Thursday 11 June 2015

Brands should not miss the Google+ Bus

The Data Myna 

Why is everyone in SA ignoring Google+? It never seems to generate a blip on the radar of social media analysts, the Plus button is often absent from websites, yet it has, according to GlobalWebIndex, a significant number of active users in this country. And its new strategies enabling publishing to niche audiences could make it an even more effective platform than Facebook for brand-building, provided you get your content strategies right.

But first, the data. It is difficult to find comparable figures about social media usage, so it is a boon to find a research company, GlobalWebIndex, which base their data on the results of an online questionnaire, using stratified sampling techniques to ensure they are representative of the South African internet population aged 16 to 64. Research is conducted in four waves within a year, and looks at account ownership, visitation and active usage (determined by people indicating they used the network in the previous month).

The soon-to-be-released Q1 2015 report for South Africa indicates active usage for the top five social media sites in South Africa as: Facebook 55%, YouTube 44%, Google Plus 30%, Twitter 26%, and LinkedIn 24%.  Apart from Facebook, where the usage rates between males and females are roughly even, males have higher usage rates than females. The data is not broken down by race; on YouTube, 16-34s have the highest usage rates but on the other networks 35-54s are the most likely to be active users.  

It could be argued that some of the effect is related to the integration of Google Plus with YouTube and with Gmail (though no longer is there a mandatory integration with Gmail). However, while this may boost membership, which figures are as follows: Facebook 93%, Google 76%, YouTube 65%, Twitter 62% and LinkedIn 56%, the reality is that active usage is what is of interest here.

Usage does not necessarily translate into visible activity; many ‘lurk’ or are passive viewers on any network. Research by Bernstein, inter alia, on Facebook indicates that “publicly visible signals - friend count, likes, and comments - vary widely and do not strongly indicate the audience of a single post” and the effects would tend to be stronger in stranger-networks. 

Google Plus, like Twitter, is a stranger-network, while Facebook is a friend-network. As Hendricks (2014) notes, while friend-networks move offline relationships online, consumers are increasingly adopting online social networks based on common interests.  A 2014 paper, Social Learning in Networks of Friends versus Strangers by Zhang, Liu and Chen, investigates friend and stranger-networks, and conclude that: "It is not always beneficial for firms to use friend-networks for promotion, especially for high quality products".

Cascading behaviours occur  when you observe the actions of others and do the same, even if your own private information suggests you should do otherwise. If your network is small and similar to you,  you are more likely to imitate the behaviour of others, but people flock to large stranger-networks for information, in part because quality inferences become more accurate. As a result, "For a high-quality firm, the stranger-network generates greater sales than the friend-network when the private signal is sufficiently accurate".

The problem with stranger-networks is that of discovery – how can you find the information you are looking for? Twitter famously utilises the hashtag; Google Plus has recently brought out Collections. Users can group their content by topic and audiences are given a choice either to follow everything you produce or only a specific Collection or Collections. That is, it lets you create your own subject channels while largely sharing your subscriber base between them, which offers a significant advantage over having separate pages for topics.  

Knowing who your audience is and how to reach them is fundamental to any marketing effort. Collections are actively promoted to individuals whose interests align with that topic, since as Google puts it, “Our happiest Google+ users are those who connect with others around shared interests and passions”. For those whose Collections have been promoted, the results indicate a huge increase in views and +1s, which also translate into followers of specific Collections.

Google Plus is clearly mining the data about individuals and using some kind of context-dependent, granular segmentation analysis to understand users by means of increasingly small groups based on tastes and interests (with the ultimate aim being the group of one: full personalisation). The ability to discover discrete or niche audiences offers distinct implications for brands, which therefore have an ability to publish different Collections catering to specific target markets. 

What’s the catch? It is not easy to gain a following on Google Plus, you need to publish content that is unique, original, authentic, relevant, compelling, authoritative, and expert(though expertise may be personal, as in it is your story). It rewards long-form posts, striking imagery and respectful, though invigorating discussion and debate. You do not have to post non-stop, but a clear authorial voice is key. There is a role for curation but those who add a brief synopsis to the post to initiate discussion outperform those who do not. That is, it is an environment that strongly rewards signal as opposed to noise.

It should be no surprise that Google would create a network that strongly rewards fresh, original content not published elsewhere; what they know from Search is that high quality content is king. The fact that they are now able to promote specific types of content to people who differ in terms of tastes and interests is a major achievement, and brands would do well to take more heed of this network, particularly given that if you are followed by someone and they have personal search on, then your results come up at the bottom of any Search query on which you had posted something relevant to that query.

Kathryn Kure is a researcher, analyst and Google Plus advocate. Collections have added 3 million views of her content over 15 days, but, more importantly, has enabled niche audiences to discover her different collections.

A shortened version of this article was first published in the Saturday Star on the 6th June 2015 and is republished here with permission. 

Saturday Star, 6 June 2015, p. 17

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