Summary:

Branch might have set out to connect the world’s conversationalists on one platform, but it’s interesting to see how companies are adopting the resource as a more limited way to connect with customers.

paidContent Live 2013 Josh Miller Branch
photo: Albert Chau

Out of all the companies in the ex-Twitter gang’s Obvious Corp’s umbrella of publishing startups — most notably, Medium — Branch is still perhaps the lowest-profile of the bunch. While it presents an interesting forum for conversation, eight months into its existence Branch is still figuring out how to get traction in a world that isn’t exactly lacking for conversation online.

Branch launched publicly about eight months ago with the idea of creating a public space for limited conversations among a few people. While it’s fostered some interesting discussions so far (“Is there a bubble?” “What have you learned about visiting Las Vegas?” “How much should a writer be paid, if anything?“), the company is clearly still figuring out how to get conversations going on the site.

branchteamI recently spoke with people from Branch and Hyatt, one of the first companies that’s been using Branch for marketing purposes, and it was clear from our conversation that Branch could have a real future in giving companies a place to talk to with consumers in a way that’s both fairly public and transparent but also limited in terms of the investment required by the companies. In other words, some of the aspects of Branch that make it unappealing to users could actually work in its favor when it comes to courting large businesses as customers — and potentially making money on the site.

Branch wasn’t created by one of the former Twitter founders like Medium was, but instead joined the Obvious Corp back in March of 2012. We wrote about the company in July and talked with CEO Josh Miller, who explained the idea behind the product and how he wanted to create the types of conversations people have with friends around a dinner table, but transport those conversations online to be shared and viewed publicly.

But as my colleague Mathew Ingram noted at the time, that closed nature of Branch conversations that are then posted online are reminiscent of blogs without comments — they seem odd to those of use who’ve become used to the spontaneous, collaborative qualities of traditional social media:

“The discussion also seems oddly sterile for anyone who has gotten used to the somewhat chaotic nature of a Twitter debate — or even in blog comments. And because it is less open, there is less of an opportunity for flames or irrelevant comments, but there is also less opportunity for a smart comment from a stranger.”

Yet the closed nature of the discussions and the greater assurance of quality control are obvious perks for a company like Hyatt that wants to hear what frequent travelers think of hotels, and wants to share that feedback publicly but doesn’t necessarily want to maintain a lengthy Facebook feed about the topic. Not to mention, users would probably get annoyed if Hyatt retweeted a lot of people tweeting about hotels, explained Dan Moriarty, the director of digital strategy for Hyatt.

But when I asked Moriarty why he doesn’t just send out a survey asking people what they think of hotels, he explained that the company has learned the value of sharing public feedback with users and the company gets more out of the experience in the long run by appearing more transparent.

“I think we’re over that worry,” he said about the possibility that users would post negative things publicly about Hyatt on a company Branch thread. “I think we’ve done a similar thing on Facebook or the website we started for the campaign, so we’ve worked through the pain of worrying about what people would say about us in social spaces.”

He noted that with a Branch conversation, Hyatt can pick influential travel or hotel bloggers and ask them about hotels, and then once the Branch is over, they can keep sharing the conversation and make sure other users see how the company took that feedback into account. So a conversation hosted with 20 people can get shared out to thousands of others. You could certainly argue that it’s a lot less transparent and truly open for a company to hand-pick people for a Branch conversation than respond to angry customers on Twitter, but you can see the appeal from the company’s perspective, and there’s no reason a company couldn’t do both.

“When you look at Branch… it’s just like-minded people opting into a conversation on things they care about,” he said. “So we definitely get a higher-quality of responses that are more thought through.”

Libby Brittain, the director of editorial development for Branch, said the company is still new, and they’re not sure what a money-making strategy with large corporate partners would look like, but it’s something they’ll evaluate.

“For publishers or brands, they’ve been told to be conversational for years,” she said. “But sometimes they really struggle to deliver on that promise with their customers or clients. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how this has worked.”

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