3 Minutes: It Does Matter

One of the surprising responses to my "Fixing the Google+ Engagement Problem" slides from yesterday was the still strong reaction to using ComScore's finding that, on average people spend just 3 minutes a month on Google+.

The responses ranged from "let's just move on" to "it's not apples to apple" to those numbers aren't accurate.

The numbers are accurate, or at least they're accurate enough. If they weren't, Google would have clearly and irrefutably shown how they were wrong. They did not. There are probably nits you can make with ComScore's methodology, but it's not going to be off the orders of magnitude needed to make 3 minutes closer to 7 hours, which was the amount of time people spend on Facebook.

The point of this post is to address the "it's not apples to apples" issue. First, let's be even more clear about the difference in the density of the Facebook and Google+ social graphs - even clearer than I was in my slides yesterday. That's the attached slide. Here's the way to read it: 10% of Facebook users have less than 10 friends, whereas 40% of Google+ users have less than 10 people circling them.

I'm grateful to +Johan Horak for pointing me to these very valuable +CircleCount statistics for the Google+ numbers:

Here is where I got the comparable Facebook numbers:

A few people have noted that it's not apples to apples to compare the two networks because Facebook is over 8 years old, while Google+ is less than a year old.

I'm sure there is some truth to the idea, and I'm willing to bet that the average number of friends on Facebook has grown in recent years as the service has become more mainstream and as it has loosened the requirement that connections need to be bilateral (i.e. I must agree that you are my friend). But that average friend number hasn't grown nearly as much as you might think.

Even in its early years, network density - as measured by the average number of friends was much higher on Facebook than it currently is on Google+.

Why? Because of the rollout strategy that Facebook followed. By keeping the service initially exclusive, and focused on just the Ivy League schools in the US, Facebook was able to give its early adopters the impression that everyone who mattered to them was already on Facebook.

Don't believe me? Then just look at this very detailed study of Facebook adoption at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from the fall of 2005 - less than a year after the rollout of Facebook. 85% of the incoming freshman that year had Facebook accounts and that number expanded to 94% by the end of the first semester.

And as for the typical size of each persons's social graph:
The average number of friends a freshman on the Facebook had on day one was 46, and at the end of the semester, he or she had 111 friends.

More: ➜ http://ibiblio.org/fred/facebook/stutzman_fbook.pdf

The whole point here is that the very reason Facebook succeeded is because its users were able to jump on and very quickly have a great experience connecting with people they already had a lot in common with (the same school). This was there from the get-go, built right into the very structure of the service.

It didn't come about gradually over time, like some of us keeping thinking might eventually happen with Google+ with enough time.

No. That success was designed into the service and into the rollout strategy of Facebook. And that is very different from simply throwing the doors open to the world and saying "here you go - have at it". Yes, there was an initial, closed period here on G+, but honestly, the Facebook rollout much more socially savvy.

Here's what I'm not saying - I'm not saying that Google has that same option today. In fact, that was the whole point of the slides yesterday. It's in a completely different situation now. And Google needs a different strategy if it is going to build the same kinds of engagement that came so relatively easy to Facebook 8 years ago.

When new users come to Google+ and have a hard time breaking past 50 followers, and those 50 followers are themselves wondering about the value of shifting their energies here, it's hard to justify putting a lot of energy into the network. That is a real barrier - especially when compared to Facebook where those same few people are likely to already be friends, with whom they share much in common.

We need to face this reality head on. Facebook didn't grow to its current dominance by eventually becoming addictive. It started out addictive, by being really smart about how to quickly build dense, distributed connections and lots and lots of engagement around them.

I'm assuming that Google is well aware of this, and I'm hoping they are hard at work at this same goal, but just with a different set of strategies that we just can't quite see yet.

I really, really hope Google succeeds. I've invested deeply here. I really like this network more than the other ones. But there is no manifest destiny at work here. Understanding the problem correctly is the first step to building the right strategy, and if I were Google right now I would be deeply focused on building a more distributed and dense network for rich engagement - and I would do that by focusing like crazy on helping to connect people with shared interests.
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