Can Google Buzz teach insurers a few lessons about social networking?

Feb 18th, 2010 | Posted by
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Google tends to get a lot of press simply because it’s Google, although it’s fair to say Google has got a few things wrong with some of its products – anyone remember Orkut, or all the hype around Google Wave? One thing is certain Google have got a lot right about its launch of Google Buzz. This may be particularly interesting as some insurers and financial advice web sites move to create their own social networks. Let’s examine first what Google got right and then what we can learn from where they went wrong.

Firstly, and I think this is key, Google leveraged an existing network. Google Buzz is built on Google Mail. This immediately gives a population of customers. In addition this product already has many of the customer’s frequently contacted friends. This means there’s little set up involved and the network has been swiftly established.

Secondly Buzz leverages existing assets and relationships. It’s linked to Flickr, YouTube, Google Reader, Google Maps and others. This means that customers can continue using existing and familiar tools and gain extra value from Buzz.

Thirdly Buzz came out with a programming interface to allow third parties to start integrating. It also leveraged existing networks and APIs allow it integrate with the customers other applications very quickly.

Lastly, Google have been very quick to respond not just with words but meaningful change to the product, even though it is only a week old at the time of writing. In an interview, Google have described having a War Room set up with developers and product owners listening to customers in real time, and making key decisions about whether to and how to change the product.

However, Google have got two things wrong.

The very public and ill-thought through impact on privacy has been the key concern. Customers could easily and accidently disclose information about who they frequently emailed and contacted – information previously private. This is of concern to cheating partners and political activists alike. Google have already done much to address this concern and what was an own goal is now being applauded as a swift response by advocates. We’ve learned today that the privacy issue has sparked some class action lawsuits in the US.

The second thing that could have gone better is the programming interface – which is currently read only. I would expect a further increase in adoption once tool authors can create updates to Buzz directly and for me constitutes a huge opportunity missed.

What does this mean in financial services? Some simple guidelines:

  1. Leverage existing assets – both information you have and public information. Google have asked their customers to volunteer their twitter ID. This information provides Google with an already public list of their customer’s friends. Unless you have a key unique selling point, consider leveraging existing networks rather than building your own – for example Twitter or Facebook.
  2. Link your network to support the free public feeds from Flickr, Twitter, etc.
  3. There are successful social networks that operate without a programming interface. Very few companies have offered open programming interfaces with insurance or financial data – wesabe.com is one such example offering read only transaction data.
    In other domains allowing third party developers and tools vendors to build applications for a website has sped up adoption. Limiting an API to posting updates, managing communication and friends should have the same effect.
  4. On launch, set up a War Room. Most of the feedback will arrive in the applications infancy and its survival depends on identifying the issues and opportunities, prioritising these and visibly acting on them.
  5. Finally – get the security and privacy right. The two go hand in hand. Getting it a bit wrong and fixing it quickly as Google have can earn you forgiveness, but customers will likely expect more from financial services organisations.