Or, it could just be a mistake that Google will eventually “fix” once they iron out a few things with a new feature they just rolled out.
Let’s hope not.
What I Saw
If you haven’t yet tried it yet, Google+ (pronounced “Google Plus”) is a worthy competitor to Facebook and Twitter. This post will make more sense to those of you who are already on it, but I’ve tried my best to ensure it’s underlying points are understandable even if you aren’t.
Yesterday afternoon, I was doing a little experimenting with the Google+ page, a new feature intended for products, brands, companies, organizations, and other things that aren’t actual people like you and me. To get some firsthand experience, I created a simple page for Alchemy of Change on Google+.
After doing that, the first thing I did was walk over to my wife CJ’s computer and add the Alchemy of Change page to her circles (“circling” someone on Google+ is like “following” them on Twitter or “friending” them on Facebook). And yes, I am aware of the irony of doing this without first getting her permission, given the topic. Oops.
Then, I circled the page as myself, using my Gideon Rosenblatt profile on Google+. So, now there were two people who had Alchemy of Change in their circles on Google+:
Next, while logged into my Alchemy of Change page, I circled my personal page and CJ’s back, so that the Alchemy of Change page looked like this:
Where things got interesting is when I tried circling a friend, Steve Andersen, while logged in as my “Alchemy of Change” page. This is routine stuff when you’re logged in as an individual person on Google+. However, when you’re logged in as a page representing a product, brand, or organization, Google won’t let you proactively circle someone. This is what you see when you try:
If you’re having trouble reading that, it reads: “Steve Andersen needs to add you to a circle before you can add back.“
What This Means
In other words, as a company, brand, or product, I can only circle people on Google+ with their permission, which they give by circling me first.
Just to be clear, this is different from the way things work on Twitter and Facebook. On Twitter, companies, brands and products can have their own accounts that follow pretty much whomever they want. On Facebook, products, companies and other types of organizations can have pages (like this one for Groundwire, the organization I used to run). While people can “like” those pages, the pages can’t “friend” or “like” people in return.
Here we have Google, making a pretty explicit decision to allow companies to “follow back” their fans – but only with permission. I predict Facebook will eventually follow them on this.
Permission to Listen, Sir?
So, why is this important? Why would companies like Salesforce, Amazon and Zappos want to “circle” people on Google+? Well, for one thing, it gives them an aggregate view of all the content their “fans” are posting on Google+. In other words, circling back people on Google+ helps page owners do the single most important thing in marketing: listen to customers.
And by the way, these aren’t just any customers. These are customers who care enough about these organizations, products and services to actually follow them on Google+. Seriously, think about that. How often do you follow companies, organizations or products on social networks? My guess is, probably not all that often, and when you do it’s usually because it’s a company or product you identify with much more deeply than others.
If you’re a marketer, information about these deeply engaged customers this is absolutely critical. “Following” is the second stage in an engagement pyramid. These are the people most frequently talking about what your organization is doing, about its offerings, its brand, what its work means to the world. These are the folks out there doing what I call “third-order engagement” – that is, customers actually participating in engaging other customers in your work.
In short, these are people you need to keep track of, and Google just quietly rolled out a very interesting way of doing this on Google+.
Sure that’s interesting, but Amazon already has more than 16,000 people who have circled its Google+ page. You’d think all those public posts streaming in from 16,000 fans would become overwhelming, right? But here’s where the Google+ architecture really starts to shine through. You see, Google+ allows you to organize the people in your circles by various attributes. In my personal account, for example, I have circles for “friends” and “family” as well as a bunch of other circles for topics like the Occupy Movement, technology, social entrepreneurship and so on.
As a company, I can start to organize my connections with people on Google+ based on a variety of factors and use that to track what I send to and receive from them. A “team members” circle, for example, would make it easy for me to aggregate all the things my employees, and even external partners, are sharing on Google+ in one easy stream.
One of the other interesting features of Google+ circles is that you can use them to limit who sees particular posts on your Google+ page. If I had some special offers that I only want to extend to my VIP customers on Google+, I’d simply share them to that circle and no one else would see them.
When you set up a page on Google+, it suggests the following default circles:
These four categories are just suggestions. You can easily change them to better match the way your organization thinks about its customers, employees, partners and other people connected with its work. This has some integrating implications and possibilities for connecting this information with organization’s relationship management database – but more about that later.
Permission to Share Friends, Sir?
One of the interesting things about social networks like Facebook and Twitter is seeing which friends you share with other people. Google+ is no different in this regard and this works when you’re logged in as a company or product on a Google+ page. For example, while I was logged in as the Alchemy of Change page, this is what I saw when I clicked on the “Gideon Rosenblatt” profile:
But when I’m logged in again as Gideon Rosenblatt, and look at CJ’s profile, what I can’t currently see is the fact that both she and I have circled the Alchemy of Change page.
Strange. Sure, a page isn’t a person, so technically speaking it wouldn’t fit under “people in common.” But, Facebook lets me see which of my friends like particular pages, and that’s actually useful information to me – especially when I share their interests.
The Future of Listening with Google+ Pages
The Google+ platform is evolving quickly, and I get the feeling that there’s still lots about Google+ pages that’s still very much a work in progress. So, here are a few ideas about how Google+ might evolve in the coming years.
On the listening to people front, right now, when you’re logged in as a page, there are no notifications when someone else shares your page or mentions it on Google+. As an individual, you get notifications of these things through a little icon like this in the upper-right corner of your screen:
My guess is that Google will eventually roll out some sort of notification system for pages, and that it will probably be a good deal more sophisticated than what individual users now have. There is money to be made here for Google, and where there is potential for money, there will be investment.
Don’t forget – Google is a master of content analysis. One of the main reasons Google got into the social network business in the first place is the competitive threat that people’s content sharing on Facebook represented to Google’s core search business. Just take a look at Google Analytics, their first-rate web statistics management service, and now imagine something similar eventually emerging for Google+ page owners.
The Future of Sharing Friends via Google+ Pages
Facebook understands the value of letting me see which pages my friends like. Google is not stupid. My guess is that they are working on a different take to this, and they just aren’t quite ready to take the wraps off.
So here’s an idea for where this might go in the future on Google+. When it comes to knowing about my friends’ shared interest in a company’s products and services, there’s lots of really deep information that would be valuable for my friends and I to share. This goes beyond just knowing they like a page. This is the notion of “Friend Discovery” that I’ve written about over the course of a few articles earlier this year. Here’s a quick taste:
Let’s say I’m thinking about upgrading to the latest iPhone. In the morning, I go to the upgrade page on the Apple website and am automatically presented with a list of my friends who have already purchased the new phone. I can even filter the list to narrow it down to just those friends who upgraded from the same the phone I have. I pop a quick message to a couple of those friends whose technical opinions I trust most, and after a few back and forth messages, I’m convinced. That afternoon, I place my order for my new phone.
So what if I could also easily see these kinds of deeper shared interests with my friends right on Google+?
Connecting Google+ to Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
Friend Discovery is an interesting idea, a really big idea, that has yet to be implemented by companies because it requires a fairly deep level of integration between the “social graph” (our map of friends and other connections on social networks) and companies’ Customer Relationship Management (CRM) databases.
Similarly, to keep track of all that listening to customers are posting and tracking on Google+, you also need Google+ to play nicely with corporate CRM systems.
Google+ and Salesforce+
While there are lots of CRM solutions out there, my guess is that the first one to do deeper integration with Google+ will be Salesforce.
Some have argued that Salesforce and Google are on a competitive course because Salesforce’s Chatter service overlaps with some of the collaboration functionality in Google+ and Google Apps. Sure, there is some overlap there, particularly in the small business sector, but I think that’s missing the bigger picture.
First of all, there are going to be all kinds of ways that people within firms will need to collaborate with one another. The tools we use to do that will need to inter-operate. That’s just today’s reality.
Salesforce’s Chatter is important for collaboration because it allows employees to collaborate with the extremely valuable information already stored in the core CRM database. As I’ve argued before:
“The systems we use to manage our relationships eventually transform into the systems we use to collaborate with those relationships.”
Chatter will continue to be an important tool for encouraging collaboration between employees for firms that already use Salesforce as a CRM. That’s not Google’s core competency. When it comes to collaborating with customers though, you need to go to where they are managing their relationships, and they’re not doing that on Chatter. They’re doing it on social networks like Facebook, Twitter and now, Google+. There will be room for both collaboration tools, and in fact, these tools will become even more valuable to customers when they play nicely with one another. That’s what customers will demand: both corporate customers and their customers – people like you and me.
The second reason I see real promise for Google+ and Salesforce integration is that both these companies understand the importance of enabling programatic interaction with their services through API’s. The Salesforce API is amazingly flexible. Google just recently unveiled the API set for Google+, and it will no doubt become very robust over time. If these two companies find the will, they certainly have the way.
Finally, Google and Salesforce seem to be a on pretty good terms. Their leaders like each other (some day, when you have an hour to blow, watch this great conversation between Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and Google’s Eric Schmidt – it’s long, but very interesting). There’s mutual respect there between the companies – and, in the end, that matters a lot.
Why This Matters
We live in a time when companies need to develop a new kind of relationship with their customers, employees, partners and other critical stakeholders. The lines that separate the firm from its surrounding environment need to become much more permeable than in the past. One of the ways that happens is through better connection technologies like what I’m describing here.
At a deeper level though, what we’re really talking about is helping organizations to do a better job of listening to stakeholders and understanding their needs – and that’s the essence of marketing.
What I like about the approach that Google is taking with Google+ so far is that it seems to embrace the principles of permission marketing. It’s not just about listening – it’s about listening and serving from a position of real respect for the actual people behind our customers, employees, and partners. This has some of the hallmarks of what I’m beginning to call the “soulful company.”
I guess it’s what you’d expect from a company that bills itself as following the motto “don’t be evil.”
Let’s hope they keep it that way.