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Let's Get Ready to Rumble: Facebook versus Google+ in the Battle for Social Media Hearts and Minds

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As is all too often the case, the hype was greatly disproportionate to the fight itself. When the first whispers that Google would finally bring to market a challenger brave enough to take on the undisputed social media heavyweight champion that is Facebook (in the blue corner?), the bookies, spectators and expert pundits readied themselves (and anyone who would listen), for the fight of the century. It was a fight waiting to happen, and there were no end of promoters hoping to speed its arrival, as undoubtedly, there was money to be made. Except Google, the challenger, was shrewd and measured and wouldn't be drawn into a fight before it was ready.

Indeed, even when Google decided the time was right, it didn't exactly waltz into the arena accompanied by cheers and a fan fare. It was decidedly low key - nonchalant even, and many spectators will have missed the event entirely. However, the bout has begun and the first blows have been thrown.

Watching the first few rounds, whilst both Facebook and Google+ have been fair, measured and by all appearances, strict subscribers to the Queensbury rules, they each have their distinct approach and a keen observer might glean some insight into their long term strategy. Like heavyweight battles of the past such as Mac versus PC, the early rounds in this bout for the hearts and minds of the social media audience show two very distinct corners.

Not conned by Google's lacklustre entry and prepared for battle, the announcements by Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook F8 conference with regard to the latest evolution of Facebook functionality were an ode to tactility; a touchy-feely appeal to the heart strings.

Aware, no doubt that Google+ was an opponent not to be underestimated, Facebook had already prepared a response to the initial salvos, and at the F8 conference in September, Zuckerberg landed a couple of impressive blows. In advance of the conference, observers noted a number of technical twitches from Facebook as it readied the platform for change. However, whilst there were expectations and analysis drawn about what these changes might be, when announced, if not quite the knock-out blow, Facebook landed some pretty significant shots and upped the ante in the contest.

The most significant development was the announcement that users' feeds would be replaced with timelines; a chronological story or scrapbook of that users' life. Whilst on paper, this may just sound like an aesthetic change, the punch packed far more weight when its impact on brands or marketers is considered. Not only does the scrapbook give users the opportunity to share more about themselves (one of, if not the the key driver in any social channel), but it sent a message to brands and marketers that they needed to better integrate themselves within a user's life.

The ripples of these announcements went further afield and for those working in digital PR or at social media agencies, involved in the provision of social services for brand clients, there was a very real requirement to interpret, analyse and provide intelligence and consultancy on exactly how campaigns should be tailored to the new Facebook functionality. As a PR agency, it was imperative to get under the skin - to the very core tactical implications of the announcement, rather than report what appeared on the service to be predominantly aesthetic changes.

Allied to this seemingly tactile aesthetic element, was another equally weighty development, namely that users would no longer have to "like" a page (or brand page) to access and integrate with its content. Furthermore, with the introduction of the Facebook ticker (for content deemed less than crucially relevant) and prominence given to content delivered through developed or third-party applications (or Facebook partners), the message on the surface was that Facebook wanted to offer its millions of users a much more personalised and tailored service.

However, the underlying message to brands, marketers and commercial interests was clear: invest in developing apps and be relevant and your messages will be given prominence / don't play along, and thanks to our various algorithms, your content will be seen by an ever shrinking audience.

For the casual observer, the announcements at the F8 conference were a massive hug for the consumer, but in reality, this was a heavyweight punch and one that sent a clear message to brands and marketers, whom it should be remembered, Facebook needs to convince in its battle with Google+.

So, how would Google+ court the all important brands and marketers? Well, it's approach was more cerebral than heart warming, making the most of solid analytical foundations (and given the requirement to court brands and marketers, the failure of Facebook to deliver the level of analytics and reporting that should only be expected when operating at such a significant commercial level, is without question a serious hammer blow - and one that Google could, and surely will, launch at any point).

As a result, its army of influencers (smaller in number than Facebook of course) tend to different requirements. Comprising a much higher percentage or ratio of tech savvy, early adopters, digital enthusiasts and developers, the Google+ audience (so far) is much more difficult to impress, but once impressed, is likely to be a much stronger supporter.

From a functionality perspective, Google has of course been able to study where its opponent has failed to deliver, and develop the means to do so itself. Certainly, the launch of functionality such as hangouts, gives the impression of a tactile, cuddly, consumer offering, but the strong analytical foundations and make-up of the audience should assuage the judges that Google+ is making a very clear statement to brands, marketers and professionals.

So, the contest continues and an audience of spectators and observers await the next instalment. It's been a battle of hearts versus minds, of popularity versus analytics. Facebook may just have edged the first couple of rounds, buoyed by its overwhelming support in the auditorium, but there is a long way to go and Google may just have weapons in its armoury to sneak the contest on points at the end.

For more information on integrated social media, PR and SEO agency, Punch Communications, visit http://www.punchcomms.com or follow, fan and circle at www.twitter.com/punchcomms, www.facebook.com/punchcommunications and www.gPlusNick.com/punchcomms.

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