Loud and clear, the word on the street is Google+. The new social media platform has already signed up an estimated 20 million users, making it the fastest growing social network ever.
Although it's just been a month since the launch, the opportunities presented by Google+ are exciting a lot of people.
"It's Google. They have the best search engine and analytics and so many other tools. So, you have to think they're going to take the best of social and search and combine them in a way that brands can really take advantage of," said Melissa Simpson, manager of social media for Firehouse Subs.
As the Daily Blog World summarized, the platform has an advantage in joining the social game late: It was built from the ground up specifically as a content sharing platform, taking the best features from Facebook and Twitter and making them better. Some analysts are even predicting Google+ will become just as big, if not bigger, than Facebook.
"Google+ has done an excellent job at doing what both Twitter and Facebook do at the same time. Facebook is great for groups of closer friends when they both accept each other's friend request – it's a two-way relationship. Twitter is a great broadcast tool for celebrities because it's one way. Google+ threads the needle and allows you to manage both one-way and two-way relationships," said Mike Volpe, chief marketing officer of HubSpot, a company that specializes in marketing software, SEO and social media consulting.
Volpe said the ability to conduct both types of relationships is ideal for small businesses so the owner can have an open communication with fans and family members on the same network.
Brand pages are currently in beta phase – with familiar names such as Ford Motor Company and MTV testing the waters – and are predicted to be launched in Q4 2011. In the meantime, restaurant operators are preparing for another layer of social media to navigate.
McDonald's spokesperson Ashlee Yingling said it's too soon to speculate what the QSR giant will do with the new platform, but that it is "evaluating tools to connect with customers."
Simpson also said it's too early to know exactly how Firehouse will use Google+, but added that the company's use is forthcoming.
"I can definitely say that setting up a brand page is something we'll do when the time is right. We have to be where our customers and potential customers are and this is just another space for that," Simpson said.
To evaluate the ins and outs of the platform and its potential use for the brand, Simpson signed up for a personal account, as did much of the Firehouse team.
Tips on how to prepare for another social network
Getting employees to sign up for personal pages is the best strategy companies can take at this early stage, according to David Farkas, a partner with Results Thru Strategy, a restaurant consulting firm.
"We're not sure what the exact timeframe is yet for brands, but since Google doesn't really make any colossal errors, it's worth getting familiar and comfortable with. It's very likely here to stay. I definitely think restaurant operators should do their own investigation and especially get their tech savvy, younger employees to sign up personal pages and give feedback. Use your expeditionary force and see what it's about," he said.
Farkas added that smaller companies should also take a wait-and-see approach while others get involved, and assess the potential of risk from having a presence on the site. For example, will brands be able to easily answer criticism like they can on Facebook? Avoiding such a risk means having the right resources in place.
"Ford and other bigger players have entire social media teams that can answer problems on Facebook right away; they can do damage control in real time. If you're adding Google+ into the mix, you're going to need that same commitment. Customers have legitimate problems and they need to be answered immediately. If you don't have the time or people, it might not be worth it early on," Farkas said.
Simpson admits that adding yet another platform to the already crowded social media space seems daunting for her one-person team, but added the effort will likely be worth it because of the value such sites provide.
"Your customers are out there and they're talking about you. Why wouldn't you join in and see what they're saying? That's huge. It's extremely beneficial for a brand that wants to be better," she said.
Neither Simpson or Farkas expect Google+ to eclipse Facebook's member count any time soon (about 750 million), but they both suggest getting familiar with the new platform and gradually developing a plan that includes both.
"The features on Google+ look very promising from a brand perspective," Simpson said. "But right now, our customers are on Facebook and that's where we are with our limited resources. Eventually we'll be familiar with both and better able to have an overall strategy in place."
Google+ includes features attractive to brands
The biggest draw to Google+ is its potential to leverage every Google property, including Gmail, Maps, Places, Analytics, AdWords and Reader. This should help brands gauge what content is working and what is not.
Because of this entire package, "I expect the things a business can do to be a lot more sophisticated on Google+," said Volpe.
The new site is also able to use Google's search engine domination, eventually putting brand users front and center on millions of browsers numerous times a day.
Google+ includes a handful of features Facebook does not, including "Circles," or groups that can be divided into categories without users' awareness. Circles are basically mini networks within your social network and distribution of content can be chosen specifically for each.
"Customers don't have to come to you and comment on your wall to get feedback," Simpson said. "It's all public and much more open, and I think that means it'll provide much more valuable information for brands."
Also, Google+'s "Hangouts" element offers a way for multiple users to video chat.
Simpson said she especially likes this concept because video interaction with Firehouse's founders (and brothers) Robin and Chris Sorensen is something the company wants to do.
"Hangouts is such a great feature and will provide a way for us to put customers face to face with our executives. Video is so dynamic and there is nothing but opportunity there," she said.
Volpe reiterates such opportunity and finds the potential worth additional resources. That's because HubSpot's research shows that companies that use inbound marketing channels get new customers. For example, as many as 57 percent get new customers from LinkedIn; 48 percent from Facebook; and 42 percent from Twitter.
He even suggests compromising other marketing strategies in favor of social media efforts.
"Resources are always tight, but inbound marketing attracts leads at a 62 percent lower cost, so think about canceling some of your tradeshows or print ads and focusing more on this, including social media," Volpe said. "So far, Google+ has done a lot of things right and I think it will be effective. Companies should be active in all of the places their potential customers are or will be."
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Alicia Kelso has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.