I’m not a fan of headlines that start with the “top-5” anything. Rarely is information so succinctly packaged while retaining truly actionable insights.

In the world of social networks, Google+ represents the latest opportunity for brands to connect with consumers. Debates about its population and its true level of engagement are moot for the purposes of this article. Also, let’s set aside opinions about the functionality or long-term viability of the fledging network. Becoming the fastest growing social network in history is certainly a notable achievement.

In January 2012, Google CEO Larry Page shared with investors and analysts that Google+ had hit 90 million users worldwide, “I am super excited about the growth of Android, Gmail, and Google+, which now has 90 million users globally – well over double what I announced just three months ago.” Page continued, “By building a meaningful relationship with our users through Google+ we will create amazing experiences across our services.”

During Google’s most recent earnings call on April 12th, Larry Page called Google+ the “social spine.” His point is that social network is much more than a destination, it will serve as the social framework for all Google products.

But with all of this momentum, businesses are still struggling to find the secret recipe to consumer engagement.

The team at Google+ is investing heavily in the network to balance user benefits, as well as the ambitions of business. In the last quarter alone, over 100 features were released to improve functionality and the overall experience. After months of sitting on the sidelines watching Google+ flourish, brands were finally given the opportunity to now establish official presence. And Google also started to partner with SMMS vendors to help brands efficiently manage social content across multiple platforms, including Google+.

The reality was humbling. Consumers are apparently more guarded this time around. Their eagerness to connect with brands is far more subdued than with Facebook or Twitter.

SEO firm BrightEdge reported in November 2011 that 61 percent of the top 100 brands had created Google+ pages, compared to 94 percent on Facebook. BrightEdge also compared the community size of these brands, discovering that in Facebook the total number of fans hit 300 million on Facebook, as compared to 148,000 in Google+.

If we look at Coca Cola as one example, it currently boasts just over 500,000 followers in Google+ compared to 41 million on Facebook. In other words, Coca Cola has attracted 4.6 percent of Facebook’s population and only .55 percent in Google+.

To be fair, Facebook has been on the scene since 2004, seven years ahead of Google+.  It’s almost an unfair comparison as Facebook boasts over 800 million users compared to Google’s 90 million. But, let’s be clear, Google+ represents an opportunity for businesses to improve customer engagement where they’re attention is focused.

The difference is in the approach.  With Twitter recently introducing brand pages as well, businesses will have to develop content and engagement strategies that deliver an alluring and meaningful experience that not only meets expectations, but does so specifically to each community.

Let’s start with the basics. Why will customers connect with brands in Google+? This is a question that deserves reflection, and the answer will vary from company to company. Brands that expect to take a similar approach to Google+ as with Facebook or Twitter, lessons will be taught through the inactions of users, rather than what they do or say.  Each network is different, as are the expectations of consumers within each network.

When I ran an informal study in 2011, of 2,000 connected consumers asked if they would abandon Facebook in favor of Google+, 23 percent surprisingly said yes. In studying the reasons why, the overwhelming theme centered on improving the current signal to noise ratio in their social streams.

So again, knowing that consumers are taking to Google+ to restart their network experiences, why will they connect with any brand that doesn’t recognize that they’re seeking more engaging or enriching experiences? That’s a question for you to answer.

There are advantages to engaging customers on Google+ which, as such, require a thoughtful approach. Here’s a list of five advantages to consider in the development of your Google+ strategy and how to invest in a more engaging and rewarding community.

SEO – From search engine optimization to social engagement opportunities

Google+ will naturally impact search results over time. Invest in a profile that enhances your story outside of your website. People will click through to Google+ rather than your website to learn more about you. Make it count, regardless of destination.

Hangout!

When Michael Dell took to his personal Google+ page to ask customers if Hangouts would be a good idea for service, sales, or general engagement, the community responded with resounding support. Host Hangouts for various aspects of your business to show that you’re committed to the platform and that users in Google+ have access directly from the network. Establish channels and staff them based on communicated Office Hours.

Earn media

If you don’t know what consumers in Google+ expect…ask! And think beyond traditional social media management or content editorial calendars. Move away from the broadcast model, one-to-many and earn attention to trigger the A.R.T. of engagement: Actions, Reactions, and Transactions. Earned media is just that… It’s earned. Taking a broadcast approach will not work with Google+’s more discerning user. They’ve been there and done that already.

Drive up +1s

People will talk, so give them something to talk about. Give them something to +1, to share, or drive them to comment. Too often brands think that media is social because it’s placed in a social network. Google+ users are not responding like (get it?) they do in Facebook. Here, consumers will value context first and content that reinforces relevance second.  Don’t think of this as publishing, think of Google+ as a opportunity to increase engagement with people who are just like you…smart, connected, and focused on everything but meaningless marketing. This is the egosystem and people want to believe you’re communicating with them…because you took the time to know what they value.

Google it

Take a moment to see the long-term play. Google offers a myriad of solutions that bring people together. Google Voice, YouTube, Docs, Picasa, Wallet, Maps, Android to Plus, et al., show that Google is thinking platform. The company is creating a social or personal OS and how your brand becomes a node in the human network requires design, intention, and value.

Google+ will only continue to +1 itself. To what extent adoption and user-dependency escalate is difficult to predict, but that doesn’t take away from the significance of Google’s current run at social networking. Average time spent increased 15% between October and November. Overall visits jumped 25% during the same period. And, as you can imagine, referral traffic is Google-dominated with 7 out of 10 referrals stemming from Google products.

It’s like that old saying, “You get out of something what you put into it.” The success you find in Google+ is directly tied to your investment. Knowing this, what are you going to change, inspire, cause, solve, learn, or teach? Your consumers will only circle and +1 you for the effort.