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Google Buzz and your business: Customer engagement tool or colossal flop?

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19th Mar 2010
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Now that the dust is finally settling from Google Buzz's controversial launch, MyCustomer.com takes a look at its value to businesses - and whether it could prove to be another valuable social platform to engage with customers.  

This piece on Google Buzz and its potential applications for business was originally going to run some weeks ago, but two things rapidly became apparent.
Firstly, people needed time to have a play around with it. It wasn’t instantly clear to everybody/anybody exactly what its purpose, strengths and/or weaknesses were and the fact that it landed out of the blue, with no instructions save for a two-minute video, certainly didn’t help matters. And while some sources were prepared to stump up some snap judgement even some of those quickly wanted to retract or amend their initial thoughts as they further explored the functionality.
Secondly, the liberties that Buzz took with its users' privacy resulted in such an unholy storm that everything else regarding Google’s foray into the social world was overshadowed by the controversy. Understandably, people weren’t happy when they initially checked out Buzz to find that they were already set up to follow people and the backlash began.
The dust has now settled (somewhat). Although whether or not Buzz will ever recover from the furore is yet to be seen.
As David M Smith wrote on his blog, "I’ve long thought that privacy is a potential disaster landmine for Google that could massively change perception of the company should a privacy disaster occur… You have to wonder what kind of beta testing Google did with Buzz before rolling it out to everyone virtually overnight.  Also interesting is that Buzz is not even labeled beta. From a company that kept gmail in beta for over five years??"
It certainly seemed uncharacteristically rushed. But then perhaps Google sensed that a foray into this field was long overdue. "Google has spent way too long making its services social and has a lot of catching up to do with Facebook, Twitter and the like," comments Ian Hendry, CEO of WeCanDo.Biz
So the backlash has been prety spectacular. But that’s for another article. And plenty has been written about this already. (For a refresher you could do worse than read this feature from Business Insider - and for the latest litigation-led developments on Buzz read this coverage from Computer Weekly).
For the time being, let’s just look at the main question the MyCustomer.com audience will want addressed: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, are all being used as platforms to engage and communicate with customers – does Google Buzz offer a similar opportunity?
Collaboration
At a press event in California to mark the launch of Buzz, Google co-founder Sergey Brin announced it would be launching an enterprise version of Buzz as part of its Google Apps bundle of business applications, though the time scale for this remains fairly fuzzy. Details about how the Google hierarchy envisage Buzz being used by the business community are similarly vague, though Brin did indicate that in the six months he had personally been testing it he had used it for document sharing and collaboration.
As an example, he referred to his recent work on an opinion piece for the New York Times, which he had decided would incorporate broader views than his own. By posting the draft article on Buzz he quickly generated 50 or so responses, slashing the time it typically takes to go through the feedback and editing process by collaborating in real-time with his network.
In a video interview with TechCrunch, he expanded on this, explaining that "It has really enabled me to communicate – you get far better information about what’s going on in the company… Now if I have a question about something I don’t have to dig up who is the person who is particularly responsible for this, I can just throw a question out there, I know there are enough people out there who pay attention to my posts, and also now with the recommendations it should get recommended to the right person anyway. And I don’t worry that I’m disrupting people because the social expectation on Buzz is different than on email."
So Buzz certainly offers something for users looking to communicate and collaborate with followers, whether that be all of them at once, or distinct groups - for those who are have already set up Groups in Gmail, the groups are up and ready in Buzz; otherwise, new ones can be created. If these messages need to be private, they can also be ringfenced to certain groups, who can view and comment on them.
Marketing
So aside from the collaborative elements, does Buzz have any other possible applications? Despite the opacity of understanding, businesses wasted no time in tapping into Buzz. While brands took a while to get to grips with the likes of Twitter and Facebook, there were plenty of early adopters of Google Buzz. As reported, brands like Samsung were cranking out buzzes before the majority of Gmail users had even read their invitation.
Inevitably, perhaps, given the profile-raising progress made on other social platforms, businesses have been alert to similar marketing possibilities presented by Buzz. It allows users to follow people, see their most recent updates, comment on them, or follow up with a personal email or message. And with users having a built-in network from the get-go due to its integration with gmail, some have identified Buzz as a big opportunity for marketers to listen, connect and participate with customers - and ultimately add value. Others have pointed to the word of mouth possibilities presented – providing that brands can create content that users want to share – and the ability to identify sales leads.
"There will be people asking for recommendations and sharing specific needs via Google Buzz which companies should be tracking to pick up leads. I think we'll be adding Google Buzz alongside our existing Twitter Sales Leads tool pretty quickly if we can see the same volume of business enquiries getting posted," predicts Hendry.
Others, however, are less convinced by its potential in this capacity. "In terms of whether Google Buzz should be on a business’s social media radar, similar to Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, I think the fact that it is limited to gmail users makes it hard for businesses to get involved. For a business, it is similar to sales prospecting or promoting using your Outlook or any other email address database," says David Holt, business development manager at Amplify
With the introduction of Google Buzz for mobile, however, other possibilities may present themselves. Buzz for mobile enables users to post status updates and comments from their smartphones, using location to identify places in their vicinity. Users can add those sites as tags to their posts and also search for Buzz comments close to their location to see what is going on in an area. Brands can therefore buzz users within their local area to notify them of special offers, etc.
In his blog, Gartner’s Thilo Koslowski noted: "Google Buzz is an early instance of a vendor combining user access — in this case, 175 million active Gmail accounts — with location-aware content and digital map functions. Gartner believes that Google will likely use the exposed information and location awareness to expand the reach of its AdSense and AdWords contextual advertising properties to better target users."
"Google Buzz not only works out where you are, but also promises to work out your likes and dislikes. And knowing Google this will happen. This advanced filter is likely to be a very useful marketing tool," adds Matt Rhodes, director of client services at FreshNetworks.
Buzz also has possible implications for search engine optimisation. With all the content searchable and connected to Google, greater Buzz (and reBuzz) activity could improve Google ranking. "One key aspect of Google Buzz is that the Buzz comments posted by gmail users are immediately posted to Google for search, so it will be interesting to see how these Buzz comments are displayed and the effect they have on any search engine optimisation," notes Holt.
Customer service and customer feedback
Buzz’s similarities to Twitter were well documented in the days following its launch, and rightly so. As with the popular microblogging site, Buzz allows people to "follow" other users, and receive their updates. However, while Twitter restricts the length of the message that can be sent to a group of followers to 140 characters, Buzz doesn’t impose a limit and also allows users to attach images. Furthermore, Buzz makes conversations easier to follow than with Twitter, by grouping all replies under the original post, and if the user wishes to reply to one of the respondees individually, then the built in gmail or Google Talk functionality also supports this.
All of this potentially puts Buzz at an advantage when it comes to its applications as another customer service tool. "Businesses should be thinking about Google Buzz in the same way they think about Twitter today," says Hendry. "There will be customers complaining about them through Google Buzz and expecting to be able to ask questions of them that way too. If it goes the same way as Twitter then customers will expect to be able to have dialogue with suppliers online through Google Buzz as many do today through Twitter If you don't monitor who's reaching out to you and the content of the conversations then it's like taking down your website enquiry form or leaving the phones off the hook. The Social Web, where the internet is interconnected people not just computers, is here to stay and it's of critical importance that businesses incorporate these communication methods into all they do."
"I think what is emerging is another tool that lends a humanising voice to a company," adds social media expert Guy Stephens. "From a customer service perspective, it's still early days, but could it become a new social media customer service platform? There's no reason why not and the close play between email and buzz is definitely in its favour. I think what it comes down to is how well people make that transition from Twitter to Buzz, beyond simply the early adopters."
And with so much information potentially being communicated about a myriad of topics, products, brands and markets, Buzz could also have research implications too. "Google Buzz does have value for market research and finding out what people believe," says David Ross, founder of HEXUS. But he also adds: "However, without market research being taken anomalously, I question the value of the data – you aren’t going to tell Tesco that they suck to their face."
Overall prospects
So despite it being early days for Google Buzz, there are already rumbles that it could start to figure in collaboration, marketing, sales, customer service and research functions in the future. But carving itself out a significant space within the social media landscape is by no means a gimme for Google.
Coming only months after its last innovation, Google Wave, was met by a collective shrug of indifference, Buzz has had a far from auspicious launch thanks to the aforementioned privacy issues. And some are writing off its chances already.
"Google Buzz is trying to compete with both Twitter and Facebook, using the power of their Gmail install base.  To me, they are a bit late to the game," says Darren Guarnaccia, vp of product marketing at Sitecore. "The real value of Twitter and Facebook is their network. It’s Metcalfe’s law, which states that the value of a network correlates to the number of connected users in that network. It is doubtful Google will draw these entrenched crowds away from these two establish players, with their strong, preexisting networks. I also believe that people fundamentally use email differently than they use tools like Facebook and Twitter. Email is not the hub for this type of interaction. I wouldn’t want everyone I email automatically connected to my network. I prefer to be much more explicit than that.  While I think it’s an interesting experiment on Google’s part, I believe it will never see large-scale adoption by consumers or businesses and that is precisely what Google needs to make this type of application a success.”
For others, however, it is the affiliation with Gmail that could yet prove to be its main attraction.  "I can see consumer based businesses getting behind it because of the number of consumers using Gmail," says Hendry. "There is little to be lost for businesses from directing existing Twitter content through their Buzz, as they may be doing through Friendfeed already, although it requires a gmail account at this point which many companies won't want to advertise to avoid getting confused with existing corporate email systems. It will be interesting to see how it pans out, especially if Buzz gets incorporated into Google Wave and the collaborative elements of Wave resonate well with corporates."
'Interesting' is certainly the word.
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