Google+ Hits The Social Sweet Spot

Google+ lit up last week as comments and jokes bounced back and forth regarding the new user interface and the ‘mysterious’ white space to the right of the screen.

Perhaps more poignant in the battle for most Monthly Active Users (MAU) – a key measure of engagement used by social networks – is how Google positioned its social offering. Often tagged as ‘late-to-market’ Google+ has received both positive and negative reviews. Few, if any however, have taken into account Google’s positioning in the heavily desirable and untapped white space that exists between Social networks and Communities. It is this positioning along with the insatiable interest in all things social, which might just provide the key Google needs to unlock the powerful network effects of Facebook.

To explain this better, take a pen and draw a line on a piece of paper. Label one end, ‘Social network’ and the other ‘Community.’ Now start listing various social networks and communities next to the corresponding label. If we’re on the same page you should end up with something like this:

Social Networks are fundamentally different from Communities

Grouping these sites based on their core allows us to quickly visualize and separate the two models. The primary difference is best described as the glue that holds them together.

In a social network for example – a past, present or future relationship is what connects the members. In a community it’s a shared interest that brings people together. Think of a tennis club as an example of an offline community.

Today, with social media being one giant melting pot term, the two models are commonly interchanged and the fact that they are two models (and very different ones at that) is often lost or overlooked.

The large social networks and communities we use today are at the extreme ends of the scale creating an untapped space in the middle – essentially a foothold in both camps. These sites continue to invest considerable time and resources to nudge themselves more towards the center of the line suggesting a level of desirability held by the space – however given the difference in the models expecting this to happen overnight is akin to stopping an oil tanker on a dime.

While it is true that community can form within a social network and visa versa it’s very difficult for a social network to force or facilitate community and for a community to force or facilitate a social network. The reasons for this are based on both internal and external factors. Externally, the primary reason people join each are different, and internally the skills required to be successful are different. For example, community development is often counter-intuitive or at odds with the social networking business model. This could explain why Google allowed YouTube to be a standalone business and Mark Zuckerburg announced last week on his newsfeed, “We’re committed to building and growing Instagram independently.”

To date neither LinkedIn nor Facebook has seen runaway success in their community building efforts:

  • LinkedIn Groups are an attempt to build community however they continue to lack any community feel
  • Facebook Subscribe allows users to ‘follow’ another user based on an interest however they may have no relationship with.
  • Facebook Groups for Schools launched this month attempt to generate community within Facebook’s social network. To soon to tell but definitely worth watching.

Think of social network operators as brokers

The reason for the investment can be found in the words used by the fictional detective Lieutenant Columbo as he looks to solve a homicide, “follow the money.”

Social networks are interested in community as community tends to generate significant amounts of content (All Things Digital reported Instagram users upload more than 5 million photos a day and generate 81 comments per second, as of today the niche programming community site stackoverflow.com has generated 2,947,135 questions or almost 10m pieces of content based on an average of 2.35 answers per question.) As the age old adage goes, ‘content is king.’

The reason content is king is because when combined with demographic and behavioral information it provides unmatched opportunities for targeting based on a users digital body language. Social network and community operators are essentially the brokers between advertisers and consumers. It is at the point these two parties meet that revenue opportunities exist. It is no surprise therefore that the 2 of the largest players in social networking – Google and Facebook obtain the majority of their revenues from advertising and arguably you could include LinkedIn as it obtains 30% from advertising and 45% from recruiting tools – which is essentially doing the same thing – matching users with interested parties (recruiters as opposed to marketers).

Given social networks need communities for continued growth, adoption and engagement they essentially have 3 options to obtain them. We’ve seen all of these in action:

  1. Build – Google+, Facebook Groups for Schools, LinkedIn Groups
  2. Buy – Facebook and Instagram, Google and YouTube
  3. Partner – LinkedIn and Twitter.

Building takes time, buying requires care and diligence not to upset the foundation of community (see Instagram backlash) and partnering has its own risks given the intense competition in the space. Motorola employees may think back to the partnership with Apple after which Apple entered the phone business and almost destroyed Motorola’s handset division.

Google+ a foot in both camps

Google+ is interesting because in being late to the game, Google had the opportunity to assess the market and position itself in the center. Given both LinkedIn and Facebook have been heading in this direction – could this be the sweet spot for social?

Google+ blends both community and social networking together. As a member you can participate based on interest, a relationship or both. This capability is build from the ground up and is the very fabric of the experience – it is a first and certainly not an after thought requiring a re-architecture akin to changing the engine while traveling at 100mph. The intuitive ‘circles’ enables users to manage the relationships and control their overall experience.

Whilst this social sweet spot or ‘networked community’ for want of a better term is unchartered waters, it does provide a myriad of new opportunities and benefits to Google. Combine these with Google’s other well-adopted product lines such as Search, Gmail not forgetting the YouTube community and the possibilities begin to multiply.

As users look for consolidation of their social presence in addition to increased value/return, and advertisers look to increasingly segment and target the pro-sumers, Google+ becomes a very attractive offering.

Will focusing on the upcoming IPO distract Facebook? Will Facebook be able to address concerns regarding the large numbers of its user base switching to a yet to be monetized mobile experience? Will Google and Facebook be able to walk the line between keeping their member base happy and offering value/return to marketers? Will Google be able to exploit its positioning of Google+ as a ‘networked community’ and clarify their offering as a new social experience? Will Google be able to leverage the developer community to bolster its offering? Will Google win over businesses and consumers to help drive a potential network shift? Will Facebook double down and wow us with something insainly brilliant? Will Google’s diversified product portfolio provide the leverage it needs to break the intensely strong network effects of Facebook?

As these two titans battle out for most active users, perhaps LinkedIn will consider bolstering its community offerings with potential acquisition targets such as focus.com or Quora? We’ll find out the answers to these questions in the coming months – it’s going to be an interesting couple of years ahead.

This article was originally published exclusively on socialmediatoday.com and gained ~300 shares in the first 48 hours helping it become the top post on the site that week.

10 Reasons Communities Should Be Core To Your Social Strategy

Thousands of professionals collaborate to solve workplace challenges each and every day in online communities such as focus.com, stackoverflow.com, and toolbox.com. While working at Toolbox.com I had the pleasure of seeing this collaboration in addition to working with many multi-national / global organizations interested in engaging with the community.

In 2011 we experienced a clear shift in the appetite for social driven campaigns over traditional online campaigns as social strategies emerge, take hold and in some cases mature within organizations.

Below is a list of 10 reasons engaging in a professional community should be core to a social strategy:

  1. Shortlists are formed and buying decisions can be made in a community. The 2011 Toolbox.com IT Purchasing survey found >62% of decision makers cited they use best practice communities to support purchasing decisions – see A future for lead generation.
  2. Conversation about products and services take place daily – it was not unusual for a company’s prospects, customers and employees to already be engaged in conversation – yet without social monitoring a company often has no centralized knowledge or visibility of this effort.
  3. Scalable social efforts. Altimeter Group stated this well with the research on 1:1 dialog citing as a model it is not scalable in social media. Leveraging the community (brand advocates, employees, customers) and providing visibility to a centralized social model is a good path to scale.
  4. Communities are a business priority for many engaging in social programs. According to Altimeter research published in December 2010, ‘community platforms’ are a top social business priority for 2011.
  5. Identification of brand advocates and influencers. The 2011 Toolbox.com/PJA Social Media Index survey found that >70% of the members who actively participate in the Toolbox.com community do so to help others. Communities provide a great vehicle to identify brand advocates, potential employees and influencers.
  6. Communities are strong and resilient. Social networks continue to struggle to spawn successful communities. Communities are often formed and held together by an interest in the topic, where a social network is formed and held together by a past, present or future relationship. Whilst they are not mutually exclusive – a social network can form within a community and vice versa for example – Social networks have so far failed to build successful community with valuable dialogue. Communities are very much about social discovery – a topic which is heating up right now. Are social networks the correct or best place to offer thought leadership and support of your products and services? What is the true ROI – are you investing ‘scarce’ resources in the right place? See ‘Can a social network form a successful community?
  7. Communities provide an opportunity to engage (and develop lasting relationships) in every stage of the customer cycle from sales pipeline through to customer support. At Toolbox.com we regularly shared examples internally where a member has been helped by a company and as a result the company has won new or repeat business. Answering questions, addressing concerns or providing thought leadership provides another opportunity to offer an excellence customer experience – whether it is answered by an employee or a brand advocate (as is often the case in a community).
  8. Participating in an established Community removes the overhead of technology. It is very much a service model. Let Toolbox worry about the cost, audience, moderation (to prevent spam and misuse etc.), the platform. Remove the overhead and focus on your prospects and customers. On a recent customer call, a fortune 100 company said, “I’ve stopped counting the number of failed communities we’ve been involved in over the last 5 years.”
  9. Communities provide an excellent source of feedback (product innovation, customer feedback) and reusable content. Both these items which were traditionally costly to source can now be obtained for little to no cost by engagement.
  10. Professional communities are made up of professionals. In the majority of cases professionals are employees of companies. As companies look to leverage / market talented employees, and integrate social engagement into workflows, its often a lot easier than you would think given many employees are already participating.

Share your thoughts in the comments box below.