Editor’s note: In the following guest post, former Google product manager and MyLikes CEO Bindu Reddy has some advice for her former employer on how to kickstart a social network. Reddy’s last guest post looked at the advertising threat Facebook poses to Google.
While there have been a lot of rumors floating around about Google’s social aspirations, including its recent acquisition of Slide and work on Google Me—a purported extension of Google’s profiles that is going to be built on Buzz—there is also quite a bit of skepticism about Google’s ability to succeed in the social networking space.
Most people are focused on Google building a good product. But even a really good product won’t be enough for Google to gain real traction in the social space.
A lot of people underestimate the challenge of being a latecomer to a space like social networking. Social networks are similar to online marketplaces such as auction websites. For those of us who have been around for a few years, there was a time when there were a lot of online auction markets including offerings from Amazon and Yahoo. Only eBay, the leader, survived and stayed No. 1—not because it had the best auction site, but because it was the first one to reach a critical mass of users.
Trying to take on Facebook today is a daunting task even if someone comes up with a great product. There is a really high barrier to switching to a new network along with all your friends.
The only way that Google can hope to gain momentum is if it can gain critical mass rapidly after launch and make the Google network as valuable as the alternatives to a significant pocket of users.
With Buzz, Google took the correct first step and made the uncharacteristic move of exposing Buzz to the firehose of Gmail traffic. However distribution does not necessarily guarantee usage or retention and Buzz seems to have fizzled out after the initial buzz around it died down.
So this time around what can Google do that will help attract and retain millions of users to a social network that is built from scratch? To answer this question, Google needs to look at smaller social apps that seem to be gaining some traction lately.
Following Twitter’s lead to some extent, companies like Ustream, TweetPhoto, TwitPic and DailyBooth have realized that a relatively small set of users are capable of driving massive amounts of repeat traffic and engagement.
Whether it is real-life celebrities like Lady Gaga, who can generate 390,000 visits to a photo on TwitPic with one tweet and the Jonas Brothers, who can generate 2 million views to a stream on Ustream, or online celebrities like iJustine who has more than 90,000 followers on DailyBooth, these start-ups have been able to capitalize on the magic of the one-way folllow.
As few as 5,000 large influencers can bring and retain millions of users with them. All you need to do is to look at the engagement that is generated by the 5.5 million people following Britney Spears on Twitter or the nearly 11 million fans Megan Fox has on Facebook to be convinced.
So here is one way Google could still have a fighting chance: Before launching a new social network, they could actively enlist around 1,000 of the top online celebrities—starting with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber and going down the list. They already have a bunch of them on YouTube. It shouldn’t be too hard with their brand, clout and the resources they can bring to bear given that they have more than $30 billion in cold hard cash. Make it really attractive, fun and easy to use for these users and enable a personal publishing platform for them. Make a great mobile product and do photos, audio and video well. Make it even easier for big influencers to manage and monetize their online social presence, and tie it into Twitter, Facebook and all the rest as much as possible.
Build the iPhone to Twitter’s Blackberry.
Admittedly, signing up Web celebs is just a way to kickstart Google’s social network. Google still needs to do a better job of understanding people and how they relate to one another to keep it going. But enabling this kind of one-to-one communication between influencers and their fans would be a good first step towards creating engagement and it would also bring in a number of aspiring users who hope to be influencers in their niche. The users in the community then would need to take care of the problem of ongoing engagement and critical mass.
And for launch, make an ad much like the Expendables trailer. Only instead of Slyvester Stallone, Bruce Wills, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham and Jet Li, you would have Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Megan Fox, Paris Hilton, Eminem and Fred all telling you why Google Me is the place to be :)
Photo credit: Lady Gaga