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Google+ & Social Media: 3 Lessons on How NOT To Launch a Product

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Since 2009, Google’s belied its CEO’s contention that Microsoft (with its Bing search engine) is its biggest competitor. If Google Wave, Google Buzz, and now Google+ are any indication, they are far more concerned with getting ahead of Facebook than anyone else.

Wave was introduced at the Google I/O conference in May 2009, but it didn’t land at most users’ fingertips until the fall of 2009.  February 2010, Google brought out Buzz.  The two represented Google’s largest foray into social media at that time, and also two of their most remarkable failures.  For many companies, failures of this magnitude might be impossible to recover from.  Google announced its intention to can Wave just over a year after its debut at I/O.

But it’s evident that Google learned much from Wave and Buzz, and used what they learned to get Google+ off to a strong start.

So what are some of the things they changed in their approach?

One key thing was Google’s method of getting the word out. With Wave, they moved away from the initially coveted but fairly easy to get Gmail invites. Instead, the company used an odd “nominate someone to get an invitation” system.  A lot of people found this annoying, but not so annoying as finally getting on Wave, and finding that none of their friends were on the system!  Worse, it wasn’t evident exactly what you did with it!  Features were confusing, and not intuitively named:  What’s a wave?  A blip?  Enthusiasm fizzled quickly.

Google tried a different tack with Buzz – one that that landed them in a bit of hot water.  By automatically linking Buzz to users’ Gmail contacts, and making the information easily seen by others, they landed right in the middle of a privacy maelstrom that did a lot to derail the application right from the onset.

Contrast all that with Google Plus. New users, once they received invites, could start following and interacting with a number of tech luminaries such as Mark Zuckerberg (!), Michael Dell, Paul Allen, as well as Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who had gotten early access to the system and were already putting out posts. Invites have been far easier to obtain (more like Gmail) and yet not  everyone has one, which makes it feel a bit “exclusive” which drives up demand as everyone wants want one. Features, such as Streams, Circles, and Hangouts, are much more intuitive, and information on how to use them have been readily accessible.

So what can others take away from this when developing and launching their own products and services or online communities?

1. Don’t rush: Take the time to create user profiles and use cases, and engage user’s for feedback. Rolling your product out in stages, using prototypes and betas with a user base that will provide feedback is one of the best favors you can do yourself. Roll it out and then sit back and learn from your customers.

2. User Adoption / Evangelists: Not everyone can simply reach out to Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page to get them using your system. But what you can do is start capitalizing on the goodwill that you started building up by engaging key folks in your user base, as well as your own employees. An enthusiastic group of developers who want to talk about what they’ve built combined with an able marketing department can create a buzz about a product that’s tough to match.

3. Get the word out: Product Information, How-To Docs, APIs – use social media to engage your prospects and industry thought-leaders to increase your reach and spread the word. Start your documentation as early as possible and involve your marketing department. If you are developing a product that has an API, get that information out to folks in the technical arena. Create a how-to guide, and put it out in as many different formats as possible – PDFs, SlideShare, even YouTube.

Google+ is by no means perfect. There’s been considerable discussion and unhappiness among businesses that had accounts suspended as Google tried to figure out exactly how to launch a business version of the application (which is now available). Strike three? That Google didn’t anticipate or plan for businesses to start using their offering is fairly amazing. Trying to control the Pandora’s box once it’s been opened is an uphill battle. As we’re seeing, it seems that we’ll return to Google’s efforts time and time again.

So as a final thought, consider your entire user base, and make sure there’s something there for everyone. You can roll out new features quickly, but telling people to wait is probably a tactic only Google could get away with – and I’m not sure they really did.

Time will tell.

Photo credit: West McGowan