An update on Google+ for Brands

Below is a draft of an updated POV on Google+ I've drafted for the perspective of brand marketing opportunities.  Thoughts, suggestions or critiques are welcome.

Now that Google+ is nearly two months old, I wanted to provide an update on how Google’s ambitious new social project is doing, what new features + functionality have been added to the product since launch, and how these new elements impact the outlook for brands. Despite entering a competitive landscape, Google+ has received intense attention from Google users, media and brands. In just a few shorts weeks over 25 million people have been estimated to have tried out the network. Google has met the enthusiasm with a barrage of developments that hint to the potential of Google+ moving forward.

A more powerful +1 button for publishers 
When initially launched, Google’s +1 button for publishers had an ambiguous purpose. Consumers clicking the button could potentially improve a site’s search ranking, but there was no direct connection to Google+. Now when users click the +1 button they will not only affect the page-rank of the site, but will also have the opportunity to share the web-page directly to their Google+ stream. Google+ users will also see which of their friends have clicked a +1 button right next to the button on sites. The behavior will be very similar to clicking the Facebook ‘like’ button, both in it’s on-site representation and by displaying a photo and descriptive text snippet in a user’s feed. This will give users much more reason to click +1 buttons on content around the web.

Considering both the SEO and social amplification power of the new +1 button, all brands and publishers should be preparing to include +1 buttons on their sites prominently. There are a few steps website managers need to take to maximize the benefit:
  • Update the +1 button code on their sites to display the in-line social graph info 
  • Include the proper HTML mark-up on your web-pages to specify which pictures and copy are auto-generated when users share to Google+ from the +1 button on your site
Extended reach through massive Gmail community
When Google+ launched many people were surprised to find that it had no connection to Gmail. Now, however, Google has taken the first steps towards integrating with the popular email client by integrating Google+ updates into the new Gmail people widget. When looking at an email in Gmail, your contacts most recent public Google+ post will be visible in the sidebar along with their other profile information. This extends the reach of Google+ status updates way beyond the Google+ user-base out to the millions of people who use Gmail daily, making Google+ content sharing much more attractive to brands.

A more social YouTube experience with Google+ Hangouts
From the beginning, Google+ users have been able to load YouTube videos inside Hangouts (group video chats). Additionally, now when watching a video on YouTube users are invited to launch the video inside a Google+ Hangout to share the viewing experience with up to 10 friends. Like the Gmail integration, this exposure on one of Google’s most popular properties will help boost awareness of Google+. This is also a potentially valuable Call-To-Action for brands to promote on their YouTube channels: not just to watch a brand spot, but to invite friends to watch, enjoy and discuss along with one another.

Increased time spent inside Google+ through games
Google+’s biggest advancement so far may be the launch of Google+ Games. The games platform is very similar to Facebook’s, focusing on casual social games like Bejeweled that challenge friends to beat each other’s high scores and more. Google noticeably kept games alerts from infiltrating the regular Google+ feed; rather it’s information streams are kept on a separate feed users see when playing games. While less integrated, games will still ensure that users spend more time inside Google+ and return to the network more often. They could also be a potential way for brands to offer engaging experiences to users, once the developer platform is opened to all.

But official brand accounts are still missing (for the most part)
The most notable development about Google+ so far, though, may be that Google still hasn’t made any announcements about how brands will exist on the network. Google has actually gone out of their way to remove brand pages that pop up, or work with brands to transition their pages to a representative employee. So far the only hint that brand pages are coming soon, besides Google’s continuous promise, has been the launch of the Ford Motor Company test account. Ford notes that the profile is an early test of Google+ business accounts, and is experimenting with a number of Google+ features like Hangouts. Despite the early access Ford doesn’t appear to have any special features or functionality on their page yet. However, many additions like Google Analytics and advertising integration are expected to come, and may already exist on the back-end. Google will presumably also look at adding other features like brand directories, enterprise level moderation tools, integration with Google Places and more.

One last new Google+ feature that could be related to Google’s plans for businesses is the addition of “verified name” tags. Though the certification process is unclear, Google has begun tagging profiles of some celebrities (such as actress Alyssa Milano) and media personalities with a “verified name” designation. This certification could be used in the future to make sure users know which brand profiles are official, for trust and privacy purposes.

Though Google+ is boasting some big usage numbers so far, it’s important to remember that we are still in the very early days for the fledgling network. As Google continues integrating Google+ into its other properties and release new functionality I expect both Google+ and the other products to benefit from cross-promotion and powerful social functionality. It’s also important to note, however, that the competition is not standing still. Facebook just recently announced new privacy features that replicate Google+ circle functionality, and Twitter is quickly making photo sharing a bigger part of its web product. Social media is evolving faster than ever right now, and brands need to continue to pay attention closely to developments to identify the best ways to provide value and engage with their audiences.


How Foursquare is Growing Up

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of development for two of my favorite social platforms, Twitter and Foursquare.  Both have launched or announced several features that I believe are a significant step up for the services. At their origins, and despite their expansive 3rd party developer community, both Twitter and Foursquare felt like singularly focused products that could own only a certain portion of my attention and effort.  As they continue to evolve, however, it is becoming clear how they each could continue to provide more value, generate more interest and connect people on a deeper level than before.  In this post I will cover Foursquare's recent developments, and in another I'll dive deeper into Twitter.

The biggest critique of Foursquare when I tried to convince friends to use it was that they had no interest in letting people know where they are and having any serendipitous meetings.  I could understand that, but always felt it was a shortsighted look at the value of location data.  Now foursquare is building on-top of its check-in platform in in a number of interesting ways:

  • Activity tray
    While in itself not all that interesting, Foursquare's activity tray has paved the way for a deeper social experience within the app.  Now when a friend comments on a check-in, interacts with a tip you've left somewhere, or checks in to the same place as you Foursquare alerts you in a drop-down tray in the app.  In addition, Foursquare is starting to provide interesting notifications such as a "matchmaker" like functionality, where Foursquare alerts you that a friend has added a "to-do" at a location you've been meaning to try as well, and suggests you go together.
  • In-line photos
    To generate more conversation Foursquare turned to the most popular aspect of any social network- photos.  You've been able to snap a picture at a check-in for a while, but now your friends photos show up in the main newsfeed along with the check-in info.  This makes the newsfeed view a lot more interesting to browse and incentivizes people to take more photos.
  • Lists
    Though this is only a site feature for now, users and brands can create rich categorical lists of places they recommend.  Foursquare will even recommend list topics for you based on your check-in history, suggest places to add to those lists, and provide community pictures to go along with the list.  Friends can collaborate on lists together, too.  Lists are a great way to filter your check-ins into actual top recommendations for friends, put together itineraries, and more (pro tip: see my lists of Top NYC Pizza Places and Top NYC Coffee Spots and leave me suggestions).
  • Partner recommendations
    Foursquare launched the Explore tab a few months ago to make place recommendations for you based on your check-in history.  Now the Explore tab includes nearby, relevant recommendations for you from partners such as Groupon, Living Social and more.  Leveraging Foursquare's interest graph to improve a 3rd party experience is a powerful opportunity.  This feature shows the potential value in recording 2,000 life check-ins over the last few years.
  • Event check-ins
    Now when you check-in to a movie, concert or sports game you can actually go one level deeper and check-in to the actual piece of content, such as a film.  Foursquare has partnered with media properties for these libraries, and the integration includes filling the new micro-locations with reviews and stats to help people make decisions on their activities.  This puts Foursquare in direct competition with another one of my favorite apps, GetGlue.
All of these features combined have turned Foursquare from a singular experience into a robust social platform that users can spend time interacting with friends through, regardless of whether they can actually meet them in person.  In my own experience since these features I'm definitely seeing friends engage with Foursquare content much more- including adding more photos, commenting on more check-ins, and looking at lists.  I'm also finding that the Explore tab is becoming more interesting as it starts to recommend me places to go and corresponding deals that I can buy from 3rd party sites.   

In addition to being great for users, many of these features are excellent for brands.  Photos and lists in particular make brand offerings richer and more compelling, advancing the way brands can create value despite the incongruity of them not being a traditional Foursquare users.  As a marketer, I'm excited to think about new ways to use Foursquare to create interesting engagement programs.

So what do you think- has Foursquare's new features increased your use of the platform?  Have any of them in particular stood out?  What else are you looking for Foursquare to bring to the table?