What Google+ Means for Political Advocacy and Campaigning: Initial Thoughts

Updated below.

Google+ went live for the masses today (assuming you got in before the system stopped taking new users), meaning that the search giant has taken another stab at social networking — and at staving off the threat of Facebook. How should political and advocacy communicators approach this new platform?

First, as Steven Levy points out in Wired (via Matt Stempeck), today’s launch is just one piece of a process that will stretch out for months, so we’re only seeing the bones of what should be a much broader set of tools. But what’s out there now is already interesting, and definitely check out Amy Sample Ward’s excellent overview for a glimpse of how it works. Two elements jump out: first, the platform’s integrated ten-person video chat feature (“Hangouts”), which should be extremely useful for volunteer-organizing, for media/blogger calls and for campaigns whose staff is scattered across the country or the world.

Second, in addition to a Facebook-style social newsfeed, Google+ incorporates what it calls Sparks, which are Twitter-ish content streams on a given topic. These may have powerful implications for communicators down the road, since they could become many people’s primary source of news and information. Even in their early stage, Sparks could encourage us to use more video and imagery, since visual-heavy news items will apparently get more prominent play. But think also about the future implications for groups wanting to cut through the information clutter, via Levy’s article:

With its deep resources of information about its users, Google is capable of delivering a comprehensive collection of information, tailored exactly to one’s needs and interests. “It’s the long-term vision that we have for that newsfeed, that stream,” Gundotra says. “We think long-term, four to five years from now, the system should be putting items in there not just from your friends, but things that Google knows you should be seeing.”

That’s power! Just as companies and organizations now work hard to get onto the first page of Google search results, they may soon be fighting to get their content featured in the relevant Sparks (first step: buy cookies for any Google techies you know). Though of course, we’ve been hearing about the “promise” of tailored content for over a decade — back in the late ’90s, for instance, “push” technology was supposed to replace websites with a content stream designed just for you.

So what should political and advocacy communicators do right now? First, if you have time, play with it! Ideas will blossom once people get their hands on Google+’s features and start tinkering with them, and it seems like a no-brainer for organizations to at least try to set up profiles. But is it worth investing serious resources in? First, I’d see how many people actually start using it. A social network is only powerful once it hits a critical mass of members, and Facebook has the immense advantage of inertia — moving your network and photos and videos, etc, from Facebook to Google+ would take a huge amount of work.

Of course, plenty of the tech-centric crew will jump over to Google+, at least to explore it, and it does have the advantage of being interconnected with Gmail and Google’s other offerings, which will put it in front of tens of millions of potential users. But will my high school classmates who’ve already switched from MySpace to Facebook switch again? I don’t think most non-techies are going to want to invest time in two completely different social networks that do most of the same things from a user’s point of view. But of course, time will tell. In any case, Google seems to view the platform as though its future depended on it, meaning that they’ll continue to invest heavily in promoting it and in adding features. I suspect that this is a topic we’ll be visiting again, and soon.

Update: Xavier Lopez-Ayala points out another salient feature via an email, that “the +1 feature will be integrated into Google’s ad experience, allowing for Facebookesque “Like” ads to be run across the Google display and search networks.” Which reminds me, I need to replace that Google Buzz button with a “+1” button on Epolitics.com….


Written by
Colin Delany
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