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Can Google+ really challenge Facebook and be an asset to brands?

Can Google+ really challenge Facebook and be an asset to brands?

By Claire Weekes, senior reporter, UTalkMakreting

Two months ago Google launched Google+, its very own social networking site, with all the fuss and fanfare that you’d typically expect from the launch of a product from the king of the internet. Twenty million plus users later (a modest but successful start – Facebook took three years to hit the same heights) means that brands are naturally itching to get to grips with this social networking baby.

Some, including the Ford Motor Company have been lucky enough to gain a presence on the site – acting as Google’s guinea-pigs. But every other company on the planet has been told it has to wait to get its hands on the data goldmine that Google+ will no doubt create for advertisers.

This news hasn’t gone down well in brand circles. Many did flock to set up profiles when Google+ launched – to which Google responded by swiftly deleting their accounts. It says the support for business pages will be in place by the autumn but until then the message is clear – sit tight and wait.

In the interim one of the big questions on many an online marketer’s lips is – what kind of relationship will Google+ want to establish with brands over time? Will Google want the platform to be driven – in the way that Facebook is – by commercial necessity, or could it, due to its “enormous web advertising dominance” as Simon Quance, head of social media at Sixth Sense puts it, remain ultimately ad free?   

“While Google is actively pursuing a test and learn policy to understand how users want to engage with each other on the network, a critical consideration for brand page development might be to judge whether users want advertising at all?

“Facebook relies on advertising and branded content to finance itself, whereas Google could remain ad free and finance Google+ through data, if that appears to be what users want”, he says.

In the meantime what might brands want to get out of the social networking platform once they can climb on board? Will brands see Google+ as great a way as they do Facebook to engage with customers? In years to come will we talk about g-commerce in as an enthusiastic way as we now talk about f-commerce?

Only, the general consensus seems to be, if Google brings a unique selling point to the table that Facebook doesn’t offer. “It must prove that it can offer a new dimension to existing social networking sites, which I am yet to see”, says David Bashford, director at community software provider Siteforum. “It feels like Google is trying to force a platform on consumers, leading it to already fail in competing with Facebook – which had the first move advantage and was launched and developed in tune with customer demand.

“Many marketers have had their fingers burnt by investing time and money in networks that haven’t taken off, so I would imagine Google+ has its work cut out, trying to attract the marketing industry while gain traction amongst everyday internet users,” he adds.

One way in which Google+ could gain ground on arch enemy Facebook is by touting itself as an effective new business tool. Although some brand with big budgets are now offering an actual online shopping experience within Facebook’s pages, for the most part businesses seem to struggle to work out precisely how much of its new business can be attributed directly from consumer activity on the site. “I would like to see the integration of [Google’s] shopping search results, so that businesses can have a direct point of sale on their Google+ profile and therefore accurately attribute sales from this medium,” suggests Mathew Read, account manager at agency Gravytrain.

A lot of interest has so far also been shown around “Hangouts” – Google+’s ability to let users video chat with one another in groups of up to ten at a time. This is a feature unique to the platform (although Facebook has recently teamed up with Skype – so expect something similar to be in the pipeline at Zuckerberg’s end). The prospect of being able to connect in real time with customers whether to demo products, gain customer insight into a brand or even to offer customer service is highly appealing. “The integration of discussion forums, where customers could talk directly to representatives of a brand, would be excellent as it would give brands the opportunity to get direct feedback and find out new ideas from their own customers. Customers could have open, real time discussions with brand representatives,” says Read.

So we’ve speculated on what Google might want to make from Google+, and we’ve established what companies might like out of it. But what kind of brand interaction do consumers want within Google+? Casual research among friends suggests that the answer is little to none – but Duncan Southgate, global brand director for digital at research agency Millward Brown says that its research shows that actually, the main things that consumers want via social media are the latest brand news, competitions and offers. Southgate suggests that if Google can somehow help to categorise or label those content types, then it’s onto a winner.

Core activity within Google+ is based around “Circles” – users can create and join different circles for say friends and family. “If brands are automatically categorised as a separate circle I imagine users will appreciate Google doing that separation work for them,” Southgate says. “Controlling the amount of brand information in news feeds will be a delicate task, but one I am sure it will handle sensitively – think sponsored versus natural search links.”

So the potential for Google+ to become a successful social commerce hangs then in a delicate balance it seems – between what brands, consumers and Google itself decides it wants to get out of it.

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