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Monday, 1st August, 2011 | By Jeremy Hunt | Category: Public Relations and Social Media

Google+ Your Business = ?

google-plus

Meet the new kid

There’s a new kid in town, and he wants to play with you and your friends. He’d prefer it if you didn’t mention his cousin Buzz or his hippie uncle Wave. They were kind of weird, and, well, not everyone liked them.

Speaking of weird, his name is Plus, and he’s doing his best to impress you. He’s a bit hard to understand at first, but maybe with time, he’ll become part of the cool kids club.

Okay, enough with the fun analogies. Unless you’re a social media Luddite, then chances are good you’ve already heard the Twitterati going crazy over Google+.

These days, most new social networks are a dime a dozen and hardly rate a passing glance. But when a Goliath like Google steps into the ring, people sit up and take notice. While not every Google project comes gold-plated with their Midas touch, their position of power and influence in the world of information is undeniable – so much so that their brand name is now used interchangeably with “search” – so a social platform from this team is definitely worth a second look.

In the interest of providing a preview of what Google+ might mean for your business, we’ve taken some time to get to know the platform, explore its features, kick the tires and find out generally what works and what doesn’t. Let’s jump in, shall we?

First impressions

At first glance, Google+ looks really nice. It offers a clean, streamlined, simple interface that makes Facebook with all its ads and apps look like MySpace by comparison. If you use other Google products regularly (Gmail, Documents, Reader, etc.), the look and feel of Plus will be very familiar. Other elements are now part and parcel of any social media network: status updates, posting pictures and videos, editing your profile, etc.

The three distinguishing features that Plus offers are Circles, Sparks and Hangouts.

The three distinguishing features that Plus offers are Circles, Sparks and Hangouts.

Circles are a means for organizing your contacts. As you find people whom you know or want to be in touch with, you can select their profile and add them to a specific Circle (the default categories are Friends, Family and Acquaintances). The primary benefit of segregating contacts by Circles is that it gives you greater control over which of these groups can view each status update. Want to share your vacation exploits with your friends but not your coworkers? Just make sure they’re in different Circles.

The tricky part of Circles is that adding someone does not guarantee that they will add you in return. In contrast to the two-way street that is “friending” someone on Facebook, adding someone to a Circle on Plus is more closely akin to following them on Twitter. They may or may not choose to add you to one of their Circles, which means that you’ll see their updates, but they won’t necessarily see yours.

Sparks allows you to identify areas of interest and add them to your profile. Google then creates a feed of related videos and articles that you might like. For those familiar with Twitter, Sparks works somewhat like lists, only instead of following users, you’re following topics and getting results from across the Web, not just Twitter.

Hangouts is essentially a group video chat platform. You can start a Hangout either to have a video conference call (powered by Google Voice/Video) or to watch YouTube videos with your friends.

Finally, Plus is currently accessible via web apps on the iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Symbian and Windows Mobile phones. There’s also a native app for Plus on the Android, with one for the iPhone due out soon.

That’s nice, but will Google+ help my company make better connections with our customers?

In theory, Circles may give companies with multiple product lines or brands the ability to manage their social media engagements through one central account. For example, NBC could potentially have a global Plus profile with different Circles for each of their Thursday night comedy shows. Through polling and discussions with their fans on Plus, they could funnel specific people into Circles tailored to their interests, one each for The Office, 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, Community, etc.

Sparks could serve a similar purpose as Twitter lists, allowing businesses to keep tabs on pertinent topics and even possibly partner or competing companies, while Hangouts could be a powerful way to leverage video marketing to premiere new products or features to a select target demographic.

For an example of a company that has dived into Plus already, check out Ford Motors. Ford has been doing a good job of testing the various features offered by Plus, from posting content (not remarkably different from Facebook in that regard) to conducting a few contests and live chats with the people who’ve added them to their individual Circles, thereby hinting at the possibilities that await the rest of us.

Final thoughts

The biggest caveat right now about Google+ is that Google itself has been very firm that Plus, as it exists right now, is only for individuals. They are planning to release a separate iteration of the platform designed for branded accounts this fall, but they haven’t yet provided any clues as to how this version will differ. They’ve also made it exceptionally clear that any businesses that are currently on Plus (with the exception of a limited few Google-sanctioned test accounts like Ford) will eventually have their profile shut down. Whether or not those brands will have to start from scratch or Google will help them migrate to the new business model remains to be seen.

Currently, creating a profile for your business is a “buyer beware” situation: You can do it, but chances are good that you’ll have to rebuild it all again once the business model is released into the wild.

As a result, if you’re responsible for directing the social media efforts for your company, the best first step you can take now is to create a personal profile and start getting a feel for the nuances of the platform and how people are using it so that you’ll be ready to pull the trigger on your branded account once the time comes.

Will Plus ever gain popularity to rival Facebook or Twitter?

Beyond these procedural questions, a couple of larger ones loom on the horizon. First, will Plus ever gain popularity to rival Facebook or even Twitter? One of the biggest advantages of both of those networks is their sheer scale. If Plus fails to achieve a similar level of broad-based mainstream adoption, its value for business use might be limited to select niche user groups.

Secondly – and perhaps even more importantly – are people ready and willing to have yet another social space “invaded” by corporate interests? There’s probably a certain amount of inevitability to this in so far as it’s probably not a question of “if,” but “when.” To be perfectly honest, it’s rather appealing to have a social space like Plus that’s not already inundated with business profiles. But it’s also the natural order of things for companies to follow closely on the heels of their customers to create new avenues of opportunity for engagement.

Only time will tell, but at this point, it’s safe to say that Google has once again created a very interesting project that’s well worth watching closely. Stay tuned…

Jeremy Hunt
Jeremy Hunt is a writer, communicator and social media grunt who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. He currently serves as the manager of corporate social media for Novant Health. Keep up with all that he finds cool in the world at jeremyhunt.tumblr.com or follow him on Twitter: @jehuthehunt.