It’s no secret around the office that I love Google+, and it was with a heavy heart that I recently agreed to hand over our company’s Google+ page to our social media team, since I no longer have time to keep it up on my own. In my opinion, Google+ is genuinely better designed for social engagement, both on a personal and a professional level, so you can imagine how interested I was in yesterday’s announcement of Communities on Google+.
So what are Google Communities? They are essentially Google’s version of Facebook groups, with some notable differences — dare I say, improvements. Here’s the rundown.
Finding and Joining a Google+ Community
Let’s face it, Facebook had a multi-year headstart. Groups had plenty of time to accumulate members gradually, at least, before Facebook decided to redo Groups entirely and deprecate all of the existing ones.
Google+ doesn’t have that kind of time if it wants to stay competitive, so it’s made a smart move with Communities. When you go to the new Communities tab, you will see that it is populated with several Communities that you have the option of joining. A broad range of interests are represented here, from the very popular Running community to the more niche Indie Readers and Writers. As more Communities are being created, new ones are beginning to rotate onto the front page as well.
By featuring these Communities so prominently, Google has put them on the fast track, helping them to accumulate new members very quickly (e.g., at the time of writing, the Photo Community already has 12162 members after only one day). Just pick one you like and click “Join Community” at the top of the page.
If you don’t see what you’re looking for on the front page, you have a couple of options. First, you can try using the search bar to find that obscure Tuvan Throat Singing community. Conspicuously missing is a way to sort and browse communities by category. You really have to know what you’re looking for if it’s not on the first page. I hope that this feature will be added soon.
Creating a Community
If you still can’t find the community you want, it’s easy to create it. Just click on the big red “Create A Community” button and go to town. You will first be asked if you want to make your community public or private — choose carefully, because you cannot change this later. If you make it public, you can still choose to have new users approved by a moderator if you prefer. Private Communities can either be invite-only or request-to-join. Next, you’ll be asked to supply a user photo, name, tagline, description, and location, but much of this is optional. You can easily go from start to finish in just a couple of minutes.
Can Businesses Join?
Yes! I will go further into the impact of Communities on businesses at the end of this post, but the shorter answer is, business pages can and should become involved with Google+ Communities. Pages can even create their own Communities!
Interacting with a Google+ Community
Once you are a member of a Community, you are free to post just about anything! Photos, links, events, videos, you name it. You can even start a hangout with the rest of the Community. Not to sound corny, but my experience with this feature so far really does feel, well, like a community, as content shared by a member of the community is not displayed any differently from content shared by the admin. Communities are going to depend upon enthusiastic members with a penchant for sharing in order to thrive, so let’s hope the fire does not die down too much after the initial excitement over this new feature.
One cool thing about Communities is that the Admins can set up different categories for conversation. By default, everything goes into the “General Discussion” category, but you could, for example, in an Internet marketing Community, have different categories for SEO, PPC, web design, etc.
By default, you will not receive notifications for a Community you belong to, unless it is a notification specifically regarding your own post or comment, or a post you commented on or +1ed (seriously, has anyone figured out a way to write “+1” in the past tense that doesn’t look awkward?). You can change this by going to the Community page and clicking on the bell underneath the Community photo.
(Note: I have not actually seen any effect of having the bell either on or off. Either way, I only receive notifications for my own posts or comments. I will update this post if this changes. Update: I am now getting updates in my stream even if I have notifications turned off, so it looks like they are still tweaking this feature. )
Community posts are noticeably absent from your stream. Personally, it seems cumbersome to either receive all notifications for a Community or have to frequently check its page, so I hope that Google+ will add this feature soon, along with a slider to control the density with which a Community’s posts will show up in your stream.
Leaving a Community
If you decide that a Community is not for you, you can always leave, although the process is not completely intuitive. You’ll need go to the community page and select “Actions,” then select “Leave Community.”
How Communities are Making Good Use of Google+’s Strengths
Google+ may not have the sheer number of users that Facebook has, but it does have a lot of other things going for it, and that smaller user base is arguably more enthusiastic. From it’s early days, Google+ has been celebrated as a great way to meet like-minded people, and may even be used more for this purpose than for keeping up with existing friends and family, so Communities seems like a natural next step. Let’s take a look at what specific strengths of Google+ are really going to help Communities:
Hangouts are one of the most popular features on Google+, even used by those who have never posted a single thing on the platform. The fact that Hangouts do not have to be scheduled or set up by an admin means that any Community member can take the initiative to start one. In a system where the whole purpose is to stimulate dialogue between like-minded individuals, this is an obvious benefit.
Not only can you search for Communities, but content posted within a public Community will also show up in Google+ search results. This is a huge advantage over Facebook’s system, as it makes it far easier to for Communities and interested individuals to find each other.
For example, if a user searches for posts related to their favorite TV show, the search results may also include posts from the Community dedicated to that show. “Gee whiz!” says the user. “An entire community for people who love Vampire Bloggers from Mars! I am so there.” The user joins the Community, and they live happily ever after together.
Events are certainly not unique to Google+ — in fact, they were only added relatively recently and could certainly stand to improve. However, events in Google+ have one major advantage over Facebook: integration with Google Calendar. This combined with the ease of sharing an event with a Community makes it a great feature. I have already seen it being used in Communities to promote interest conferences.
Google+ Communities are not currently available for mobile, but as most features have come to the app pretty quickly after release, I doubt that we will have to wait long. Google+ has a very solid app, and the potential here is considerable. For example, I can easily imagine some kind of feature that would enable Community members to find others nearby with the same interests. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Update 12/14/12: Communities are now available on the updated apps for both iOS and Andriod.
How Business Users Can Make the Most of Google+ Communities
One of the really great things about Google+ is how fluidly most of the features work for both personal accounts and business pages, and Communities are no different. Businesses are free to join and post to Communities, and the potential here is huge.
Reaching Potential Customers
Perhaps the greatest benefit for businesses is to reach the right people very quickly and easily. Obviously, this isn’t going to work as well for all businesses. Plumbers may be out of luck finding the “Help, I need a plumber!” Community. But a restaurant could have great success joining the local foodie Community. If you do not yet have a large following, joining a Community allows you to begin building relationships with an already assembled relevant audience.
Tips for Using Google+ Communities for Your Business
- Don’t be spammy. Remember, these people are not your Page’s followers (yet), and if you want them to be, you’re not going to win them over with excessively frequent or promotional posts. Interact with the Community in the same way a personal member would by sharing meaningful content.
- No really, don’t be spammy. It’s a rule worth repeating.
- Don’t do all the talking. Communities offer a great opportunity for you to learn about your target audience before they know you. Treat this as an investigative opportunity. Find out what your potential customers are really thinking and use that to better craft the content you share from your business page.
- Don’t be too modest either. Of course you should not spam a Community, but there’s no harm in sharing relevant promotional content. Just don’t overdo it.
- Use Events. If you are running a sale or a promotion that would interest a Community, share it with them as an event. Of course, use good judgment here. For example, if you run a trendy clothing boutique but only do business in one city, look for a Community dedicated to fashion lovers in that city rather than posting your event to a national group.
- Join Hangouts. You may already be using Hangouts for your business page (good for you!), but how many are you attending? Join a Hangout in the Community even if you’re not the star — it could give you a great Hangout idea for your own business page that you could promote later as an Event on the Community.
- Create a New Community. If a relevant Community doesn’t already exist. Creating a Community for an interest (or combination of an interest and a location, such as “Atlanta Foodies”) that is not currently represented is a great way to show involvement and reach out to individuals in your target audience.
- Don’t Create a New Community. Contradictory, I know, but the truth is it’s situational. If there is already a community out there relevant to your industry, don’t start a new one just to make your mark. Too many similar communities splinter the interest group, thereby limiting how many members are likely to join your community. You’re better off joining the community that already exists and helping it grow in order to reach more people.
- Don’t Forget Your Followers! Your new Community life may be exciting, but don’t forget about the loyal followers on your business page! Use each to enhance the other. Invite your followers to the Community for another way to interact them, and share content from your Page (when relevant) onto the Community as well. For example, if your yarn store just got a new shipment of some really fabulous alpaca yarn, post that onto the knitting Community. They’ll appreciate the interesting content, and you’ll enjoy extra exposure!
Is That Everything?
Probably not. One of the most exciting things about Google+ is that its users have really taken a hand in its growth, and Communities are not likely to be an exception. People will undoubtedly think of new and surprising ways to use this new feature, and Google is sure to tweak and add to it as well. But for now, if you’ve made it with me through this entire post, you can feel pretty well prepared.
I don’t blame you. Here’s what counts: Google+ Communities are groups of individuals with a common interest which offer your business a tremendous opportunity to reach people in a targeted group. Find a Community, don’t be spammy, and start connecting to new people. And by all means, let me know what you learn.