What Kind of Market Dominance Does Facebook Have?

Google+ May be too Late to Compete.

The latest in a series of articles about the poor performance of Google+ raised two big questions for me this week: First, just what kind of dominance does Facebook have in the social marketplace? And, second, what does that mean for agency public affairs staffers?

The article, from Fast Company, details a study by analytics firm RJ Metrics, which found Google+ users really aren’t being very social.

“The average post on Google+ has less than one +1 [Google’s version of Facebook’s “like”], less than one reply, and less than one re-share,” the study found. Even more striking, “roughly 30 percent of users who make a public post never make a second one.”

Google told Fast Company the study was flawed because it only evaluated a random sampling of public posts, not private posts within circles, which the analysts did not have access to.

There’s undoubtedly some validity to that argument, but it’s difficult to conclude Google+ is healthy. (To take an extremely limited sample of private posts, my own Google+ stream has been the sole domain of just one especially stubborn friend since Jan. 30).

This follows a February study, reported in the Wall Street Journal, which found the average Google+ user was spending just a few minutes on the site each month compared to six or seven hours for the average Facebook user. It also follows a March tell-all from the former engineering director over the Google+ APIs and tool chain, who described the search giant’s failure in social media as a single-minded obsession of its leaders that had overwhelmed the company’s famously free-spirited culture.

It would be silly to expect Google+ to compete with Facebook right away, but it’s worth wondering whether it will ever be able to compete at all.

In other words, is Facebook’s dominance in the social market like Amtrak’s dominance over the U.S. rail market -- your friends and family are the train tracks and it would take too much time and money for a competitor to lay similar tracks?

Or is it like Google’s dominance over the U.S. search market -- palpable and established, but there’s no economic reason it couldn’t be cracked by a strong competitor and consumers would face a relatively low switching cost?

I’d argue it’s a little bit of both. Just because your friends and family are already on Facebook doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another social network in their lives as Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr, Foursquare, Quora, StumbleUpon and many others have demonstrated.

But each of those sites offers something new and distinct.

Though they’re often used in the same sentence, Twitter and Facebook offer very different experiences, especially before Facebook’s “follow” option. LinkedIn is for professionals; Foursquare is for deals and so on.

Google+, though, offers essentially what Facebook does. And that’s where the high switching costs kick in. Anyone might switch to a new railroad when it’s up and running but few are willing to make the move when the rail line only serves a handful of cities.

Fast Company’s report doesn’t mention Google’s supposed differentiation, its Skype-like “hangouts,” which may be drawing some users in. It’s quite possible, though, people decided they didn’t need a second Skype.

Another data point: According to an Associated Press article in advance of Facebook’s initial public offering, 60 percent of Facebookers say they have “little or no faith that the company will protect their personal information.” And yet they stick around anyway. That doesn’t sound like a rational consumer choice, it sounds like a consumer without options.

If Facebook really does control the social media infrastructure -- other members -- then it could hold a generational monopoly, at least in the United States. About 56 percent of all Americans are members now and the company’s strongest performance is, of course, among young people.

What does this mean for cash-strapped public affairs officers trying to keep pace with social media? They’ve been cautious about joining the Google+ revolution so far, maybe looking to follow the crowd rather than lead it. Perhaps that’s a good tactic. There’s no point in leading a charge if no one follows.