Remember when Google was just a search engine? Since they conquered that market, the tech giant has gone on to have huge success in all kinds of digital arenas; web advertising, internet video, email, map services, web browsing, cloud storage, mobile operating systems…the list goes on and on.

Through their success, the company have also opened up a wealth of opportunities for digital marketers – from channels such as SEO and PPC to utilities such as Webmaster Tools and Analytics.

Of course, there have been plenty of failures along the way – from high-profile products like Glass to obscure experiments like Google Health – but the firm tends to kill off floundering projects fairly quickly, so they can focus on the products which work for them

However, there’s one product which Google continues to support, despite the fact it has never really gained the widespread adoption that the company hoped for….

Google+: An Attempt to ‘Fix’ Social Media

Google+ was launched in 2011 as an answer to Facebook and Twitter, and aimed to offer a slightly more personal and genuinely ‘social’ experience than its competitors.

Two flagship features led the charge against the (in the words of G+ leader Vic Gundotra) ‘broken’ social media scene of the time. Firstly, users could add their contacts to ‘Circles’ – essentially categories which allowed them to define their relationships beyond the typical ‘friend’ or ‘follower’ labels of other platforms.

Users could click on their Circles to see posts and updates from only the people in that group (helping to cut out a lot of the random ‘noise’ of social media) and could choose which Circles to post to each time they left an update (giving them more control over the visibility of their content).

The second big feature was Hangouts – a much-hyped text and video chat application which allowed groups to share content and work on documents together within the video party. Hangouts on Air took the concept one stage further, allowing individuals and groups to broadcast live, interactive video presentations out to a public or private audience.

Alienating Users from Google+

Despite these interesting characteristics, Google+ received a fairly lukewarm response. Critics found the service too similar to its competitors, offering no compelling reasons to switch. The public were also less than enthralled – while the service quickly climbed to 25 million users within the first month of launch, those users simply weren’t regularly posting or engaging with the platform at all.

That didn’t stop Google from aggressively pushing the service; they began forcing G+ profiles onto everyone who signed up for an account with them after January 2012, and even made it a requirement in 2013 for users to have a G+ profile in order to sign into YouTube and other popular Google-owned services.

These moves only seemed to turn public apathy for the social network into outright revulsion, and by July 2015, both these requirements had been dropped – prompting speculation that perhaps G+ was on its way out…

Is Google+ Dead?

So, is Google+ still valuable as a marketing tool? That depends on who you ask.

Most people will tell you the platform is dead, and it’s certainly true that the social network simply doesn’t have the kind of active user base that you can expect from its competitors. A study published in April 2015 found that while G+ has 2.2 billion recorded users, less than 1% of them are actively using it.

Compare that to 1.55 billion active users Facebook and 316 million active Twitter users, and it’s clear that G+ has really failed to resonate with the wider public.

However, ask someone who is still using G+, and you’ll probably get a very different answer. The social network attracts a small but devoted audience, who are – generally speaking – more tech and business-minded than your average Facebook or Twitter user.

It’s similar to the kind of user base you’ll find on LinkedIn, so it’s a great place for B2B firms to promote themselves – and since so few businesses are actively utilising the platform, it means you’ll face less competition and you’ll stand out more as a brand.

Will Google pull the plug on G+, as it has done for many other struggling products in the past? Unfortunately for the G+ community, that’s always a possibility, although the company has stated many times that they’re happy with the service and will continue to support it.

Collections and Communities: Powerful Marketing Opportunities

It looks like they’re telling the truth too, as G+ received a drastic makeover in November 2015 – indicating that Google are still investing in the social network and are committed to helping it succeed.

Rather than the Facebook-killer it was launched as, it’s now a platform for sharing interests  – a strategy which brings it more into line with Pinterest. G+ now focuses on ‘Communities’ (where people can discuss their favourite topics together) and ‘Collections’ (a similar feature which focuses less on conversation and more on sharing content around a particular subject or interest, similar to the aforementioned Pinterest).

These two features present some interesting opportunities for marketers, helping them reach and engage with different segments of their audience. As well as joining in with the discussion in existing communities, you can also create your own communities and collections to foster discussion around your brand and products.

As with all social media efforts, you’ll need a human approach. Collections and Communities are not the place to push your sales message or to spam your low-relevancy content. The key to success is to contribute meaningful discussion and focus on bringing value to other users in the group.

Generating interaction and engagement within these groups will help you bring more traffic into your site – and not just directly via the group, either. Since it’s Google we’re talking about here, Google+ has a much greater impact on your SEO than other social networks, and interactions with your profile will help towards boosting your search rankings.

Hangouts on Air and Circles: Untapped Potential?

What other benefits does G+ have for marketers? Let’s return to the original flagship features of the social network which we mentioned previously in the article – Circles and Hangouts.

Standard Hangouts are no longer tied to G+ – they now live on their own subdomain instead. Hangouts on Air are also gone from the new dashboard, but they’re still a part of G+, and they’re still a stand-out feature for promoting your brand.

Of course, other streaming services such as Periscope, Meerkat and the gaming-focused Twitch have risen to popularity since Hangouts launched, but think of the possibilities of live video broadcasting with content sharing and chat options built in. You could hold a Q&A session with your fans, stream a live event such as a product launch or conference, provide a series of interactive how-to guides, or even run an advice ‘clinic’ where users can come to you for help.

As for Circles, they provide the perfect tool (along with Communities and Collections) for researching and targeting each segment of your audience. By checking the stream for a particular Circle, you can see what topics they’re discussing and gauge the kinds of content they’ll want to see.

They’re broadly similar to lists on Twitter – but unlike lists, Circles also let you speak directly to that segment of your audience for free. Whenever you post an update, you can select which of your Circles get to see that update. By combining this powerful segmentation option with tailored content, you can engage more directly with each part of your audience and build closer relationships with your contacts.

You can even email your Circles, as long as the user has set their privacy settings to receive emails. This is a great way to target users who don’t check G+ every day (although you should avoid targeting inactive users – you’ll probably only motivate them to go back to their profile one last time to switch their email settings off).

The bottom line is, using Google+ as your main social marketing channel is a very risky strategy – but if you don’t mind trading less reach for a more engaged audience, and you’re prepared to roll with the punches as Google continues to adjust their social strategy, you can reap the rewards for your business.

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