SXSW: Google Shifts the Goalposts on Google Plus

Digiday is at SXSW giving you the latest industry news out of the festival at Austin, Texas. More from the series →

Digiday is at SXSW. We’ll profile startups that solve real problems for brands, agencies and publishers; report the scuttlebutt outside the convention hall; and shoot video interviews with digital media leaders.  Our coverage is made possible through the sponsorship of Vitrue, the social media management platform.

What About Google Plus?
Unsurprisingly Google has a heavy presence at South by Southwest, with events taking place at various venues. It’s telling that the Internet giant deployed it highest level executive speaking here in a session designed to trumpet (and defend) Google Plus.

Google Plus is something of an enigma. There seems to be a complete disconnect between how Google views Plus (historic success, runaway hit) and the rest of the digital media world (not in Facebook’s league, unpopular). Google exec Vic Gundotra sought to make a forceful case for Google Plus in the face of less than hostile questioning from digital gadfly and man about the Web Guy Kawasaki, an avowed “fanboy” of the service.

Gundotra thinks critics have it all wrong. They see people spending hardly any time directly on Google Plus and judge it a failure. Ah, but they’re missing the point. What matters is these users are in a logged-in state when using other Google services. Rather than a destination, Google Plus is a “social layer” for Google products. In fact, Gundotra described Google Plus not so much as a product but as an enhancement to Google’s core products of search, YouTube and ads.

“You can think of Google Plus as Google 2.0,” he said. “It’s the next generation of Google.”

I’m not sure if everyone is buying what he’s selling. The agency exec next to me whispered to me Gundotra was making excuses for the obvious fact that very few people are enamored by Google Plus services. His definition of success is certainly broad. It seems like people only need to merely brush a Google Plus button to be fans. And that’s the problem. Google Plus hasn’t nudged Google any closer to being central to the social Web experience of people. Gundortra cited worth examples of how advertising and YouTube can be better throught social data. All true. But the problem is people don’t think of Google as a place for socializing. That means Google will need to collect social data through other means.

In the end, this might be the best move. After all, Google has seen any number of foes fail when they’ve tried to “out-Google Google.” Why would Google seek to out-Facebook Facebook?

Rain, Rain, Rain
Yes, it is raining in Austin. And no, many people didn’t prepare for it. On Thursday night, the CVS nearest the Austin Convention Center was out of umbrellas. The clerk behind the counter said all stores in downtown were out of them. There were, of course, some who didn’t think through back-up plans for their events. Microsoft took a bath, literally and figuratively. Its big Bing bash was mostly outdoors and a ghost town. Others were more enterprising. Tumblr and GroupMe had teams handing out branded ponchos.

Agency View: Joe Lozito, svp of technology, Digitas
By and far, my favorite session from day one was “Brands as Patterns”, a panel that featured an interaction designer, a composer, the Global Creative Director of HP, and more. This eclectic group of speakers focused on the importance of storytelling, in that it must be both consistent and dynamic. The big takeaway was that as marketers, we must give our brands their own pattern: something that will still surprise and delight consumers, but also remain distinctive enough for them to remember. HP’s Greg Johnson summed it up best: ‘Digital first brands are designed to be distinctive, relevant and active.

Startup Marketing Watch
One strange feature of SXSW is that so many startups premised on finding innovative ways of people connecting to each other fall back on the most tried-and-true tactics of direct marketing for themselves. Street teams are ubiquitous. And when in doubt, lay on the free booze at a party. Even the most marginal startups seem to have parties. The bets they’re making are enormous. But as one agency exec pointed out to me, they have little choice. If these apps come out of SXSW as The Next Big Thing, they’re set. And besides, he added, it’s just VC money.

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