Google has to provide a "+" to users and provide a completely different experience if it wants to surpass Facebook.
For the past three months, I've been trying to rationalize how Google+ would become a serious threat to Facebook. I've considered the success that Google+ has experienced in the short term, boasting 25 million users before going to beta as well as current reports of its more than 40 million users. But I then thought, that's still a drop in the bucket against Facebook's now 800 million global users. Now, less than 24 hours after the announcement of Google+ Pages, I think if Google is truly going to compete with Facebook, then it needs to act like yesterday never happened and go somewhere Facebook can never go.
Before I delve into the abovementioned, a little history lesson on the search wars between Google and Microsoft is necessary to best illustrate the path I believe Google should take. In the latter part of the last decade, before Bing branding and a Yahoo alliance was forged, Microsoft made a strategic decision to try and move its appeal into a rabbit hole that Google could never go down. The move? Microsoft introduced Cashback, a program designed to reward users for purchasing from Microsoft's search engine by rebating a variable percentage based on the merchant and product being obtained. Microsoft underwrote a substantial amount of the program and ultimately determined it to be an unsustainable model. So while Microsoft was correct that Google would not follow, it was proven wrong in its views on the possibility of marketshare growth from the exercise.
That brings us back to Facebook and Google (and the threat it poses). At this year's f8, Facebook introduced radical advancements in the core wall experience with Timeline, important shifts in the "serendipitous" connects made between users using verbs, and expanded the canvas for advertisers accessible through Sponsored Stories. In these moves, Facebook further aligned its own future success with the advertising community, at least financially. Little has been developed to suggest Facebook is going to suddenly improve as a customer acquisition utility versus the retention and loyalty success Facebook is today. This is where Google has the opportunity to strike.
In its early days, Google intentionally avoided taking advertising on any search results pages, a practice it upheld for several years. The founders believed it inappropriate for the user experience connection they were trying to foster. Now, with an empire that includes leadership or near top of category positioning in search, display, and mobile, one could argue that the presence of brand advertising inside Google+ is equally unnecessary at this time.
While Facebook continues to cozy up to brands and encourage the ability to tell stories to an enormous audience, the proposition from Google+ is clearly different for brands in that their opportunities to target and advertise may come from everywhere but Google+. As a marketer, I crave the ability to engage with consumers in natural conversation, to bring to the dialogue content and relevancy to match their intent - be it for discovery or to reach a destination. But that has never been a prerequisite for Google. In fact, there are many signals that suggest Google would prefer a world less-burdened by advertising obligations.
With yesterday’s announcement of Google+ Pages, it's impossible to now imagine a Google+ without brands. In fact, the starts and stops of user growth on Google+ now suggests that building the platform itself will only get so many to come. Now, Google finds itself needing brands to add consistent and relevant content to drive more widespread adoption.
That said, I believe that a Google+ free of brand advertising inside the platform in exchange for user data usage across all other properties would be a highly valuable transaction for all parties involved. The result - Google gains what drives its engine, user data, and users gain the equivalent of commercial-free programming. Brands are responsible for creating unique content opportunities and sharing environments without directly soliciting inside the space. That would happen elsewhere across the Google network.
If Google+ wants to surpass Facebook and its 500 million daily users, it has to provide a completely different experience. One way to do that would be to amplify the value of consumer control. It would not only distinguish the platform, but it would also put the interjection of Sponsored Stories and Promoted Tweets into conversations on tilt by a Google+ world free from noise that consumers generally wish to avoid while playing up relevancy to match consumer intent, a Google trademark.
Given that Google has gone to market with +Pages, there are two options left. Pretend that Monday never happened and kick brands off. It has already done it once without fatal results, so it's not impossible - yet, certainly unlikely. Or, the other option is to turn +Pages into a non-marketing-specific vehicle. Allowing brands to be creators and curators of content while requiring the connections and investments to stay outside the realm of Google+.
Google has to provide a "+" to users, and brands will do that through content. Creating a world less beholden to brand paid media, in exchange for a data gold mine, might just be the way to attract users and distract Facebook in the battles to come.
Chris Copeland is chief executive officer of GroupM Next.
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