Brands have been clamoring to get on the social media bandwagon. They are, by and large, still lagging behind, still misunderstanding why their conversation partners (not just customers, but also potential employees, ‘brand ambassadors’, etc.) actually engage with them – and today’s launch of Google+ pages has the potential to leave slow brands, as well as ordinary social marketing experts, even further in the dust.Google+

The stand-out feature that makes me think so is the inclusion of video hangouts, along with circles, also on the Pages.

After all, it does not simply provide a way to get in touch, it opens a potential direct link between company representatives and users, fans, apologetics, distractors… us people outside here with an interest in a brand.

The potential, both to get people more involved, and to royally piss them off, is enormous – and there is at least one clear line between the two: get into the circles of conversation partners, but refuse to take part in the conversation, and you breed dissatisfaction.

The surefire way to do that would be to continue to see social media marketing as just that, another set of channels to get out the marketing message. Especially if the messages there should be provided by outside “experts,” no matter how well crafted they are, they will probably fall on the same deaf ears as outsourced social media experts themselves (have to) have to what’s being said about the brand. (Just look at the reaction of brands to their being mentioned on a blog, or tagged in a Facebook comment…)

Not engaging is becoming impossible, though, or you give tacit agreement to whatever is being said about your brand.

So, the two other ways of social media conversation will become even stronger:

For one, brands and companies have to present themselves as consisting of people, making their own employees a part of the conversation – because there can’t be another voice that really represents the company. “Social” is something you are, not something you do. Circles may well come to include that of the actual employees.

Secondly, brands will need to be social also in showing that they care about people beyond them being their customers and sources of profit. A hired outside marketer cannot do that as well as someone who is truly a part of the company, even now when many of the social media interactions are nothing more than customer service inquiries.

Engaging with your constituents may be easier than ever before – but it will also be easier for them to find out if the persons meant to do so are really enthusiastic about a product, really a part of the company they represent, or merely hired guns whose allegiance is with the highest bidder.

Of course, one way around that could be to just continue to hide. Many CEOs apparently don’t see the value in engagement in social media even now, and may do so even less as more and more opportunities for interaction arise. That just leaves the field open for those who are critical of corporations – and as we have been seeing with #occupy protests, there are not so few of those around.

Once again, the big and diversified corporations one can hardly avoid may have little to fear, as much as they should be brought down in power given that initiatives towards social and ecological responsibility usually still are just afterthoughts in their strategies, at best.
The small and nimble start-ups which are local (or localizing) and led by people who grew up with social media and are excited about what they are doing may well stand to profit, even – and especially if local economies become more important and necessary, given social desires and ecological limits – against the behemoths which still have economies of  scale on their side when it comes to production, but may just be losing them when it comes to the conversation among people.

Marketing still seems to seduce well, but who do you trust more – the corporate face out to make yet more profit for the shareholders, the campaigns that are well-made, but entirely convincing only for those weak of mind or the engaged representative who shows that companies are by people and for people, that they use their own products and live the lifestyle they proclaim as better?

They may come to a Google+ hangout right before you, soon…