Beyond Google+: From circles to social cartography

One of the most fascinating aspects about the launch of Google+ is the way it reframes how we, as individuals, interact with our communities. As Brian Solis so rightly points out, the initial Facebook model of creating a single social graph of up to 5000 friends must now be compared to a series of what Google+ calls ‘circles’ that expand and contract as we pass through various life stages, jobs, relationships and experiences in our lives.

This contrast is very instructive as to the future, and is particularly important for brands trying to engage with their customer communities. By now, most brands have overcome their reticence to participate in social media, and have exhausted their knee-jerk reaction to buy their way to a sizable social footprint comparable to their competitors. But brands now face more complex challenges.

The framing of how we relate to each other within and across social media platforms will continue to become more sophisticated and nuanced in their expression of how we structure our relationships in our real world lives. Whether or not users have the time or patience to build out their contacts lists into ‘circles’ or any other format is yet to be seen, but this does change the fact that brands must make sense of these dynamics if they are to engage and expand their customer base online. Ultimately, it’s possible that social media platforms will be designed as templates that the users themselves customize in terms of the best way to express their community and experience of life, and brands will have to simply follow suit.

What this means for marketing is significant. It is already challenging to engage and maintain the interest of your customers in real time across multiple platforms, especially as many brands are still fighting the inertia that inevitably comes with hierarchical corporate structures that were designed with control in mind and therefore don’t lend themselves to real time engagement. But now, as the social business marketplace becomes increasingly fragmented into media specific, micro-communities (for example Path or Instagram), brands face the prospect of reaching an increasingly fractured audiences engaged in multiple conversations within different communities in real time.

Perhaps the most effective way to describe the approach a brand must take is to think of themselves as social cartographers. By that I mean that brands must simultaneously inspire, engage and maintain a series of conversations taking place within certain cultural landscape specific to their business goal. To achieve this brands must define the agenda for the map in terms of their business strategy, identify characteristics of the cultural landscape relevant to the map’s purpose and then simplify execution by eliminating elements that are not.

With map in hand, a brand must then engage in a series of targeted conversations that each achieve sufficient resonance that they intersect and amplify each other to create broad based cultural impact. If one was to create a metaphor for what an effective campaign might look like based on Google+ circles, you can imagine what rain looks like on a pond of water. Each drop creates its own circle of impact and ripple effect, and each of those circles impact each other, creating movement on the surface of the water.

It’s hard to know how long it will be before a new social media platform gains sufficient adoption to reframe how we relate online. And it’s still uncertain as to whether Google+ will reach this threshold. But as the half-life of technology shrinks, the distance between the way brands traditionally use advertising and how their customers like to relate to each other, is growing larger every day. As such, brands need to fully engage with social media, both internally and externally. That way they can play an active role in shaping the way conversations are framed and maintain their real-time share of voice giving them some sense of control in a fast-changing business marketplace.

What’s your image of the future of social networking? Do you prefer the approach taken by Facebook or Google+?