As a speaker at an ACI conference recently put it: “Google plus is like Blackpool. It’s one of those places that everyone knows about but nobody wants to go to” … or do they?  Last year we did an in-depth analysis of the then brand-new social network to find out what airlines were doing and later developed an infographic to showcase the results.

A year on, following a request from one of our clients, we decided to take a fresh look at this network to see how it had evolved. What we found was a rather confusing mix of abandoned pages, recycled Facebook posts and a few surprisingly active and thriving brands. To make sense of it all, we’ll start by taking a brief look at the fundamental issues behind the Google Plus criticisms. 

Criticism, controversies and confusion

Since its creation, Google Plus has been the subject of countless debates over its future, effectiveness and adoption by users. Critics tend to argue that the social network simply arrived too late and does not have the critical mass to become a real alternative to Facebook. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that it offers much better features such as Hangouts and that its growth has been faster than that of any other social network. (It is worth mentioning that this is also because Gmail users automatically get G+ accounts.)

The first surprise

When we started our analysis, in the mist of all of the debate, we fully expected to see a “reduced enthusiasm” by airlines for this social network especially by airlines with smaller marketing budgets and more “traditional” carriers who would prefer using tried and tested social networks like Facebook. What we did not expect to see, however, was a complete abandonment of the social network by major brands like Virgin Atlantic and Frontier Airlines, especially given their reputation for being social-savvy organizations. 

An even greater surprise was seeing that last year’s second most popular airline on Google Plus, JetBlue, had completely abandoned this platform and stopped posting on the 3rd of October 2012. 

Overall, it was clear that airlines’ interest for the social network had decreased considerably, and we quickly noticed that most companies were not actually developing dedicated Google Plus content but preferred to re-post content developed for Facebook. 

The flip side, an even greater surprise

Having found such a barren and devastated landscape, we were certainly not expecting to find any brands that were actually doing well. However, we did find that, by some indicators at least, some brands had  twice as many supporters on Google Plus than they had on Facebook. 

To better understand how this was possible, we must first clarify  how we measured this: on Google Plus users can choose to show their support for a brand by either giving the page a +1 or adding it to their circles. These two concepts are very similar to the like and subscribe options available on Facebook but usage numbers are inverted, on Facebook very few users subscribe to pages and most use the “like” option while on Google Plus most users choose to subscribe to their page by adding it to their circles. 

When looking at the total number of users who had liked/subscribed or +1ed/circled a specific brand we quickly realized that, although the vast majority of airline brands were not doing well, some of them were actually very “successful”. In the case of British Airways, for example, the airline has approximately 600,000 fans on Facebook but a staggering 1.5 million (three times that number) on Google Plus. The same holds true for American Airlines with 500,000 on its main Facebook page and over 1 million on the corresponding Google Plus page. 

Somewhat more “expectedly”, other airlines, like KLM, showed the opposite pattern with 2.8 million on Facebook and only 1.2 on Google Plus. 

Little interaction

While looking for an explanation behind these different “success” rates, we dug a little deeper into the way airlines were interacting with followers. What we found was, at least in part, another surprise. It turned out that regardless of the number of followers/+1ers the page had, interactions were very scarce with just a few occasional comments. 

The airlines’ habit of posting the same content on both Facebook and Google Plus also made it easier for us to get clearer comparisons and allowed us to uncover some staggering differences between the two networks. For example, at the time of writing, on two identical posts made by American Airlines on Facebook and G+, the number of likes was 20 times higher on the Facebook and the number of shares 135 times greater

Confused Souls

Overall, it became clear that most brands were unsure of what to do with this platform and many were, at least for now, treating it with caution, keeping dedicated efforts to a minimum and mostly re-using content developed for other networks. 

On a lighter note, we also found some airlines who had gone beyond the confused stage and taken the “it’s just like Facebook” concept a bit too far. The prize in this category goes to Air Europa who, in its About section, greets G+ users by saying “welcome to Air Europa’s Facebook page”. 

Perspective

Looking at the developments of this social network and, indeed, the data available, one could easily conclude that there is probably very little left to do on this platform and perhaps it’s not worth any further effort. Or, at least, this seems to be the conclusion that has been reached by the airlines that have decided to abandon this platform. 

However, looking at the issue from a different perspective, it is also possible to envisage a future where brands and marketers realize that perhaps Google Plus was never meant to be a social network like Facebook but rather a social layer whose end game is creating a social search experience.  When looked at from this perspective, +1s, circles, shares and interactions could all become elements that play an important role in future SEO and any effort made now could be seen as an investment for the future. 

Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing which of these two options will prove to be correct. But we do believe there’s a good chance that Google Plus will still surprise us in the future. 

NOTE:

When we started our analysis, the “+1” counter on the profile page showed the total number of people who had +1ed and added the page to circles. However, by the time we started writing the article (a day later), the counter only showed the number of +1s. Given that adding a page to circles is a much more common option, for some pages this meant a decline in apparent “+1″ counts of up to 98%.

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