Note: This article originally appeared on Social Media Today
Change is constant, and trends related to social media and technology are no exception. In this edition of the social media “virtual roundtable,” a handful of strategic thinkers cover topics pertaining to Google, Quora, mobile applications and social media planning. The featured participants for this edition are:
- Lauren Conner, a social media analyst for the automotive industry specializing in online community strategy and management.
- Annie Janssen, the co-creator of Story of My Life Cards and social media girl for a snack foods company.
- Clark Dever, a national speaker on social media for small business owners and the web strategist for Vuzix Corporation.
- Shane Barnhill, a digital strategist, blogger, and founder of the Uptick Sports prediction market.
- Heather Herr, a social media strategist, recovering architecture student, and occasional runner with a bad (or maybe it’s good) habit of signing up for the latest beta release social site whenever she has too much free time on her hands.
Note: if you would like to be part of a future roundtable discussion, send a reply on Twitter @shanebarnhill.
Let’s start with Google, which recently announced +1, the search giant’s answer to the increasingly ubiquitous Facebook Like button. Do you think +1 will be part of a successful social strategy for Google, or do you think it is doomed to fail just as past social initiatives from Google (Buzz, Wave) have failed?
Conner: Similar to Facebook’s ‘Like’ button, the Google +1 feature is designed to allow you to highlight the search results you found most useful or relevant. The question is ‘Will the Google +1 have as much success as the Facebook ‘Like’ button?’ The Facebook ‘Like’ button is successful mainly because it reaches out to the large network of people we have connected with on Facebook. The average Google user is probably unlikely to have such a significant social network through Google’s Gmail service and the network built with Gmail is likely to be much different than that of a Facebook network. My Gmail network is made up of the people I email on occasion (ie. my insurance broker, my grandma in New Jersey, my accountant, my dog trainer, etc.) whereas my Facebook consists of friends, family and acquaintances I interact with fairly frequently. I don’t need my accountant to know that my search on local organic grocers resulted in a great link to a neighborhood co-op. Beyond that, I don’t want my search affected by my insurance broker’s preferences. I appreciate Google’s attempt to stick to what they know and what they are good at, search results, but this feature looks like a desperate attempt to be more like Facebook.
Janssen: I think overall Google will see more success since Larry Page took over as CEO earlier this year. However, I’m still unsure of how he’ll help their social initiatives as a guy who doesn’t even have a Facebook or Twitter account. In a recent article in Fast Company, Jason Shellen, who spent four years as a business-development exec at Google and now works at AOL, said “There’s an EQ – an emotional intelligence – around social software, and it just might be out of Google’s reach.” However, I think this is a safe step for Google in their attempt to be more social. They’re not creating a network, just building off of consumers’ existing networks. With “likes” perhaps soon replacing links, I think this is a great idea that has a lot of potential to catch on.
Dever: There’s two ways to success in markets, be first or be the best. Google has tried several times to come late and be the best, but have failed. I don’t think that +1 will suffer that same fate, but I don’t foresee it rising to be the market leader. I think that its integration with search will add enough value to users’ lives that the project wont be killed, but I don’t believe it will become the de facto “like” button. It will end up being just another piece of social debris that aggregates at the bottom of blog posts.
Barnhill: From a strategic standpoint, I see enormous potential for Google +1 for several reasons (which I’ve detailed previously). First, +1 is a lead generation vehicle, because in order to endorse links, a searcher must first create an account with Google, which provide leads to whom Google can market its products and services. Second, +1 will provide a new data source to protect Google’s flagship search asset. The quality of Google’s search results have recently come under fire, and +1 feedback will undoubtedly be used to improve search quality by serving up results that your respected contacts have previously vetted. Third, +1 clicks will help Google serve more relevant advertisements, both through explicit feedback (as users +1 ads that they find useful) and implicit means (as Google’s inventory of +1 data on individual web searchers allows them to deliver more personalized ads). Fourth, the +1 system will almost certainly expand beyond search and into Google’s other digital assets (YouTube videos, Android apps, Google Places and as buttons embedded across websites), thereby its utility for web surfers and also helping Google draw more complete profiles of the consumers who are being targeted for advertisements. In summary, +1 will augment Google’s core competencies in search and advertising.
Herr: Assuming it is adopted by users, I think the strength in +1 lies in it’s potential to improve search results quality, not in true social influence. +1 scores are cumulative. It may provide a general rating of social proof, but it’s weakness is that it does not identify if any up-votes came from people you know and trust. Google’s prior move of integrating their “results from your social circle” into results, displaying the avatar and name of the person who has shared that link is more effective at influencing click-through. Searchers make an immediate assumption about the quality of the link based on who shared it.
Conner: I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a good number of people trying to break into the social media field of business. Upon diving into their experience with social media in their personal life and where they see opportunities for businesses to use it to their advantage one thing always stumps them. Twitter. It surprises me the number of people who think they know social media but haven’t gone beyond the profile setup and customary “I joined Twitter!” tweet. For companies, Twitter isn’t a platform to announce what’s for lunch or that you have a fever. Twitter is a great way to break away from the confines of branding (to a certain extent) and share a human side of the company. Companies should use Twitter to interact with its customers one-on-one, share community involvement, conduct market research, augment customer service, etc. As of March 2011, an average of 460,000 are set up each day. Some of those people are bound to be your customers, or future customers. Get out there and tweet with them!
Janssen: There are a lot of very important aspects, but honestly, I believe that this exact type of roundtable forum is often one of the most overlooked – but most important – for newcomers. I notice a lot of new companies and brands making the mistake of talking only about themselves – what they think, what they know, and what’s new with them. While it’s crucial to be an expert in your field, no one likes to talk to someone who only talks about themselves the whole time. This sounds very simple, but it’s the basis of good social interaction. I would encourage companies to reach out to their existing fans for their opinions whether it’s through polls, surveys, roundtables or guest blog posts. Everyone who participates will want to share it with their network and all of a sudden there’s much more potential for the information to go viral.
Dever: Building relationships, that’s the key to the kingdom. You have to personify your brand and make people feel that you are their friend. It doesn’t matter how many people you have following you if they aren’t engaged. Speak to them, answer their questions, introduce them to one another, play games with them. It’s simultaneously the easiest and hardest part of SMM.
Barnhill: It’s important to start small by piloting social media projects and then basing larger initiatives on the results of those efforts. This is especially true in larger, complex organizations. It’s very tempting to aim for a comprehensive strategy when you’re just getting started, without allowing for sufficient experimentation. Of course, early lessons learned need to augment business goals and be consistent with your brand message. Just be certain to document them while testing the waters so that you have data to show which tactics are driving results, and which are not.
Herr: Reciprocity. It sounds so soft, but think about it this way – our social networks have become so congested with brands, business, and professionals that plug their messaging, that we’re forced to ask ourselves “what am I getting out of this relationship” with each new follow. We’ve all become takers or pushers or both. People who genuinely like you (or your brand), and whom you genuinely like in return will be your best allies. Relationships aren’t net zero – their net sum, with people on both sides finding value.
Conner: Look at your keys… or perhaps your wallet… feeling overwhelmed by the number of grocery store club cards, reward key cards, shoe store membership cards? My wallet and my keychain looked like a rolodex of my brand preferences and they were starting to get unmanageable. The Key Ring app, available on your iPhone, Android or Windows phone, helps organize all of those membership cards on your mobile device. No need to carry the cards, just scan and store them in your phone. Sounds pretty basic but recent updates to this app have upgraded the use of the virtual rewards cards by including coupons, offers and discounts. It seems they even have a partnership with CellFire, “the premier destination for valuable savings on groceries, shopping, restaurants, and entertainment.” On a recent trip to the beauty store I presented my iPhone with the barcode for that store to the cashier and received the card’s standard discount along with a $5.00 off coupon available only through the Key Ring app.
Janssen: I haven’t seen many people using Google Voice, but I decided to start using it when I recently lost my phone and wanted to text my friends while I was waiting for my new phone. Now I’m hooked. All you have to do is set up a Google Voice phone number, and you can text from your computer for free. I use the Google Voice app on my Droid so that I can have my voicemails transcribed to text. And if you haven’t used cab4me to call a cab, I would recommend it. It makes calling a cab ten times easier.
Dever: LayAR – Augmented Reality applications are going to be huge in the mobile marketplace. Layar is the current front runner in this marketplace and gives developers the ability to build their own “layars” on the framework.
Barnhill: I have been playing around with Viddy over the past few days, and I really enjoy it. Viddy — like Socialcam — does for video what Instagram does for photos. It provides a method for adding a mood element to short video clips through filtering effects. Each video can then be shared to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (with Foursquare and Tumblr listed as “coming soon” by the app). The business case for Viddy is still unclear to me at this point, but given that brands have adopted Instagram and PicPlz for curating photo streams, Viddy represents a similar use case. But for personal purposes, the app is a lot of fun.
Herr: Instagram, without question! Rather than photo sharing, I’d call it more of a photo journalism or photo storytelling application. The filters are exceptional, and lend an oldness and nostalgia to pictures. The story that each person is documenting is different – it might be family, food, signage, or urban decay – but I feel the pictures that people share with Instagram are different than what they tend to share elsewhere. Also, it’s fascinating to watch how businesses who adopted early are using it to share content. I’d recommend checking out NPR, Red Bull (client) and Dan Rubin.
Lastly, let’s turn to Quora. Much has been made about whether Quora, the fast-growing Q&A website, can sustain its fast rate of growth without losing its reputation as a quality source of information; and in fact, this infographic from KISSmetrics shows a recent decline in unique visitors. What do you think: Can Quora continue to grow and maintain its quality? If so, how?
Janssen: I haven’t used Quora much but I have noticed a decline in the chatter about it in my own Twitter feed. My suggestion for Quora would definitely be to integrate video into the answers. With YouTube having around 180 million unique visitors a day, I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t integrate video into their answers.
Dever: Unfortunately, Quora runs the risk of becoming just another “experts exchange.” Its original appeal was its tight knit community that was built around the start-up, VC, tech evangelists social networks. I’ve already seen a marked decrease in quality of answers over the past months, which is when it appeared to hit “the tipping point” and expanded beyond it’s original exclusivity. I believe that y-combinator’s “hacker news” will probably regain some market share as the portal of choice for that community.
Barnhill: I do think Quora can grow while maintaining quality, despite the challenges associated with mainstream adoption. But I think there are two primary threats. First, there is clear demand for tighter, more-focused communities that revolve around niche interests and problems. LawPivot, for example, is making a name for itself (and drawing investment) by focusing exclusively on providing legal advice to tech companies and startups. Stack Overflow, meanwhile, continues to provide value to programmers as a collaborative platform. Second, Quora requires a lot more commitment than users of many social platforms may be willing to invest. By comparison, services like Twitter and Facebook – which admittedly serve a very different purpose than Quora – thrive partially due to expectations of simplicity and brevity. For example, while I still browse through Quora, the focus on longer, in-depth answers to questions requires more time than I’m willing to commit on a regular basis. So yes, while I expect Quora to grow, I think it faces some challenges that will likely lead to a flatter growth curve.
Herr: The answer to that question really depends on user’s root motivation and Quora’s own intentions. As an application grows, change is inevitable. Founders are faced with a choice: adapt to usage behaviors or stick to their core vision. These aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can be. As Quora grows, they will see a shift in their user base from web-based professionals and aficionados, to a larger population that’s harder to wrap up in a pretty package. The content on Quora will change accordingly. Look at Yahoo! Questions now – it’s a place to get your question answered by other users, but it’s not where you go to have an intelligent discussion on how technology is shaping our lives. For these types of questions, look to the Q&A platform being launched by TED. They’ve built a brand around the caliber of content that makes up a TED Talk that will serve as both launchpad and quality control for their Q&A feature.
Thanks for reading! If you would like to be part of a future roundtable discussion, send a reply on Twitter @shanebarnhill.
Last September, Google’s Chairman (and then CEO) Eric Schmidt sought to diffuse rising expectations of a new social network from the search giant by declaring that Google’s social strategy involved adding “social layers” to its existing products and services. According to Schmidt, a standalone social network was not part of Google’s plans. Recent events, however, suggest a shift in strategy and hint at a new social network that would position Google to compete more directly with Facebook.
Recent Moves are Telling
Consider these recent developments, if you will:
- CEO Larry Page reorganized Google into six core product areas and named Vic Gundotra to the position of SVP of Social, putting social media on equal footing with Google’s search, advertising and mobile (i.e. Android) businesses.
- Page has also made the move of tying 25% of employee bonuses to the company’s success in social networking.
- Google’s Slide team — which operates as an independent unit – has jumped into the group messaging space with a Disco, an iPhone application that is not available on Google’s Android OS.
- Hotpot, Google’s recommendation engine, has been folded into Google Places.
- Google also recently announced +1, the search giant’s answer to the increasingly ubiquitous Facebook Like button.
Next, consider that Google already has the standalone components — or at least the technology — for a potential social ecosystem to compete with established social networking leaders. Google Latitude competes with Foursquare for check-ins. Google Buzz competes with Twitter, if only in theory. Blogger competes with platforms such as Tumblr and WordPress. Orkut even manages to compete with Facebook in a couple of international markets. And of course, don’t forget Google’s crown jewel of a potential integrated social offering: YouTube.
Testing the Waters
However, this portfolio of social and mobile products remains an unfocused, fragmented experience for users. Why confuse users by making them think they’ll need to check into a restaurant on Latitude and then exit the app in order to leave a review through the revamped Places offering? This makes no sense as a sustainable, long-term approach. So what gives?
What appears to be happening — and right under our noses, at that — is that Google is testing out disparate pieces of a larger puzzle; a puzzle that, for the short term, will remain a jumbled collection of parts. Page’s reorganization of Google into several autonomous units that are free to innovate independently and without strict oversight from Google’s operating committee reflects a go-forward approach where independent puzzle pieces remain unlinked in the near future.
The Social Pieces Connect
But certainly, connecting Google’s digital assets makes sense over the long term. But that’s the key: the long term. Because Social Is Too Important For Google To Screw Up With A Big Launch Circus, Google will seek to avoid the type of hype that accompanied Google Buzz’s release, which launched to much fanfare but was immediately criticized over privacy concerns and lack of utility. Instead, consider how the Places/HotPot merger was announced: casually via Google’s blog, without a marketing blitz and major press coverage to trumpet the change.
So here is how I believe this situation will play itself out: Google will continue to quietly release new social products. Then, gradually, these products will be tied together — through product mergers and cross-posting options — until only a small set of them remain.
A Social Layer Emerges
At this point, a unifying “social layer” will indeed emerge, one that will integrate all of Google’s products seamlessly. This layer will integrate your check-ins and restaurant reviews from Places/Latitude, your video preferences from YouTube, your activity from Google +1 and your photos from Picasa. It will understand which friendships are most important to you, based on the history of your Gmail account and your group texts from Disco. And it will do it all within one app that connects you to contacts from all of these services, while facilitating easy sharing to other social platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr.
Throw a few innovative features into this new integrated offering that are not available separately (Perhaps Instagram-style filtering for your YouTube videos, similar to Viddy), and BANG, you’ve got a killer new social network. Under this scenario, consumers could choose to use single puzzle pieces (i.e. only Gmail and YouTube) or opt into a unified experience for “all things Google.”
So there you have it: my hypothesis for Google’s social strategy. The company is surreptitiously testing modules of its eventual social network in plain view, for everyone to see. Google’s recent actions certainly point toward this direction. This plodding, pragmatic plan represents the best approach for Google to evolve into a social networking power that can compete with Facebook for valuable ad revenues while steering clear of the unattainable expectations that would come with a “big bang” release. If it doesn’t pan out, then Google can always pin its hopes on a big win by Paul Ceglia.
So do you think I’m on the mark here? Or am I completely crazy? Let me know with a comment below!
Google recently announced +1, the search giant’s answer to the increasingly ubiquitous Facebook Like button. Understandably, many bloggers and analysts cited Google’s previous social failures and predicted a similar failure for +1. Among the many complaints about +1 was the supposed absurdity of liking — or rather, +1-ing — search results that haven’t yet been clicked and read. I’ll admit that I also doubted the efficacy of that approach shortly after Google’s official +1 announcement.
But instead of adding my knee-jerk reaction to mix on the day of +1′s launch, I decided to follow some advice that I once received from a wine maker in Napa. While his words were meant to apply to wine, they came to mind as I made a conscious decision to think about Google’s +1 strategy for a few days. His advice? “Let it breathe.”
And so I did. I waited, and mulled over Google’s motivations. And upon further reflection, I have come to view Google’s +1 release through a more strategic lens than a real-time, same-day reaction would have permitted. What I’ve come to realize over these past week is that many of the initial reactions to +1 are oversimplified. From a strategic standpoint, I see enormous potential for Google +1 for several reasons:
First, +1 is a lead generation vehicle
Google’s +1 feature is embedded as a button next to each Google search result. These +1 icons are used to signal to people who are signed into their Google accounts that their connections (email contacts, chat friends) have approved of links provided via search. They also provide searchers with a mechanism to endorse links, provided again that they have created and are signed into their Google accounts. But that’s the catch: You can’t +1 a search result without having an account with Google. Effectively, then, +1 serves to convert otherwise anonymous (well, relatively anonymous, anyway) web searchers into account holders to whom Google can market its products and services.
Second, +1 will provide a new data source to protect Google’s flagship search asset
Numerous critics, such as Berkeley professor Vivek Wadwha, have become increasingly critical of the quality of Google’s search results. Meanwhile, content farms such as Demand Media have earned billions of dollars in revenues via the production of low quality articles that rank well by exploiting Google’s search algorithm. Consequently, a common viewpoint of many web users is that Google has been cashing in on spam at the expense of its search engine users.
Google has made strides in addressing this challenge by altering its search algorithm to punish content farms. However, despite Google’s claim that +1s will not initially impact search results, +1 feedback will undoubtedly reach a tipping point whereupon crowd sourced data can be used to improve search quality. Simply put, Google can reverse the perceived declined in search quality by serving up results that your respected contacts have previously vetted. Once +1 clicks have achieved a relevant total volume, you can expect to see increasingly-personalized search results.
Third, +1 clicks will help Google serve more relevant advertisements
In 2010, Google’s search advertising revenues surged over 20% to $25.4 billion. Imagine how much that growth rate can accelerate if search users would just tell Google which ads they’d like to receive? Well, +1 enables this, both implicitly and explicitly.
At launch, +1 buttons are active for both search results and advertisements. While only a small percentage of people are likely to +1 advertisements (explicit ad feedback), this model is not without precedent and relative success. On the implicit end, Google can target individual interests and fine-tune the ads that are served to a specific individual by using data from his/her +1 history. This approach mimics Facebook’s ad model, and it represents a mechanism for improving Google’s AdSense platform (and — Bingo — increasing advertising revenues).
Fourth, +1 will expand to other digital assets, increasing its utility
Criticism of Google +1 as a mechanism for just ranking search results is shortsighted. The +1 system will almost certainly expand beyond search and into Google’s other digital assets. It’s likely that we’ll all be able to +1 videos and curated channel content from YouTube, songs from Google’s soon-to-be released music streaming service, apps from Google Apps or the Android Market, businesses and other places via Hotpot, and so on. And soon we’ll all see +1 buttons embedded across websites alongside icons from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
The expansion of +1 across Google entities and the greater web will serve to not only increase its utility for web surfers, but also to help Google draw more complete profiles of the consumers who are being targeted for advertisements. You might even say that +1 is the next logical step toward a full-blown social network from Google — but I’ll leave that hypothesis for another blog post.
Summary: +1 is a strategic move that reinforces Google’s core
Google may be investing in self-driving cars and planning YouTube channels to compete with traditional television networks, but one thing is clear: Search is Google’s Castle, Everything Else is a Moat. For Google, success is not defined as an end result where +1 buttons become as pervasive as Facebook’s social plugins. Instead, +1 will augment Google’s core competency: providing the best search results available and placing ads that complement the search experience. For the reasons outlined above, +1 will enable that mission. Deriding the “version 1.0″ of +1 is a shortsighted view that fails to take into account Google’s long-term goals.