5 Product Marketing Lessons from the Google+ Pivot

Google is typically held up as a best in class example for everything from development to culture to product marketing, but even they slip up from time to time.product marketing lessons from the google plus pivot

Recent news surrounding their social network Google+ reveals that when they don’t get it right Google isn’t afraid to change. This most recent pivot contains important lessons for product marketing, if we can get past the endless speculation about the network’s fate.

Background on Google+ Developments

During its recent I/O developer conference, Google made a lot of announcements about its future plans. Among them were carefully worded changes to our old friend Google+, whose fate has been the subject of many a blog post, tweet, and status update.

Amidst the ongoing speculation that Google’s social network is dead, dying, reviving, or revolting came an interview with its current leader Bradley Horowitz, in which he talks about the history and future of Google+.

For those of us in product marketing, it’s this historical perspective that’s worth a second look, regardless of what ultimately becomes of Plus.

Lessons from Google are almost always valuable, and it’s rare that we can see how they adapt to failure (or middling success) to pivot a product.

Product Marketing Lesson #1: Not Even Google Can Force Feed the Internet

When it first launched, Google Plus was the darling of Google, and every single product they made integrated with it. This initial attempt to cram the infant social network down users’ throats created early negative associations that still resonate years later.

Remember when you had to create a Google+ account in order to setup a new Gmail account? That was just one of many early marketing missteps that the usually savvy Google team indulged in.

David Gerwitz recalls on ZDNet, “When I bought my first Android phone and took a few pictures (thankfully of a local building and nothing more… sensitive) I was appalled that those pictures showed up on my Google+ feed.”

He goes on to compare Google+ to Windows 8, calling both “an attempt to get unwilling users to jump onto a bandwagon by forcing them onto it, whether they wanted to be there or not.”

It’s easy to see how folks would have expected this to work. They’re Google, after all, and if anybody can not-so-subtly coerce the population of the internet to do something it would be them.

The lesson, however, is that nobody, not even Google, can coerce people’s online behavior. This is doubly true when it comes to something that’s perceived as a deeply personal choice like social networks.

Product Marketing Lesson #2: Don’t Sacrifice Successful Products

However confident you may be in a new product, don’t center your marketing efforts on forcing people who like your existing product to adopt it. You risk both products if you do.

Google, for example, changed their search results to favor things that people in your Circles had +1’ed (that phrase is a whole different marketing problem), along with demanding Google+ sign ups for Gmail and Hangouts users.

For a company built on the reputation of its search capabilities, this change could have been disastrous.

Fortunately for Google (and those of us who like accurate search results), there wasn’t lasting damage to their search credibility.

Product Marketing Lesson #3: Listen to Customers. Always.

The problem with Google Plus is that it was driven by what Google wants, not by what we want.

Bradley Horowitz, Google’s head of Streams, Photos, and Hangouts, recently discussed the changes that are coming to Google+, and how they stem from input from their users. It’s full of fascinating snippets, which we’ll go into at length momentarily.

But the lesson for product marketers is that our users will tell us how they want to use our product. We can listen early, or we can ignore them and pay the price.

Google+ was so focused on disrupting Facebook’s dominance of the social network space that they ignored initial feedback from early adopters about how they’d like Google+ to function.

Now Horowitz is indicating that they’re pivoting based almost entirely on this feedback loop (and presumably in response to stagnant growth numbers).

Great product marketing lessons from the Horowitz interview:

  • As opposed to sticking to strategies of years ago, we’re actually adapting to how the product is successful in market and doubling-down on that.
  • We have been less than clear about who that product is good for and who that product is for and what it’s good for. I think you’re seeing us crisp that up and actually have a much better articulated value proposition so that that becomes very evident to users: what, when, and why to use this product.
  • we’re looking at what the users are telling us Google Plus is good for, and doubling down on those uses…It’s the first in a series of pivots. We’re also moving aside the things that either belong as independent products, like photos, or eliminating things that we think aren’t working.
  • It’s fair to say you’re about to see a huge shift in what Plus is becoming. It’s a shift in response to what users are telling us. That’s a very healthy and natural thing.

Part of this process for Google is launching a new feature in Google+: Collections.

This will allow users to follow only a particular segment of the content someone creates, so you can get my updates about agile marketing without needing to see pictures of my sister’s wedding.

These kinds of options are what Google says its users want, and if that’s the case they’re wise to heed them.

Product Marketing Lesson #4: If They Love It, Set It Free

Although Google+ has experienced at best mixed success in its four year life span, there were components of the initial product that proved to be valuable. As their benefit became more apparent, Google moved to spin them off as stand alone products, allowing users to access them independent of the Google+ network.

The first such satellite feature was Hangouts, a chat/video/conferencing tool that was untethered from Plus in March, 2015.

In the past few weeks Google Photos has also separated from the mother network, allowing non-Google+ users to store, edit, search, and share photos with the powerful tool.

Both of these spin offs show a wise willingness to let product success drive product marketing strategy.

It was no doubt tempting to keep Hangouts and Photos sequestered within Google+, holding them hostage for users of the social network only.

But by letting the value of these products dictate their fate and pulling them into the larger Google family of products, Google is getting additional value out of the Google+ product launch, regardless of whether that product itself ultimately delivers on its original goals.

Product Marketing Lesson #5: Control the Conversation About Your Product

Google+ representatives have been insisting for years that the network is neither dead nor dying, but the protestations have always seemed a bit hollow.

You really shouldn’t have to tell people that you’re alive, after all.

But despite this ongoing difficulty, the product marketers for Google+ have begun to try and take charge of the conversation about their product by making their first foray into Twitter.

Although the Twitter handle was claimed back in 2011 when Google+ first launched, it’s been silent ever since. On May 1, however, the silence was broken with this tweet:

google plus first tweet

You can see from the retweets and shares in this screenshot that there was a rush to engage the new account, and from there the conversation could begin to change from “Is Google+ dead yet?” to “Did you see what Google+ tweeted today?”

It was a smart move, and one that product marketers with a beleaguered product could learn from.

As the dashing Mr. Draper once said, “If you don’t like what people are saying, change the conversation.”

The location of the conversation remains slightly problematic in this case, however, as Google+ needs to take to a separate social network to assure the world of its vitality.

Still, six weeks after its first tweet Google+ has nearly 24,000 followers, so there seems to be some interest in what they have to say.

Success or Failure, Product Marketers Can Learn From Google

Whatever you’re struggling with in your product marketing efforts, it’s nice to know that you’ve got company in Google+.

If even those folks can stumble and make valiant attempts at recovery with the whole world watching, those of us with smaller budgets and smaller stakes can do the same.

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.




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