What Local Marketers Can Learn From the Trials of Google Plus

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With Google’s recent announcement that Google Plus will be decoupled from YouTube and other services, industry watchers are predicting that this may be the beginning of the end for the social network. Whether the service is dissolved altogether (a rumor which co-founder Larry Page recently tried to tamp down) or simply modified, the decision reflects an acknowledgement that the service is not meeting the high expectations the search giant set for itself.

Whatever the result, it is an opportunity to look at what went wrong, and what lessons a local marketer can learn from the social network’s challenges.

Don’t Try to Be Everything to Everyone
Google Plus suffered in part because it was late to the game. Coming on the scene in 2011, it was arriving five years after Twitter and seven years after Facebook. But its real problem was that when it did get here, it wasn’t clear that it was offering much new.

Instagram was launched just a few months before Google Plus and had no trouble catching on, thanks in part to the fact that its heavy focus on visuals over text was something social media users were hungering for. The same could not be said for Google Plus, which presented a number of innovations, such as organizing connections into Circles, but it was hard to summarize what set it apart from the social networks users had already joined.

“Google Plus seems to want to be a little bit of everything,” says Annabel Jones, a digital communications specialist for data marketing firm Method Savvy. “It offers the basic components of a social networking site — profile photo, About section, background photo, previous work and school history, interests, places lived, and ability to post status updates — with few features that differentiate it enough from the rest of the social media herd to be of value for users to visit the network daily.”

The lesson for local marketers is that they need to offer a clear, simple value differentiation from others in their segment. Especially if you or your clients are the new kid in town, it is essential to show why prospective customers should care about what you have to offer, especially if they feel their needs are already being met.

Bigger Isn’t Always Better
When word got out that Google was introducing a “Facebook killer,” most expected a social media force to be reckoned with. But the size and dominance of the tech giant actually worked against it. Unlike other social media startups that had to attract people to join, Google came in with a built-in audience, requiring YouTube visitors or Maps users to create an account in order to interact with the services. But as U2 found when its album appeared unrequested on iPhones everywhere last fall, consumers will sometimes rebel when they feel pushed into something —especially by a behemoth brand.

For local marketers, this reflects the benefits of starting small, but also the potential for attracting enthusiasts who might be turned off, or taken for granted, by the biggest brands.

Google’s size also may have played a role in the service’s slow response time to small businesses proved slow going as well.

“Getting a business verified on Google Plus has taken weeks, in a world where people now demand instant gratification,” says Sharon Geltner, a business analyst for the Small Business Development Center at Palm Beach State College. “I’ve heard Google is speeding that up, especially if owners apply in person when a Google rep happens to be at a conference, but the process continues to be slow and confusing.”

Geltner adds that because Google determines page rankings so crucial to small businesses, it still has the potential to attract significant enterprise customers, but only if it can make itself easy to work with. That may mean not just moving more quickly in its responses, but offering traditional channels like 800-numbers or dedicated email addresses where small business owners can connect. This more conservative approach may seem old fashioned to a future-focused brand like Google, but many small businesses are just that.

This is a valuable lesson for marketers working with locally focused businesses: as tech-savvy as you might be, also consider more traditional marketing channels, and be sure you are being responsive to your prospective customers. Sometimes, a limited, more focused approach can have big advantages.

Know When It’s Time to Reposition
The decoupling of Google Plus reflects that the brand is scaling back its hopes for creating one identity across all its services. But while that ambition may have fallen short, there is still much about the effort that can be repurposed or repositioned. Its interest-based communities who used the service to share information and news has continued to be one of the services strongest offerings, and this has been followed in the Google Collections feature, while its well-received photo storage offering has been moved to the new Google Photos app.

This is a lesson local marketers can take to heart. If at first you don’t succeed, take the best of what didn’t work and turn it into something better.

Alex Palmer is a freelance writer covering business, travel, and culture. Follow him @theAlexPalmer.