Where does new arrival Branch fit in the social-media landscape?

Branch co-founders (L-R) Agrawal, Güngör and MillerAlthough the public-invite launch of Branch was met with much excitement in tech-land a few weeks ago, thanks to the involvement of Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, the platform faces an uphill battle for adoption and has unclear implications for brands.

Described as a means for “high quality public discourse”, Branch allows users to invite curated groups of people to discuss issues in which they are knowledgeable. The aim of the service is both to provide a new platform for dialogue on the web and to organize conversation threads on platforms like Twitter.

Branch founders Josh Miller, Hursh Agrawal and Cemre Güngör initially named the platform Roundtable, with the first two dropping out of university in 2011 to focus on the service. In January this year, the trio received US$2 million in funding from Obvious Corp and moved from New York to San Francisco to build the product under the guidance of Williams and Stone. The service came out of private beta in August.

At first look, Branch is smooth, sleek and beautifully designed. No noise, no clutter. But while Branch succeeds in providing features and introduces playground rules that don’t currently exist in any successful social-networking platform, it doesn’t seem sufficiently unique to displace existing, more popular services.

On getting your Branch invite, the network will encourage you to ‘publish your ideas’, ‘share media and memories’ and ‘ask friends for advice’. But these functions are easily enough fulfilled on Facebook, Twitter or, if a more open and lengthy forum is needed, on a blog.

An additional use suggestion ‘have a public debate’, can be taken to forums or to popular Q&A site Quora, which arguably, may be Branch’s strongest competitor. Designed for people in search of the best answers, Quora’s community up-votes the answers it deems best. Content is curated and maintained at a level of quality by an insistence on real names and allowing users to suggest edits to answers, Wikipedia fashion.

“As Biz Stone would say, we both want people to type words into text boxes on the internet, so in that sense we’re competitive,” admitted Miller in an answer about Branch’s competitiveness with Quora, on Quora. “But I very much admire [Quora founders] Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo’s mission and hope that both our products are successful.”

Where Branch does stand out is in how well it plays with the other kids in the social-media playground. To start with, it allows users to ‘Branch’ conversation topics from Twitter—removing internal group chatter from the public feed. It can also be used as a tool on personal websites and blogs, so a forum-like discussion can be held and be published live on a blog.

Unlike forums however, Branch is friendly to tangential arguments, allowing users to ‘branch off’ to separate but linked conversations. A bookmarklet also allows users to bring websites, media content and Twitter posts to Branch for further discussion.

Rather like SlideShare, Branch may be less of a platform in its own right than a tool that interfaces well and improves conversations on other platforms.

Phil Chiu, managing director, Asia-Pacific, for digital marketing agency Kenshoo, agrees that Branch’s real value is as a tool that interfaces with existing networks. “From what I gathered after spending time playing around, it requires a network effect for real success,” he said. “This means it needs to interface with many sites, allowing users of those sites to ‘branch’ and ‘re-branch’ content. This takes time.”

In its present form, added Chiu, it’s not a “must buy” and is currently another “microblogger site with some bells and whistles”.

A way of looking at Branch, suggests Natasha Zhao, lead consultant at Blugrapes, is a social platform that is subject-matter centric, like YouTube and SlideShare, where the “quality of the shared content is more greatly valued than the personality of the content producer”. This sets it apart from profile-centric content such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Therefore, Branch’s usefulness to marketers will depend greatly on adoption rates and active user numbers and the level of resources required to engage on the platform, Zhao said. “Based on current beta public version features, marketers may be limited by the number of people they can engage with at one time as they would need to proactively add people into a conversation, which can be time consuming.”

However Branch’s restrictiveness could prove to be its value to brands, she added. “Being created for deep, quality conversations amongst a quality network of people; it could possibly be very useful for brands and companies that want to play in the ‘thought-leadership’ space,” she said.

This article was original published on Campaign Asia-Pacific.