Google Plus and Social Media: “The Icing on the Marketing Cake

On June 28th 2011, Google launched Google Plus, its social networking site.  Although there was understandable skepticism concerning Google’s attempt at a social network considering its previous two abortive attempts at social networking — Google Buzz in 2010 and Orkut in 2004 (Beer, 2011) — most criticism was swept aside within the first month of launch.  After four weeks, the site reached the critical 25 million user mark, the fastest social media site to do so (Beer, 2011).  In fact, 10 million users flocked to the site in a mere 16 days; it took that social media monolith Facebook 852 days to do that (Beer, 2011).

A large part of Google Plus’s allure among users is its hybridized or more “open” design.  Obviously, it integrates seamlessly with other Google applications such as Google search and gmail.  For example, once one is logged onto their Google account, they can see their Google Plus account on the top right corner of the Google search home page so they can easily check any new notifications, posts, or make posts or share content without having to access the Google Plus homepage directly.  They can also make any necessary changes to their global Google account (such as the privacy settings in their gmail accounts) on the Google search page as well.

Part of Google Plus’s “openness” is its ability for users to link directly to other users’ posts (a feature Facebook currently doesn’t offer), and its Twitter-like keywords which are proceeded with a hashtag.  These Google Plus hashtags don’t just allow people to find content, but to better track people and institutions with similar interests.  In addition to being able to search hashtag subjects, the search results can be filtered for more precise results.  For example, searching the hashtag #libraries with the “everything” filter turns up all the posts, user and company profiles, and video chats on the subject.  You can then make the search results more workable and less overwhelming by filtering simply by “people and pages,” “Google Plus posts” and more.

One of the other draws of Google Plus is its use of circles.  Essentially, circles are clusters of people and institutions that you are following.  What makes them so appealing is that they are exclusive; your posts to one circle will not be shown to another circle.  This goes a long way in solving the problem of “oversharing” on Facebook.

Finally, one of the other key features of Google Plus is video hangouts, which are video chats that can accommodate up to ten people (Dawson, 2011).  Since Google Plus is still less than a year old, the hangout feature has still yet to catch on in a major way in libraries, but there have been some notable hangouts, such as a recent one with comedian Conan O’Brien and some of his fans, which was posted on Youtube.

So this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with libraries?  Well, not quite as much as one might have hoped.  I recently profiled the New York Public Library (NYPL) and found that although there was most definitely activity in its Google Plus account, there was still much room for improvement.

Johannes Neuer, the associate director of marketing at the NYPL, has been overseeing the library’s Google Plus account since he launched it this January.  The account is largely used for three reasons: to highlight the resources of the library, to promote the letter-writing campaign to save the New York Public Library from budget cuts, and to make various announcements about the library’s many functions.

One example of the NYPL’s Google plus account spotlighting the library’s resources is its recent post about flag day, in which it posted a link to its digital archives collection of various images of the American flag.  Followers can simply click on the link and be whisked away to many pages of rare images.

The Google plus posts to help promote the campaign to save the library from the jaws of budget cuts are among the most moving on the library’s Google Plus account.  One such post featured patron Leironica Hawkins’s story about how she used the library for computer access while she was living in a homeless shelter and ultimately was able to have a NYPL librarian help her exhibit selections from her graphic novel which tells her story of living with Asperger’s.

The announcements about the library’s functions are the most variable in terms of content.   For example, the library recently posted that all NYPL branches were officially declared cooling centers by the city.  This is a perfect example of social media functioning as almost an emergency bulletin and making the public aware of public libraries’ ever-changing role.  Neuer explains,

“Usage of libraries is changing.  It’s now becoming almost a community center.  A place where you can work and study.  A place where we have a/c and wifi.  And different constituents can use different aspects of the library to their advantage.”

On the lighter side of these announcement posts was a post about Father’s day (unfortunately this post does not link to a focused catalog list of results of resources on the subject), as well as something as trivial as the first day of summer.  However, at least this post contained a hashtag for summer as well as a link to the New York City summer reading program and a link to the posted image in the NYPL digital gallery.

The positive aspects of Google Plus seem to largely lie in the future, at least according to Neuer.  For example, he says he’s looking forward to utilizing the hangout feature:

“We’re going to explore the hangouts in conjunction perhaps with reading clubs or author readings and bringing in a famous author who doesn’t have to be there but can remote in from his home or the road or anywhere else.  That’s something we’re going to explore.”

Although the library hasn’t yet used the hangout feature publicly with its patrons, Neuer admits he has still found use for it in the library, but not perhaps in the way most would have intended: he uses it for video conferencing with other staff at the library.

“[The hangout] is really cool because you can share documents on the screen, you can work together in the same Google docs.  It’s quite amazing…It’s like a video conference and whoever is speaking will show up in the main screen.  You can bring up slides, you can show your desktop.”

Such functionality conjures up a dazzling array of possibilities for Neuer’s plan of author talks or reading clubs.  Reading clubs could share their fan art or critiques of the books they were reading with Google docs, and authors could let fans into their workspace by showing their computer desktop, their personal notes, and their early drafts of some of their most beloved works in addition to a more traditional lecture.

Although such potential is exciting, Neuer is quick to point out Google Plus’s shortcomings which largely involve its still embryonic stage in the social media sphere.  Because Google Plus only opened its doors to companies and institutions on November 7th of last year with its pages feature (Kain, 2011), only a fraction of the NYPL’s patrons are on Google Plus versus its Facebook page which was initiated in the fall of 2008.  Neuer states the NYPL’s Google Plus account only has 1500 followers versus approximately 55,000 for its Facebook page.

Another disappointing aspect is the sluggishness of the NYPL’s social media followers to take an active role in the library through social media channels.  Citing the letter-writing campaign to save the NYPL libraries, Neuer admits, “social media is not very good at getting people to act on things.  We see that in the advocacy campaign.  A very, very small percentage of letters come from social media.  A much larger part — more than 50% of the letters generated from an online source — come from emails we sent out to people to do something on behalf of the library.”

So what are Neuer’s final thoughts about Google Plus’s shortcomings and strengths in the library and as a library marketing tool?

“I wish there were more people on it (laughs).  And that these people would interact more with our content.  In terms of what [Google Plus] can do, I think it’s great.  I think it has all the things a social network needs to have.  It has huge potential for marketers, but if there’s nobody to market to, it’s unfortunately not very useful.  [Ultimately] social media is the icing on the marketing cake.”

References:

Beer, J. (2011, September). Google versus Facebook. Canadian Business, 84(14), 19-21.

Dawson, R. (2011, October). Google + and why you need to jump on the bandwagon now: ‘I need another social media distraction like I need a hole in the head!’. EventDV, 24(8), 28-33. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA269690457&v=2.1&u=lom_waynesu&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w

Kain, E.  (2011).  Forbes Blog.   Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/11/07/google-launches-google-pages-links-search-and-social-networking/

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