Is Google+ good for businesses?

Kevin Partner examines the effectiveness of social networking campaigns on Google's social network

Kevin Partner
21 Aug 2012

You're all familiar with marketing and PR guff that carries a whiff of the barnyard, but I came across an absolute cracker recently that, like Alice’s rabbit hole, became deeper and weirder the more I looked into it. But first, a little background.

I’ve been researching Google+, since it shows no sign of going away and, indeed, is becoming progressively deeper embedded in everything Google does. I’d waded in when it first launched, created a profile, and listened to the hollow sound of my posts echoing in empty cyberspace. I mistakenly regarded it as a Facebook clone, but couldn’t find any advantage that might persuade family and friends to move across, so I stopped using it and turned back to Facebook and Twitter.

I appreciate that linking social media views to real sales is hard, but surely there must be a way to find out how effective a Google+ campaign is?

As months passed, I began to feel I’d missed the point – and I was right. It was reading Guy Kawasaki’s ebook What The Plus! that made the penny drop. Google+ differs from Facebook in that anyone can read your status updates. All they need do is add you to one of their Circles – lists of people they’re following similar to Twitter’s – and your updates will appear on their Google+ stream. On the other hand, Google+ is more like Facebook in that such updates persist and can be commented upon.

For example, recently PC Pro's David Bayon tweeted about pirated TV programmes and several other PC Pro contributors – including myself, editor Barry Collins, Jon Honeyball and Paul Ockenden – waded in with different viewpoints. The problem was we needed to include all Twitter usernames in our replies, and so ended up with very few characters left to make our points (I know we could have used hashtags, but they present their own challenge). Also, keeping up with the debate required us to stay on Twitter in real-time.

If we’d had that discussion on Google+ we could have made our points at leisure and at far greater length. The end results would have remained in our streams and other people could have contributed, making it a far more social network. Since I’ve grasped how Circles work, Google+ has become my favourite social network, because it lets me control what I see to such a fine degree. Its userbase is still predominantly techies, business people and self-promoters, but there are signs of it attaining wider appeal.

One such sign involves chocolate: believe it or not, Cadbury has more Google+ followers than any other brand in Europe. Google's AdWords Agency Blog reports that an astonishing 1.2 million users have added the formerly British chocolate maker to their circles. It also claims that Google+ forms a core component of its online marketing strategy and that Cadbury has seen improved AdWords performance as a result.

Okay, 1.2 million followers: wow – it sounds impressive, but remember that the ultimate purpose of a marketing campaign is to generate sales, not followers. Followers don’t all turn into customers, the same mistake made by businesses that use Twitter and Facebook (and, indeed, by online shop owners who obsess over visitor numbers). Firms such as Cadbury hire a social media manager to increase their number of followers: a good manager will achieve just that, because it’s their only measure of success. However, if those followers don’t become customers, it’s a wasted effort.

Cadbury may have seen a 17% increase in its AdWords clickthrough rate, but CTR is just another vanity metric, a more dangerous one still since you can’t assume increased CTR resulted in a single extra sale. I’ve been caught out by this myself: adding the word "free" to any ad practically guarantees increased response, but those extra clicks (for which you’re paying) are unlikely to become sales. The oddest thing about the Cadbury case study is that although it gives solid examples of how it increased followers (Hangouts with Olympic athletes being one), its figures don’t add up. They suggest that adding the Google+ badge to the homepage brought in 10,000 new followers per day (although the rest of the sentence reveals this is only a 10% improvement), but this makes no sense given that the same widget included Facebook and Twitter buttons, but Cadbury's follower count on both remains much smaller. Puzzling.

In an attempt to make such figures meaningful, analysts measure "engagement", so that at least they know how many users have been exposed to the brand. Cadbury achieved an average of 34.5 comments per post, which may sound a lot but it means that only one in every 35,000 followers "engaged" with each post. One rung further down the engagement ladder, only one in 17,000 actually clicked the +1 button on an average post. Overall, the 500 or so posts have been shared a total of 11,000 times, so the majority of those 1.2 million followers never engage with Cadbury in any meaningful way, and it's easy enough to see why this might be. Go to the Cadbury UK Google+ page, hover over the panel on the right that says "…have them in their Circles" and click View All. How many of the first 50 who are listed could become Cadbury customers, based on geographical location and an active profile? Not one.

I'll admit that's a small sample, but it's at least random and it genuinely surprised me. I have no idea how or why such people added Cadbury to their circles; however, they're not going to be buying Dairy Milk from their local shop any time soon. This Google Agency blog post was interesting (and in itself raised Cadbury's brand awareness among a small chocolate-eating audience), but it does nothing to dispel dangerous illusions about follower numbers rather than sales.

I appreciate that linking social media views to real sales is hard (one reason I suggest that online businesses place their primary marketing effort elsewhere), but surely there must be a way to find out how effective a Google+ campaign is? How about a downloadable 10p discount coupon for your next Wispa purchase available only to Google+ followers? At least that would show whether the campaign was having an impact. Turnover is the only number that really matters in a marketing campaign – or rather, it should be.

I'm currently trying out Google+ for certain topics that interest me, and hope to extend the experiment to generating actual sales. If it works, you'll be among the first to know.

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