What Google Did Right in Marketing Google Plus

In my field, I’m a late adopter. I only joined Google+ on Wednesday, and I’m still getting my feet under me (please don’t ask me about Hangouts yet). In comparing this social site to Google’s other attempts at social networking, though, I think the search company got it right this time – not just in the way Google+ works, but in the way they’re marketing it.

To be fair, I can’t say that the company took a substantially different approach in marketing Google+ than it’s taken in marketing its other products. And some of the factors I’m thinking of as “marketing” actually pertain more to the nature of the product itself. Even so, I think I can distill some ideas that you might find worth using in your next website marketing campaign.

Let’s start with the product idea itself. From a user’s perspective, it looks as if Google examined what is actually working for people and thought about how to make it better. But they thought very hard about how to make it better. Thus, Google+ looks a lot like Facebook, but functions differently – and better – in some very important ways. It also combines features from other social networks, such as Twitter (you can follow people, for example).

That’s not marketing until you consider the next steps. Google tested the product in-house, and then reached out to early adopters for beta testing. They knew who the early adopters were, because they know who writes about them – and where they stand in Google’s own search results. High-ranking websites carry a certain amount of influence, after all. This is why Search Engine Land has been on Google+ for months.

When you reach out to the bloggers in your field, it’s potentially a double-edged sword. They’ll tell you what you got right, but they’ll also tell you what you got wrong. That’s actually a good thing, especially if they’re willing to get access to your product in exchange for a limited-time non-disclosure agreement. Let them participate in shaping your product, and you know you’ll be serving not just their needs, but the needs of their substantial audience.

Once you do let these early-adopting bloggers start writing about your product, they’re going to generate plenty of buzz within their own audience. This is where Google got something else right, which they’ve done before: rather than immediately opening Google+ to everyone, they gave their early adopters invitations to spread to their friends. Google did that with Gmail, and this immediately created a demand; the very fact that you couldn’t just join the service, but had to receive an invitation, made it special.

This tactic worked with Google Plus, but it wouldn’t have worked as well if there weren’t so many people blogging about it – and blogging positively, almost gushing about the new social site. Indeed, one somewhat meta post from Search Engine Land even talks about how excited everyone is about Google Plus. Who could pass up an invitation to an exclusive club that all of the active members you know about seems to love?

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There’s another good reason to start with the early adopters and let them invite people they know. It means any newcomers to the service automatically have someone they can ask for advice, and know they won’t be alone. That’s important for any social network, but it’s especially important if you want to attract both early adopters and later adopters. I’ve found that if I join a website that contains no one I know, I’m a bit shyer about participating, and I’m less likely to stick around. But Google wants users to hang around for the long haul – just as you no doubt want long-term customers.

Using myself as an example, I didn’t break down and ask one of my friends for a Google+ invite until I learned that three of them had joined. Once I got to Google Plus, I found an interface at least superficially similar to Facebook. But I saw some significant differences, too. And since I already knew three people I could make friends with on the network, I did – and got access to their posts talking about how to use and think about certain features, such as Circles. These people, in turn, knew mutual friends who were even earlier adopters, so I could make friends with them on Google+ and get a taste of the site’s more advanced features. Many of them are actively helping us slowpokes; for instance, Debbie Ohi is holding regular Hangouts for beginners trying to use this feature. And of course, seeing these other people I knew responding to the posts of my original three friends gave me a great chance to start expanding my Circles.

Speaking of Circles, I see them as part marketing move, part feature. One user described them as a “wedding seating chart,” but he’s missing the way they work. You can make as many Circles as you want, and you can put one person into more than one Circle (one of my friends is in three of my circles so far). Even better, Google never exposes the names of your Circles, so nobody will ever find out that you put Aunt Molly in your Family Circle but not your Friends Circle. (Thank you Debbie Ohi and Mark Bernstein!). And you can make posts and items you share specific to particular circles. For example, I know the level of tech experience is, in general, higher in my Filk Circle than my Friends Circle, so when I had a technical question about Google Plus to post, guess where I asked it?

My point is that Google set up Google+ to give users as much leeway about how they use it as possible. Another example of this? You can edit all of your posts and comments. Facebook doesn’t allow that, and it really annoys one of my friends – a college professor who teaches communications to graduate students (and the very same person who gave me my invitation). Whenever you can, don’t lock your customers in to only one way to use your product. Most people need rules of some kind, but beyond a basic structure, let them work out the rest. They’ll appreciate the flexibility.

Above all, you want to keep listening to what your customers want, respond, and make modifications accordingly, even after you’ve opened it up to the public. An early adopter I mentioned above made a suggestion for improving the service, and the Powers That Be at Google+ responded quickly; as it turned out, they were working on adding that very feature. The early adopter made a quick post about it, letting all of her friends know that making these kinds of suggestions isn’t meaningless. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that made ME feel better about belonging to Google Plus. It’s a great way to inspire loyalty.

So let’s sum things up. If you’re marketing a new product or service online, you want to make it look familiar, but be better than what users have seen before in serving their needs. You want to get the early adopters on board for at least four purposes: beta testing so they can give you feedback to make your product better; getting the word out when you’re ready to open up; issuing invitations; and helping the newer members of the community. As mentioned, you want to give the early adopters invitations to pass along to give the product or service a feeling of cachet and exclusivity. And finally, you want to be very responsive to your customers to help improve your product and inspire feelings of loyalty.

It’s a tall order, and much of it is about customer service and product development in addition to marketing. But it looks like a winning formula. It may not work for everyone, but you might consider how you can apply it to your next new product or service online. Good luck!  

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