Nearly two weeks ago, Google launched Google+: its latest and most aggressive attempt to carve out territory in the social media landscape dominated by Facebook. So far, it’s generated a lot of industry buzz. But what will it mean for marketers who use social media to communicate with customers? Specifically, what could it mean for healthcare marketers for whom social media have held both great promise and great risk because of HIPAA and other issues related to providing medical advice to the public?

Let’s start by considering how Google+ works and what makes it different. The Google+ interface is Facebook-like, but more elegant. At present, Google+ has four basic functional areas:

  • Circles are your contacts, like your Facebook friends–but sliced and diced and combined in the way you’d like to interact with them. Google+ provides a few Circles to get you started, including Family, Friends (“Your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with”), Acquaintances (“A good place to stick people you’ve met but aren’t particularly close to”), and Following (“People you don’t know personally, but whose posts you find interesting”). You can also create your own Circles–say, Patients or Colleagues.
  • Sparks is a custom search engine feature that’s somewhat akin to an RSS feed. Set up Sparks for the categories you search most–books or film or health industry news–and you’re always a click away from the latest content in that category.
  • Hangouts are spaces for realtime video chat among up to ten people. One of the coolest features is that you can watch YouTube videos together in a Hangout.
  • Huddle is a text-based group chat feature that currently works only in the Google+ mobile app for Android.

One thing that should be immediately apparent to smart healthcare marketers is that Google+ Circles give you the ability to choose categories of people with whom you’d like to communicate. For example, a physician on Google+ can post updates and show them only to active patients, or only to non-patients, or only to other physicians–or only to family and friends. Google+ will allow you separate your private life from your professional life much more easily than you can with Facebook or Twitter; the simple, intuitive interface lets you drag and drop contacts into one or more Circles and control what’s in your information stream–and what you’re sending out–with a couple of clicks.

Hangouts also have potential for facilitating doc-to-patient and doc-to-doc interactions. Doctors could engage in video chat with one patient or several patients at a time, and share and discuss videos with them from a remote location. It could be a great tool for presenting, say, elective procedures, such as bariatric or joint replacement surgery, or providing post-operative or physical therapy instructions. Similarly, a group video chat with the ability to watch video together has obvious advantages for doctors who need to present information to other doctors.

But the biggest opportunity for healthcare marketers may involve the little “+1” tag that’s similar to a Facebook “Like.” Facebook has given advertisers a huge advantage by allowing them to target customers based on the interests they identify and the pages they “Like.” Advertisers don’t have to guess your interests based on demographics: they know your interests, because you’ve told them.

Similarly, when you click the “+1” button, you’re telling Google that the information is important and relevant to you–as pharmaceutical marketing specialists CMI, Inc. point out, “Google+ is the next logical step in the trend of providing results that are personally relevant, as opposed to just linguistically relevant.” The “+1” feature will help Google deliver more of the content you want–and help advertisers identify you as a good candidate for their messages (or not).

CMI also suggests that the “+1” could “increase paid search ads’ share of clicks in relation to organic listings.” The idea is that if you see people in your Circles have clicked the “+1” button, you’ll be more apt to trust the ad. You’ll click through, and Google will get paid. More important from a marketing standpoint, the ad will have done its job.

Should healthcare marketers be investigating Google+? Absolutely. Healthcare marketers should consider adding Google “+1” buttons to relevant pages on their websites, and encouraging visitors to click them–thus indicating trusted content for others searching for similar information. It’s also time to start exploring Google+ as a great tool for connecting with patients and other healthcare professionals.

If nothing else, Google+’s Sparks feature makes it easy to find current content on the topics you care about. And anything that makes a healthcare marketer’s life easier is worth a look.