Ironically, if you type the words “Is Google+” into Google itself, this is what you get…

Is Google+ dead?

The ravens have been circling around the embattled social media platform for a while now. And yet there remains a small band of avid Google+ advocates who still sing its praises. So who is right? And is there any point in making the leap into the realms of Google+ if you haven’t already?

Why the grave predictions?
Since it launched in June 2011, Google+ has struggled to really gain a foothold in the competitive social media landscape. While the network boasts about 2.2 billion member profiles, the stats on ‘active’ users are a little shady. That’s because many of the people who hold a Google+ account do so as a result of being shoehorned into signing up for it to use other Google services.
Google+ active users

Blogger Kevin Anderson created this chart based on data compiled by researcher Edward Morbis (Jan 2015).

Once you strip out the puffery, Google+’s active user base clearly pales in comparison to Facebook’s 1.44 billion and Twitter’s 300 million active users (as at April 2015). Add to its poor user engagement profile the fact that Google+ has already had three leaders in its short history, and announcements back in March that users will no longer need to log into Google+ to access Photos and Streams, and you have an environment that is ripe for speculation about its demise.

Industry commentators put Google+’s failure to thrive down to a number of factors. Some say it has tried to be too many things to too many people, and failed to properly carve out a niche for itself. There is also the argument that its interface is just too complicated. (Even true Google+ evangelists acknowledge that there’s a steep learning curve to be overcome for the uninitiated.) There are also those who believe that Google shot itself in the foot by requiring users of other Google products such as Gmail and YouTube to sign up, and making them sign on using their real names (though this requirement was abandoned in mid 2014). Underpinning all of these objections is a general consumer sentiment of suspicion about how Google will ultimately use all the data it has access to through Google+.

Google, of course, denies that Google+ is the ‘Walking Dead’ (as TechCrunch declared back in April when Google+ head Vic Gundotra announced his departure). And despite all the naysayers, Google+ still has a fervent core of supporters who agree that there’s still plenty of life in the not-very-old dog yet. Among these are a host of brands – predominantly in the tech, auto and fashion industries – that have established vibrant communities on Google+.

What’s in it for brands?
Whether Google+ will continue on as a social network is a matter of conjecture, but there is little doubt that its most popular features – including Photos, Hangouts and Communities – will continue to exist in some form. Here’s a closer look at some of the features that have driven Google+ take-up to date, and how brands can leverage them.

Although Instagram dominates the photo-sharing corner of social media, Google+’s photo service has been hailed as one of its best-kept secrets. Among its selling points are a tonne of storage room and super user-friendly tools for editing and sharing photos. One of its editing functions allows you to combine the best features of a number of photos to create the perfect photo (a handy tool for group photos where there is always guaranteed to be someone blinking or looking like they’re about to speak). There’s also a tool that can stitch together a number of photos to create a moving GIF.

Who’s doing it well?

Google+ Page:
Followers: 5.6m
BMW has no shortage of head-turning images of its cars, which it uses to excellent effect on its Google+ page. Albums include concept cars, new launches, BMW classic models and events, interspersed with the occasional video. All capture the high-end, aspirational quality of the brand.
BMW on Google+

Hangouts are essentially video chat rooms for up to 10 people that allow live interaction and cross-posting to YouTube and Google Communities. They can be used for meetings, product demonstrations, panel discussions, podcasts, behind the scenes tours, product launches, customer service and announcements. Hangouts can be opened to any of your Circles, offered to specific recipients via email, or left public. Participants just need to have a webcam, microphone and a Google+ profile. While only 10 people can actually participate in a video Hangout, many more can view the proceedings. Hangouts also allow messages to be sent in a group discussion for up to 150 people. Shoppable Hangouts also enable brands to sell products during a live video broadcast.

Who is doing it well?

President Barack Obama
Google+ Page:
Followers: 5.5m
In 2013, President Obama made history when he used a Google+ Hangout to host a town-hall-style question and answer forum with nine geographically dispersed Americans. Thousands of people had submitted questions to ask the President. In his second ‘Fireside Hangout’ in 2014, people were invited to record a 60-second video with a question, and post it to YouTube or Google with the hashtag #AskObama2014. Viewers were then able to vote on the questions using the Google+ Q&A application, and the President answered the most popular ones. The second Presidential Hangout was aired live on YouTube on 28 January 2014.
Obama Google Hangout

Communities bring together people with a common interest, so they can provide a great medium for reaching potential customers. Google+ Communities are similar to Facebook and LinkedIn groups, with the one main difference being that you can join and create Communities as a brand. When you create a community with your Google+ brand page, the Community is featured on your page’s Posts and About tabs. Some Communities are invite-only, but the majority of them are public. If you find a Community that aligns with your brand, it can be valuable to spend some time contributing to the Community and building a rapport with members. If you have a niche that is not really covered by a Community but you think there might be a market for it, think about creating your own.

Who is doing it well?

Google+ Page:
Followers: 1.4m
Landing page optimisation company Unbounce saw a gap in the Google+ Community landscape for a conversion optimisation themed Community so it created its own, Conversion Heroes. The Community was initially set up on Triberr but Unbounce decided to migrate it over to Google+. Part of the reason Conversion Heroes has been successful is that Unbounce manages it in such a way that it is genuinely helpful to people, rather than using it as a platform to simply promote its software. Members of Conversion Heroes were also appointed as moderators, giving them a sense of ownership of the Community.
Conversion Heroes

Google Maps
Although Google Maps is not a Google+ product, Google+ page managers have the capacity to connect their page with their local business listing on Google Maps. This allows you to link your Google+ Page with your business on the map, display information including your address, business hours and customer reviews, and create virtual tours. This is especially useful for businesses like restaurants and tourist destinations.

Who’s doing it well?

Google+ Page:
Followers: 2.1m
Destinology, a UK luxury holiday provider, linked its Google+ page up with Google Maps to introduce virtual tours of some of the hotels they offer accommodation in, allowing users to actually explore the hotel from anywhere in the world. The collaboration with Google Maps also allowed the brand to introduce ‘local recommendations’ for users. Relevant tourist businesses now appear on the map and can be reviewed by readers, or acknowledged with a ‘+1’.
Destinology Google Maps

A new feature of Google+, introduced in May 2015, is Collections. These serve as an easy way for users to store photos, articles to read and any other items of interest. This means that brands now have the ability to create topic-based feeds for users to follow. (To do this previously, brands would have had to create separate Google+ Pages for each topic.) For example, a media organisation would have the capacity to create separate streams for different categories of news. Collections can be shared publicly, privately or with a specific set of Google+ users. Posts within Collections that users follow will appear in their home feed on Google+.

Is it worth it for my brand?
With the continuing decline of organic reach on Facebook, there’s an argument that it’s worth reconsidering Google+ as a content distribution platform if your brand is not on it already. However, like any decision regarding social media, it’s a matter of horses for courses. There’s no point investing your time and resources into a medium that’s a ghost town for your prospective customers. That said, some of the vital stats you should know are that over 70 percent of Google+ users are men, with most aged between 25 and 40. The network is also heavily skewed towards tech industries with the top occupations being (in order) Engineers, Developers, Software Engineers, Teachers and Web Developers. There are also some specific niches that do well on Google+ including photographers (largely due to the platform’s excellent photo service) and writers.

The bottom line is that if you have a product aimed at tech-savvy males, you’d be mad not to give Google+ a go (especially if your target market includes the US, which accounts for over half of Google+’s user base). For other industries, a little more research may be required to determine whether it’s worthwhile. A good way to get a sense of whether your target demographic is active on Google+ is to sign up and see whether there are active Communities relevant to your market. Then, of course, it’s down to testing and refinement to see what works.

The issue of whether it’s worth investing in Google+ when a question mark hangs over its future is a matter of weighing up the potential value of the investment. There is no question that many brands still see it as a worthwhile part of their marketing mix. With 92 percent of the Interbrand 100 (a list of the top global brands) having a presence on Google+ in 2015, it certainly hasn’t been banished to the realms of obscurity just yet.

Even if the various elements of Google+ are broken down into separate applications (as some are predicting), it is probably not going to disappear altogether. So your efforts are unlikely to be in vain. And at the end of the day, it simply makes sense to align with the world’s most powerful search engine. (Although Google has denied that Google+ posts are afforded favourable treatment in search rankings, it appears they are at least more likely to rank higher in search results for those within the account holder’s Circles). As Scott Monty, EVP of strategy at Shift Communications and Ford’s former social media guru, told, “Regardless of the direction that Google takes it, I still think there’s something smart about associating your brand – particularly at a local level – with everything Google offers.”

Visit the Google+ Brand Page to get started on Google+.