In its relatively brief history, Google+ has rolled out more new features faster than any other social network. Many are small changes; some are game changing (one word: Hangouts). But few have had the potential impact for businesses that the latest update promises. Google+ now has a groups feature called Communities.
And here’s some really great news: Communities are wide open to brand pages.
If you closely follow Google+, that last sentence has some shock value. Brand pages have been the stepchild of Google+. Typically new features are rolled out first to personal profiles, and pages only get them weeks, or even months later. Not so with Communities. Brand pages can use Communities exactly like persons. And that’s why they may be the best thing that ever happened to your brand on Google+ (next to Hangouts On Air, of course!).
What Are Google+ Communities?
On Google+ a Community is a group gathered around a topic. Any individual or page can create a Community. There are four types of Communities available:
- Public – membership open to all.
- Public – membership upon acceptance by owners or moderators.
- Private – able to be found in searches for Communities.
- Private – hidden from searches for Communities.
All private Communities are membership by invitation only. Posts in Public communities can be indexed by Google search, just like public “regular” Google+ posts.
What can you do in a Community? Much of what you can do in “regular” Google+. The only difference is that all the activity takes place within the community, rather than out on Circle streams. Inside a Community you can write posts; share links, photos, and videos; even create Community-only Events or Hangouts. There are only two things from Communities that are visible outside a public Community: All your public Community posts can be seen by anyone on your profile, and they also show up in the streams of anyone who has you circled who also is a member of the same Community. So members can monitor Community activity from their regular Google+ streams as well as from inside the Community itself.
Before we get into some strategies for using Communities for business marketing, let’s cover how you create a Community.
How to Create a Google Plus Community
First decide if you want the Community to be associated with your personal profile or your brand page. Then go to either your profile or page and click the Communities tab in the left nav bar, then click the “Create a Community” button at upper right.
Next choose whether you want your Community to be public or private. Remember that only posts in public Communities will be indexed for Google search. Warning: you cannot change the public/private status of your Community after you’ve created it! Fill in the name of your Community.
Under the public choice is a drop down to choose between open or moderator-approved membership. The corresponding menu under the private choice lets you choose whether or not your group will be discoverable in Google+’s Community search.
Next you can fill in the details of your Community that will be visible to members. Add an attractive image that instantly communicates visually what your community is about. Use the tagline to make it crystal clear what people can expect from your Community.
One feature that Google+ Communities has over Facebook Groups is the ability to create sub-topics similar to most Internet forums. These help segment posts within the Community so people can access what interests them most. Pro Tip: I’ve seen a number of communities change the name of the top-most sub-topic to something like “Choose a topic.” That’s really smart, because in a Community posting box, only the first category shows by default. When a poster clicks on that category a listing of all the other sub-topics drops down. So calling your first sub-topic “Choose a topic” prompts posters to do just that. Brilliant!
After you’ve saved the basic setup of your Community, explore the Actions menu in the left sidebar. There you can invite new members, share the Community (to your Circles), edit the Community (name, photo, description, etc.), manage the members list, leave the Community, or report abuse. Also use the little bell icon there to choose whether or not you want to get notifications of Community activity. (Note: owners and moderators will still get membership request notifications even if you turn this switch to off.)
One of the best things you can do with the Edit Community function in the Actions menu is to add sub-topics. Sub-topics allow community members to organize their posts and shares to make it easier for others to find the most relevant content, just like in a regular web forum. The sub-topics you set here will show up in a menu when people share a post to your community. Pro Tip: Peter G. McDermott, creator of the Community Moderators community (one you should definitely join!), brilliantly named his first sub-topic “Select a Topic.” As only the first sub-topic name shows in the posting box (until the user clicks the drop-down arrow), this helps prompt posters to select a sub-topic and keep the community’s board neat and organized.
You can get help with your Community by adding other moderators. It’s probably a good idea to ask someone before adding them as a mod. To add a moderator, go to the members list by clicking the number of members under the Community’s avatar image. In the list of members, click the little triangle at the right of any member’s name. Not only can you promote to moderator from that menu, but that’s also where you remove or ban a member. A removed member can rejoin (or apply to rejoin) the community, but a banned member can never return unless you unban him or her. Large communities have been targets for spammers, so having a good team of moderators who can help quickly remove spam posts can really help keep your community valuable.
Using Communities to Advance Your Brand
Communities are immediately useful to brands for at least two reasons:
- They give brands a way to reach out to new audiences on Google+, something severely limited until now (because brand pages couldn’t circle or message people until they were first circled by them).
- They give brands new ability to segment and target their messages topically to people already engaged in those topics.
So how should Communities fit into your marketing strategy on Google”?
Connect via Communities
As mentioned previously, Communities open a door for brand pages that was previously shut tight. Until now brand pages had very few ways to reach out and build a following. To prevent spamming, Google+ restricted pages from following regular users until those users had first circled the page. But now brand pages can both create their own Communities and participate in other Communities, just like a personal profile.
Creating a community around a topic relevant to your business and of interest to your customers and prospects can be a great way to attract new people and expose them to your business, people who might not otherwise have found you on Google+. That’s because you can invite anyone you want, and your community can be found in both Google+ search (which now has a special filter to show just Communities in the results) and regular Google search.
We’re now a few weeks into the Communities feature, and I’ve been monitoring a number of Communities to see which ones seem to be succeeding and why. Plus I have experience from owning or moderating some of the most active communities on Google+. Here are some tips gained from that experience to help you build and grow a useful community:
- Choose a clear, on-topic name. You might be tempted to get cute or creative with the name for your Community, but you need to give priority to what people will be searching for and what your Community is about. You Community’s name will be its main keyword for search. And in many situations, it will be the only thing someone can see about the Community before they click through to have a look. So be sure it communicates immediately what someone should expect from your Community.
- Tightly focus your Community topic. In the first few days after the introduction of Communities on Google+, there was a land rush for top-level Community topics. Everyone and his sister Kate seemed to want to have the “ultimate” photography or sports or marketing or technology community. The vast majority of those have already died, mostly getting lost among all the other “me too” communities of the same name. But even some of those who “succeeded” by quickly attracting huge followings have become victims of their own success. They are riddled with spam and off-topic posts because they are too large to be efficiently moderated. Better to come up with a niche that will have a better chance of coming up high in Google+ searches and have a smaller but more fruitfully-engaged membership. People shopping for Communities to join are now spending more time looking at the posting history first.
- Create a Community Guidelines post. Even though you can’t (yet) make any posts “sticky” in your Communities, it’s still good to have a post that states the purpose, rules, and guidelines for posting in your Community. Save the URL of that post somewhere handy and have your moderators share it in a comment on the first post from any new members. You’ll also have it on hand, then, to bring up if necessary when confronting any unruly members.
- Be ruthless with spammers. As I noted above, some of the early big Communities already have bad reputations as being riddled with spam. Unfortunate for them, but it makes the well-run Communities really stand out. No one can be on their Community around the clock, so one of the first things you should do is recruit some reliable moderators. Find people who seem to be as passionate about your topic as you are, so they are invested in the quality of the community. At this stage moderators have few powers compared to those on traditional web forums, but they can take action against spammy or inappropriate posts. Have a private discussion (maybe a Hangout) where you train your moderators on how to handle such posts. Actions can range from a warning in a comment to removing a post to removing the member to banning the member. In my opinion, while you don’t want “trigger happy” moderators, it is better for your Community to err on the side of deleting a few “iffy” posts than risking people checking out your Community seeing junk.
- Stimulate the conversation. People will share and engage more with a Community that is active. Plus more active Communities stay at the top of the Communities tabs for people who belong to many. Create posts that invite comments, such as questions, polls, requests for opinions. Make sure you and your moderators let no member post go by without at least one comment.
- Show off your expertise. I’ve found that Communities are a great place to “show off” what I know, the kind of knowledge and application that makes people want to hire me or my company when they need real help. Encourage people to ask for help or ask questions (be sure to have an “Ask Your Question” or “Get Help Here” sub-category), and then plunge in to provide answers or point to resources. Your goal should be for people to want to point their friends to your Community as the “go to” place to learn about your topic area.
But creating Communities isn’t the only way to use this feature to reach out to new people. Join and interact with other good Communities relevant to your Brand Page…because you can, as your Brand Page. Of course, since you are representing your brand and are obviously a commercial interest, you’ll need to go out of your way to be a good citizen in those Communities. Don’t go there to sell your product of service, but to contribute and be helpful to the members. Depend upon the good will generated to bring members from those Communities over to your Communities, Brand Page, and web site.