed out, how diligent will most people be about setting up all the Circles that reflect their communities and networks. As Dave Winer put it: “You might feel a rush to organize your friends into categories when you start to use it. But you’ll give up after a dozen or so, as soon as you hit one that defies categorization. You’ll say to yourself, ‘I’ll come back to this later.’ You won’t.” And, as a result, you’ll just use Facebook or Twitter, where picking the right group isn’t a requirement.

Even if you are compulsive about using Circles, they could get messy as time goes on. Shel Israel already encountered one problem, tweeting that, “A client has started a G+ Circle for just him & me. I can respond to his comment, but do not see how to start a new comment.” That’s because the Circle belongs only to the person who created it, the same issue that will keep it from competing with Yammer and Chatter.

Then there’s the management of Circles as your life takes its usual twists and turns. What if you take a new position with a new company? What happens to your Work Circle? How diligently will you keep up with these revisions when the need arises?

Finally, I don’t expect it will take Facebook long to duplicate the functionality of Circles. In fact, there’s long been a Circles-like feature on Facebook called Lists. They’ve just been cumbersome to use. A group of Facebook engineers introduced a hack—it’s called Circle Hack—that duplicates the means by which you create Circles on Google+.

Next will be an easier process for selecting the list with which you want to share a given update, photo, video or whatever. If the Circle Hack was done overnight, I can’t imagine this will be too difficult a task. (And, at the same time, Facebook will have resolved a big part of the objections to its privacy approach.)

Hangout. Another feature getting a lot of praise is the Hangout, in which you start a video chat with a number of people. I’ve seen one post assert this will be a Skype killer and possibly even a WebEx and Adobe Connect killer.

Don’t hold your breath. All three services offer a slew of features that aren’t part of Hangout. Nevertheless, it’s a nifty feature that could get a fair amount of use as people spontaneously decide to start a video conversation around the topics they’re discussing in the stream.

But is that a reason to leave Facebook? Not based on the news today that Facebook, Microsoft and Skype will launch a Facebook feature next week that will offer pretty much the same ability within Facebook.

Chat. It’s weird, but you can only use Chat within Google+ to chat with people who’ve already connected to your Gmail account but not with those with whom you’ve connected in Google+. I expect this is a problem that will get ironed out shortly.

Sparks. Another Google+ feature getting some praise, Sparks is a kind of news feed based on a search term or category you select. I’ve set up three, including one on PR and another on social media. (The third, not work-related, is on The Grateful Dead.) These are nice, and easy to access, but confusing. What turns up here isn’t what turns up in a Google search of the same term, or a blog search, or even a combination of the two. So now I have to maintain multiple searches? And while I can share any item that appears in a Spark with my Circles, I can’t share it as a Google Reader shared item. More integration is needed before Sparks works for me.

Huddles. You’ll only see this if you get the Google+ smartphone app. Huddles are like text-messaging groups (without using SMS). These go head-to-head with small-group mobile networks like While some, like Steve Rubel, believe these will be vital in what Steve calls “the validation era,” none have taken off so far. Still, I like Huddles and plan to give it a try in short order.

Twitter killer? Some of the discussion has suggested that while it’ll be hard to unseat Facebook, taking on Twitter will be easier. But Twitter, with all the various problems and issues associated with it, still has a lot of functionality that can’t be duplicated on Google+—from trending topics to retweeting to the ability to hold Twitter chats. Eventually, these features may find their way into Google+, but that raises the same question I posed earlier: What problem will it solve that would cause you to pack up and leave?

If anybody should be worried, it’s Flickr. While I love the service, the soon-to-be-renamed Picasa feature of Google+ is mighty appealing. (Plus, using Huddle, any picture or video I take on my phone will automatically be uploaded to my virtually unlimited storage; from there, I can decide which content I’ll share and with whom. That’s pretty nifty.)

The bottom line

As I said up front, I like Google+. And, at first, I thought Robert Scoble’s view would prevail—that it’s a place where the digirati hang out to have substantive conversations. But so far, I see two types of conversations happening on Google+. One is all about Google+, a topic that isn’t sustainable for very long. The rest is the same stuff I see on Facebook and Twitter.

As long as your customers or other stakeholders are on Google+—and make no mistake, a lot of them will be—you simply cannot ignore it. That’s not a problem, since it’s a pleasure to use.

But whether it ultimately replaces other tools we’re already invested in, only time will tell. But keep in mind, this is still very early; Google+ isn’t even open to the public at large yet. As revisions occur (and Lynette Young tells me she suggested a change that was implemented within three hours) and new features added, the total package could become compelling enough to spur some defections.

As it stands right now, it’s a toss-up.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story originally appeared on his blog.

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