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Google Plus Communities: Analyzing The Impact On User Engagement

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"After three months of Google Plus Communities, there are sufficient data and user experience to properly analyze what impact Communities may be having on user engagement. The engagement data from my Stream clearly demonstrates that Communities are impacting engagement — and most of it is not positive. Although I do think there is value in the Community model, through fracturing our Streams, Communities are diluting personal brands."
Google Plus Engagement Pre Versus Post Communities; clicky to embiggen

Google Plus Engagement Pre Versus Post Communities; clicky to embiggen

I’ve suspected for awhile that since the launch of Google Plus Communities three months ago, I am not receiving the same level of engagement as I did in the past. My analysis does confirm my suspicions. I now have to work harder to receive the same overall level of engagement as in the past. More over, the quality of that engagement is declining.

Whereas these results reflect my experience, they might not necessarily be applicable to all users and may not be as meaningful when applied across the entire Google Plus ecosystem. There are some power users, or more accurately G+ attractors — people who attract massive followings — for whom the quantity and quality of engagement is most likely constant or even increasing. However I do believe that for the majority of Google Plus users, these results most likely apply.

Want the synopsis? For a tl;dr version click here, but you’ll miss all the cool charts!

Basic Methodology

I assessed engagement with my content over the most recent six month period. I choose a six-month period of time for a reason. Google Plus Communities launched on Thursday, December 6, 2012. It has been three months since the launch — actually, thirteen weeks have passed. I gathered data for the 13 weeks prior to the launch of Communities and the 13 weeks after. The week Google Plus Communities launched was used as the dividing point and did not go entirely into one content bucket or the other (more on that below). Thus I gathered data over a 27 week period.

All data comes from personal Stream and Community Stream posts that I initiated. As I rarely post to a limited audience, all data comes from public posts. In fact, since I first started using Google plus, I’m guessing that Ninety-eight percent (or more) of my posts are to the public. That aspect of my posting behavior remains unchanged.

For a given post, engagement was calculated by tallying all the +1s, Shares, and Comments for each post. Plus Ones were only counted for the OP and not for any received on comments I made within my own posts. Also, I excluded any comments I made to the comment stream of my own posts and any shares I initiated of my own posts as I wanted to get an accurate assessment of engagement with me, with my content. My engagement with my own content did not count.

Each comment (excluding my own) was counted as a single point of engagement. On numerous occasions the same person would add more than one comment to a post’s comment stream. Each comment was counted as one point. In other words, I did not count unique users commenting. I counted each piece of engagement.

The total engagement for a given week is simply the summation of all engagement across three categories (+1s, Shares, and Comments) for all posts in a given week. I then calculated engagement per post per week by dividing total engagement for that week by the number of posts for that week.

The engagement per follower ratio is not an actual calculation of engagement activity per follower. It is a coarser metric to see how total weekly engagement with my posts has varied as my follower count has changed over time.

Follower numbers by week come from CircleCount. Here is the link to my CircleCount data.

Raw Engagement Data; clicky to embiggen

Raw Engagement Data; clicky to embiggen

Each regularly active Google Plus user understands engagement activity differs on weekends versus weekdays. For most of us, engagement is lower on weekends than weekdays, often with a noticeable decrease in engagement starting Friday afternoons. Therefore, I tallied posts made on the weekend in a separate column. So, as an example, the week that just ended — the week of March 3 — I made a total of 18 posts across all seven days. Out of all the posts made for that week, one was made on a weekend and the other seventeen were posted during the work week (Monday through Friday). I captured these data to see if there was a significant difference between my weekend-posting patterns pre Communities versus post Communities and, if so, whether or not there might be some correlation with impact on engagement.

Finally, engagement across the three categories is not weighted. Each point of engagement is given an equal weight. Even weighted, the percentage change between pre and post Communities would be unaffected.

All engagement is not equal. A Plus One is the lowest quality of engagement. It is analogous to a Facebook Like and is a quick and simple way for someone to acknowledge your post (or comment). A Share is of higher quality as it sends your thoughts into the Streams of those who follow the user that shared your post. A share also may result in new users following and possibly engaging with you. But, in most cases, shares fracture your post and result in engagement and conversations occurring outside of your original piece of content. A comment is the highest quality of engagement as it starts or adds to a conversation about the content of your post and is contained entirely within your post. When reading the below analysis, keep in mind that there is a qualitative difference in quality of engagement with type.

A note about the charts. The trend lines on each chart are software calculated. In other words, I did not eyeball draw them.

Results and Analysis

Overall engagement with my posts (threads, OPs) has increased by 14.1 percent since Google Plus Communities launched but the clear trend is decreasing engagement over time since the launch. Communities appear to be cannibalizing user attention from personal posts and the type of engagement has shifted from higher quality to lower quality.

Over the recent six-month period, my follower count has increased by 23.4 percent. Whereas that is a nice gain, the metrics show a mixed picture. Total engagement has increased 14.1 percent but the figure for engagement per post has actually deceased 6.6 percent.

All things being equal, with more followers — more people who actively choose to follow you — you would expect an increase in overall engagement, or at least for engagement to have remained consistent over this period of time. Yet the quality of engagement is not keeping up with my gains in follower count.

Pre Versus Post Communities: The Trend Is Not Your Friend

To assess what might be going on, I divided this six-month period (27 weeks actually) into two buckets — a 13 week pre-Communities bucket and a 13 week post-Communities bucket. The week in between these two buckets, the week of December 2, 2012, is the week that Google Plus Communities launched. I split that week up as well, placing the data from the first four days of the week in the pre-launch Communities bucket and the last three days of the week in the post-launch Communities bucket.

Pre Versus Post Communities Data

Pre Versus Post Communities’ Data

Google Plus Engagement Pre Versus Post Communities; clicky to embiggen

Google Plus Engagement Pre Versus Post Communities; clicky to embiggen

In the sections below, you will see that I created charts for the entire six-month period, adding a trend line to each chart. I also created two additional charts that broke down engagement into pre- and post-Communities — the two different buckets I described in the above paragraph. Looking at the six-month chart gives you one picture. But looking at the pre- versus post-Communities charts reveals something else.

In the sections below, you will first see the six-month chart with a brief assessment. Then you will see the pre- and post-Communities charts.

Quantity Versus Quality

The quality of engagement has changed. Post Communities I’ve seen a respectable 31.4 percent increase in +1s to my posts and a healthy 11.4 percent increase in Shares of my posts. However, I have also experienced a 13.2 percent decrease in Comments to my OPs. Taking all together, this results in a modest gain of 14.1 percent in total engagement.

That does seems like a net positive. But remember that Comments are the highest quality of engagement and Plus Ones are the lowest. Even though I have more overall engagement, the lion’s share is coming from a large percentage increase in Plus Ones. The quantity of engagement has increased but the quality has also decreased.

Clicky to embiggen

Clicky to embiggen

When I looked at Posts versus Engagement breakdown of the data for pre and post Communities, the nicely inclined trend line in Plus Ones that is seen over the six-month period is revealed to be anomalous. The trends for engagement metrics (+1s, Shares, and Comments) since the launch of Google Plus Communities are actually on a decline. You will also notice that the trend line for my posting activity is also on a decline.

Pre- Versus Post-Communities Engagement Details; clicky to embiggen

Pre- Versus Post-Communities Engagement Details; clicky to embiggen

With regards to posting frequency, pre Communities, I averaged 12.8 posts per week. Post Communities, my average number of posts per week increased to 15.7. But as the charts reveal, my weekly posting averages are now on the decline as well. I talk about why I’ve decreased my posting frequency in the conclusion section below.

Here are the charts combining all weekly engagement. The six-month chart does show an increasing trend in total engagement whereas posting frequency remains relatively steady and level.

Clicky to embiggen

Clicky to embiggen

However, the pre- and post-Communities’ charts show a different picture. There has been a downward trend, a steady erosion in total engagement since Google Plus Communities launched three months ago.

Pre- Versus Post-Communities: Posts Versus Engagement; clicky to embiggen

Pre- Versus Post-Communities: Posts Versus Engagement; clicky to embiggen

When engagement per post per week is considered, it is clear that overall engagement is actually slightly lower than before. Prior to Communities, my engagement per post average was 8.1 precent. But since the launch of Communities, my engagement per post average has declined by 6.6 percent to 7.5.

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

Pre- versus Post-Communities: Posts Versus Engagement Per Post; clicky to embiggen

Pre- versus Post-Communities: Posts Versus Engagement Per Post; clicky to embiggen

As most Google Plus users know, engagement on the weekends tends to be noticeably lower than with weekday postings. I looked at any impacts that weekend versus weekday posting might be having on the results. Prior to Communities, 19.8 percent of my posts we placed on weekends. After Communities, my weekend posting average declined to 12.8 percent of all posts. As a greater percentage of my posts were made during the weekdays after the launch of Communities, I would have expected to see more overall engagement per post. But that was not the case as detailed above.

What does this all mean? Whereas total engagement has increased, and my follower count has ballooned, the average engagement per post is decreasing and the quality of that engagement has changed. I am having to work harder — post more often than in the past — to draw people’s attention and the quality of the interactions are of lessor value than before.

Engagement Per Follower

Another ratio I looked at was engagement per follower. This is a coarser metric to see how total weekly engagement with my posts has varied as my follower count has changed over time.

In theory, as you gain more followers you would expect engagement to increase. Indeed, as discussed above, with a follower increase of almost 25 percent over the most recent six-month period, I have experienced an overall engagement increase of 14.1 percent.

As the chart below shows, over the six-month period in question, there does not appear to be any apparent change in weekly engagement per follower ratio. The trend line is ever so slightly upward slanting, but for the most part it is level.

Clicky to embiggen

Clicky to embiggen

However, when I looked at the pre versus post Communities weekly engagement per follower ratio, a different picture emerges. The trend before and after Communities is very evident. Before Communities launched, the trend was an increase in my weekly engagement per follower ratio. But over the past three months, since the launch of Communities, the trend has reversed with an obvious steady decline in my weekly engagement per follower ratio. I am gaining more followers but it is not resulting in a corresponding increase in engagement.

Clicky to embiggen

Clicky to embiggen

One, of several, explanations for this observed trend is that my follower base is actually becoming less active over time. So, whereas I have more overall followers, the percentage of those followers who are (still) active is decreasing. This may point to a more systemic issue with Google Plus — inactive followers. Could the decrease in engagement quality and the fracturing of personal brands be driving once frequent, active users away from Google Plus?

Conclusion
(tl;dr)

After three months of Google Plus Communities, there are sufficient data and user experience to properly analyze what impact Communities may be having on user engagement. The engagement data from my Stream clearly demonstrates that Communities are impacting engagement — and most of it is not positive. Although I do think there is value in the Community model, through fracturing our Streams, Communities are diluting personal brands.

Competition for user attention has increased as user Streams have fractured and become more saturated with content from individuals and Communities. It is easier to give a quick +1 or an easy Share than it is to take some time and leave a comment, to engage in a conversation. The unveiling of Communities has changed the nature of engagement in Google Plus.

My data indicates an increase in overall engagement rates since Communities launched in early December. However the specific data clearly shows that there has been a reduction in the quality of user engagement. Whereas Plus Ones have gone up by 31.4 precent, Comments have decreased by 13.2 precent. But any gains in overall engagement may have been fleeting as the trend line indicates a decline in all engagement metrics since the launch of Communities.

Furthermore, Plus Ones are not the same as engaging in conversation by leaving a comment. A comment is a much higher level of engagement. It is a higher quality type of engagement. Receiving more Plus Ones is not the same thing as spawning more conversation. Google Plus was once referred to as a conversation ecosystem. Has that time come and gone?

A result, I’m having to work harder to attract user engagement, posting more posts on average per week while at the same time seeing a decline in the overall engagement per post metric. Even though my follower count has increased by almost 25 precent over the past six months, and my average post count per week is higher than before Communities launched, the engagement I receive per post has declined by almost seven percent.

Now it might be that I’m simply sending more noise into others’ Streams than before Communities launched. In other words, it might have nothing to do with Communities. However, I’m pretty sure that my signal to noise ratio is roughy the same. It could also be that the quality of users that are now following me is not as high as in the past. Perhaps the interest levels and engagement coefficient (whatever the heck that means) of the overall pool of Google Plus users is being reduced, diluted as more people join. This could explain why my posts’ engagement levels have declined even though my follower count has noticeably increased.

Whereas these other factors could be partially in play, I’m guessing that the social dynamics of Google Plus have been shifted by Communities. I know that I’m having a difficult time keeping up with all the content flowing into my Stream — much of the new flow the result of posts from the couple dozen of Communities I’m a member. Also, I too am guilty of providing lower quality engagement as I find it easier to give a quick +1 than to leave a comment.

My analysis does show that since the launch of Google Plus Communities, I have averaged more posts per week than prior to its launch. However, it also shows (via the trend line) that my posting frequency is now declining.

Perhaps the trend of my declining posting frequency is the result of my intuition, the realization that the investment I’ve been putting into Google Plus is not accruing the same benefits as in the past. Investing time into Google Plus is simply not as rewarding as before.

It is clear that, at least for my personal brand, the launch of Google Plus Communities has changed the nature of interaction, of engagement. Google Plus now is less about the personal brand and more about homogenizing our individuality into Community Streams. Whereas I believe Communities offer some value, it is too bad that the ad hoc conversation ecosystem that used to exist before its launch has become attenuated.

As a result of what I’ve described above, I have lost touch with a number of people with whom I used to engage on a consistent and regular basis. Many of these people have diverted a significant portion of their Google Plus time into Communities — or so I assume. That is an issue because it is harder to follow a given person’s posts in a Community — their posts get diluted by all the other members of the Community and soon get sent below.

The reason I follow people is so that their ideas will flow into my Stream. But with Communities, you get the ideas of everyone, not just the people who you personally selected. I cannot spend the time clicking on users’ profiles just to keep caught up on their activities and thoughts across the Google Plus ecosystem. That is inefficient.

What action do I need to take to address this change in engagement quality and quantity? What can be done to shift the trends? How can I reconnect with those users that used to be a big part of my Google Plus experience?

Post Conclusion

It would be interesting to look at these same metrics for other Google Plus users and see whether my results bear out for them as well. If you are interested in performing your own analysis, you’ll have to gather the data on your own. It is an easy, straight forward process, but it does take time. You might be able to cut some code using the Google Plus API to pull these figures automatically for you. I decided not to do that as this was a one time effort and I do not plan to continue tracking these metrics.

What are your pre versus post Google Plus Communities’ experiences? Have you noticed a change in engagement levels (both quantity and quality) since the new Community model was launched? Has the change been positive, neutral, or negative?

Epilogue

During the first full week of the Google Plus Community role out, I wrote four posts on the topic of what Communities might mean for personal brand and user Stream management. You can find those posts here:

Based on the analysis of the data presented here, I still believe that the best way for Google to integrate the Interest Graph into Google Plus is by enabling user-based Content Channels. I’ve written several posts on that topic before. Here is an excerpt of one of my comments in the comment stream of my post, Google Communities And Personal Brand Dilution? (See above link)

Whereas G+ Communities are helping to create the Interest Graph within G+, the way they are currently implemented means that your interests do not necessarily get connected to your personal brand in a way that is easy for your followers to see.

Whereas all of your public posts and posts within public Communities do seem to appear on your personal profile page, I think it is too much to ask or expect your followers to click through to your profile just to make sure they did not miss anything of interest to them. Your followers deserve the right to stay within their Stream, to discover your content in the container that they spend the most time.

I still want the facility to follow people’s interests via Content Channels. I want to subscribe to your posts about your interests and not have to follow you into various Communities just so that I might get to see what your thoughts may be about a certain topic (interest).

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