What will Google+ Pages mean for your social media strategy?

10th Nov 2011

Google+ has finally launched its brand pages. So what does it allow you to do - and is it worth your time?

The launch of Google+ in July was met with “insane demand” from the public. But the first personal accounts had barely been set up before questions were being asked about brand pages. With Facebook’s fan pages having caught the imagination of marketers, Google conceded from the outset that brand pages would be developed in time. But the appetite for brand profiles on the new social networking site was such that some firms still continued to create a presence on it, prompting Google to tell commercial and non-commercial organisations to stay away from the networking site until it was properly optimised to meet the needs of businesses.
But finally this week the waiting was over, and Google+ launched its dedicated pages for brands. While certainly resembling Facebook fan pages with its feature images and list of followers displayed on the side of the page, Google+ Pages does boast some interesting differences. For a start, Pages is open to a much wider array of organisations than Facebook – this isn’t just for brands, in theory anyone can create a page for anything.
Pages have already been created for the likes of All American RejectsAngry Birds, Barcelona Football Club, Burberry and Save the Children. These pages allow users to recommend brands by using the +1 button, although this won’t automatically subscribe anyone to a brand page and its updates. This requires the user to effectively opt-in to receiving brand communications by adding the organisation to his or her circles.
This can be done either via a button on the brand’s page, or via an innovation called ‘Direct Connect’ that ties its social network into Google search. By typing ‘+’ into Google followed by the page/brand that the user is looking for, he/she can be taken directly to the Google+ page and they will be greeted with a prompt to add the brand to their circles.
Once someone has added a brand to their circles, they can receive updates and communications, as well as chat to members of staff via a multi-person video tool called Hangouts.
Google outlined some of the new functionality in a video:
Also of interest is that at this point, Google isn’t seeking to drive direct ad revenue from its new innovation, so there is no way to buy fans through advertising as can be done on Facebook.
A Page out of Facebook’s book?
But to many, it isn’t the differences to Facebook fan pages that stand out - it is the similarities. One early commentator was influential social media expert Jeremiah Owyang of Altimeter, who delivered his thoughts via Google+. “Overall the Google+ brand pages are lack luster and absent are any unique features. It's just a river of news and a row of pictures at top,” he posted. “While I know that Google is slowing rolling out features, we'll need to see something unique here to make it stand out. I'm expecting a platform with open APIs to a select number of vendors beyond their read-only 'ego' feed. Also, I did speak to one social strategist at a large software company, and he said they weren't sure if G+ was going to make it, and what type of content they should put here, beyond just replicating FB content.”
Giles Luckett, senior digital strategist at balloon dog, was left similarly underwhelmed. “Ads are noticeable by their absence – surely a matter of time – and we’d like to have seen an announcement of the Facebook-killer that everyone’s speculating about,” he says. “At present, to the untrained eye, G+ looks a little too much like a ‘me-too’ and we were hoping for something earth shattering. The integration of Google Docs into Hangouts is excellent and allows for online collaboration, but something more consumer-focused would have been good.”
Even some shortcomings are the same as its rival, according to Tamara Littleton, CEO of eModeration. “It seems that admins can delete comments, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a tool to queue content so that moderators can check it is suitable for the audience before it goes up - this is similar to Facebook,” she says.
Pluses and minuses
But some of the main concerns that have been voiced by early adopters about the Pages also stem from the moderation functionality.
“Unlike Facebook there are no admin tools such as automatic word filters, to make sure that obvious swear words, for example, are blocked,” continues Littleton. “This is something that really should be addressed if brands are to make sure that content is kept safe and appropriate to different audiences. Having said that, I imagine that the audience for Google Plus is older than Facebook at the moment, but of course this could change.
“Multiple administrator rights should be a priority for Google as at the moment only the person who set up the page can run it. This will be a real problem for brands as few people will want to share their Google passwords.”
Kirsty Bell, research and insight manager at Yomego, is one of the many that agree this is an oversight. “The fact that you can only have one page owner/admin will be a source of frustration to bigger brands who have internal social media teams. The fact that each page can only have one admin will also create some security issues as well as being impractical.”
But while there has been some shrugging of shoulders, others are impressed by what Pages has to offer and believe it will have a place in social media strategies.
“Google+ brand pages offer some really exciting implications for direct customer engagement,” suggests Justin Bowser, head of online business at HTK. “Whether you use hangouts as a face-to-face alternative to traditional customer service lines, or  circles as a way of highlighting your loyal customers and rewarding them accordingly with a special discount, Google+ pages enables brands to offer a truly personalised and engaging customer experience. And when you consider the potential impact of these pages on a brands overall Google presence, and of course, the associated SEO implications, Google+ pages are certainly a worthwhile venture for businesses looking to not only enhance their online presence but also foster strong customer relations and encourage loyalty.”  
“There are good incentives for people to create brand pages and share pages they’ve found. You can also verify your brand on Google Plus, so consumers know they’re speaking to the brand, not an imposter,” says Bell, though she adds: “However, and perhaps bizarrely, Google+ doesn’t ask you to verify whether you work for the company you are creating a company page for which has led to criticism from some.”
Bell continues: “I think the most interesting feature is the ability to start a hangout with customers, which is great for customer service. You’ll be able to move discussions with customers into a hangout which is pretty much the closest you can get to face-to-face conversations.
“There are some nice pre-set circle names (customers, VIPs, team members, etc) that differentiate the brand page from a personal page, and let you create separate streams for different groups of people. This means brands can segment their content, delivering exclusive offers and benefits to different customer segments.”
A social future?
So does it have a bright future? Can it knock Facebook off its perch as the social networking site of choice for brands? Bell believes that should Google integrate its latest offering with other tools in its portfolio, it could have a very powerful proposition on its hands.
“It will be interesting to see whether Google delivers the APIs required in order to fully integrate with brands’ existing CRM systems. This would be a very powerful move,” she says. “It’s not very feature rich at the moment, but I’m sure that will change as it integrates to the rest of Google’s offering. Notably missing is the lack of integration with Google Places – pages and places listings have to be managed separately, which will be particularly frustrating for bricks and mortar retailers.”
Indeed, according to rumours, Pages may becoming location-aware sooner rather than later to enable local businesses to communicate offers to mobile devices. Luckett is similarly optimistic about the future for Pages.
“G+ carries Facebook and Twitter functionality and delivers it to a mobile platform as it was born to do and G+ means business. Unlike Facebook, which has always struggled with the balance of business and social, G+ has been designed to carry business as well as social themes,” he says. “Secondly, Circles effectively delineate them and the inclusion of Analytics, search, Docs, Gmail, Checkout, etc means businesses can use it as their trading site, so taking Google’s vision of a one-stop-web presence for browsers a massive step forward.
“It will be massive, as Google want it to be massive. They have the money in the bank to sell it in, they have the expertise to create astonishing functionality, 200 million Gmail users and they have 15 years of search data which, when coupled with browsers general acceptance of ads within Google pages, makes for a potent advertising force. Oh yes, and they now own Motorola and have their own mobile operating system – it would take a brave soul to bet against this being anything other than a contender to the social media title.”
But to many, Google+ Pages in its present guise seems too similar to Facebook’s fan pages to topple the social networking giant. And the similarities are such that some brands may even feel that it’s not worth their while diversifying when Facebook has a far greater audience - Google+ has 40 million users compared to Facebook's 800 million-plus.
If rumours are to be believed there is much more in store for Google+ in terms of access to analytics and location tools. And Bell believes that Google will indeed have to have something else up its sleeve if it is to make a real success of Pages.
“I don’t think this will replace Facebook, it will be in addition to it, and I think brands will initially struggle to differentiate their G+ offering from their Facebook page offering,” she predicts. “Nokia has already begun to ask its followers what they would like to see the brand use its G+ presence for. Brands have invested so much in Facebook – and are starting to see real financial returns from it – that they’re unlikely to move away. Migrating to G+ would mean starting from scratch in terms of followers, content and getting internal recognition and buy-in.
“Until the majority of its customers move away, or G+ delivers some tangible benefits which are different from those delivered by Facebook brands will continue to invest mostly in Facebook. It’ll get interesting when the first brand gets to a million plus ones.”
James Devon, planning director at MBA, agrees that the numbers aren’t on Google’s side at present. “What’s missing is users,” he suggests. “A value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users (Metcalfe’s Law) and Google+ simply doesn’t have the volume yet for it to feel really social. Many brands will wait for it to gain critical mass. But the more interesting stuff there is to do with Google+, the more users it will have, so there’s a chicken and egg issue there.”
However, as Devon rightly points out, even if Google+ proves to be a runaway success, a brand presence on a popular platform won’t guarantee engagement. Brands hold their fate in their own hands when it comes to a successful social initiative.
“Google+ could be great, it could be popular. As with all these things, it’s incumbent on the brand to have a purpose for whatever social platform they are using and then delivering against that (on an ongoing basis, rather than all guns blazing fading to nothing in two weeks),” he concludes.
“This is the shiny new thing right now. Ultimately this is not about the technology per se, but rather how it is used by the brand to further whatever purpose they are trying to fulfil.”

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