Mark Warrick - Web 2.0 Strategies and Examples
What is Web 2.0?
Web 2.0 is hot buzzword that is commonly misunderstood. Programmers may say that it is AJAX, JSON, SOAP, XML, SilverLight and various other programming languages. From a technology standpoint, those are all correct, but Web 2.0 is more than that. Simply put, Web 2.0 is the concept of user-contributed content, collaborative online communications, advanced content delivery systems, and a realization of the vision of Timothy Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web.
Before I explain how a Web 2.0 strategy can help your business, I'd like to take us back a few years to discuss some practical examples of how the world wide web has been embraced by businesses thus far.
A Brief History of Web Technologies
Since the world wide web began over 10 years ago, there have been various stages of the web that I will collectively call Web 1.0.
First generation websites were simple, typically monochromatic, and mostly used for scientific publications. Bandwidth at the time was very limited (think 14.4k modem). If there were any pictures at all, they were all on the left-hand side of the screen. Many of today's internal cell phone web browsers are what I would call first generation technology. They are simple and slow, but effective.
When the first Mosaic web browser hit the market in 1993 (more commonly known as Netscape Navigator), HTML programmers and web designers were able to introduce colors and formatting of documents. These second generation websites were primarily a "business card" of sorts where a company could communicate information about their organization and its products and services. Communications outside of the website itself were primarily handled by email. Amazingly, many companies today are still stuck in this 1993 mentality.
With third generation websites, we introduced interactivity. No longer were we bound to email to communicate. Most websites began to use contact forms that could store and deliver information collected at the website. These simple web forms also became the first e-commerce websites. But they were unsecure, hard to manage, and really not ready to be used for e-commerce solutions that we know today.
In fourth generation websites (circa 1995), we began to see rich, data-driven web applications and a whole new breed of programmers began to materialize. Programming platforms such as Microsoft ASP, ColdFusion, and numerous others made it possible for programmers to build websites around business requirements. A classic example dating back to 1997 was a website I was lucky enough to have a hand in: AutobyTel.com. For the first time, people were able to shop for a car online. Autobytel.com was the first online based business to run a Superbowl commerical, but you probably remember GoDaddy's SuperBowl commerical better! (GoDaddy, Go Daddy, Go Daddy Go!) Amazon.com became the world's largest online bookstore. And many other companies began to recognize the power of the internet not only as a marketing medium, but as a sales channel and a service model. Banks developed access portals to account information, stock trades could be done online and you could even find the love of your life on a website. Websites like these revolutionized the way we do business. One could even say that the world wide web revolutionized social communications as we know them today.
Why Didn't We Recognize the Power of Web 2.0 Sooner?
The fact is, it has been possible for us to embrace a Web 2.0 strategy since 1995, but we were hindered somewhat by bandwidth limitations and frankly, a lack of innovation. It was not until about 2000 that high speed bandwidth in the form of DSL and Cable modem connections became affordable to the masses. Today I have a 15MB connection to my home. That's TEN THOUSAND times the speed of my original 14.4k modem! Bandwidth capabilities like what I have today would have cost me hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per month. Today I can download a full DVD movie from the Internet in less than an hour. And this makes me wonder, "Can companies like NetFlix and Blockbuster continue to survive against innovative companies like Amazon and iTunes that can deliver content instantaneously?" More importantly, can your company survive if you don't embrace a Web 2.0 strategy?
The bandwidth issue was resolved in 2000. So what has taken us so long to recognize that we could use the Internet to enable user-contributed content, online collaboration and more sophisticated content delivery systems? Simply put, I would say that it is a matter of control. One concern of content owners (whether it be text, software, or other multimedia) is that if they open the flood gates to their content, that people will distribute it freely. Napster was a prime example of what can happen without controls. Today it's possible to secure content while enabling mass content syndication.
From a communications standpoint, business owners want to know what their target customers think and they want them to contribute, but are afraid to let them speak freely. If you're still in this mind set, WAKE UP! People are going to talk about you whether you like it or not and in ways that you cannot control. If you won't embrace your audience and allow them to communicate within the realm of your control, then they will talk about you on some other website. Don't believe me? Check out your local Better Business Bureau and Consumer Reports to find information contributed by the masses about your company and others like it.
Some Examples of Web 2.0 Strategy Implementations
Ratings and user comments are among the simplest user contributions you can enable. These work especially well for online retailers who are carrying products which they do not themselves manufacture. People want unbiased opinions from real people - NOT your marketing department or sales staff. By enabling customer feedback for the products you carry, you enable people to do research on products before they buy. You can also tap into data feeds from such companies as eOpinions.com to quickly populate your catalog with existing comments relevant to the products you carry, therein eliminating the need for any moderation.
Product Data Feeds
Companies such as Amazon.com offer product data feeds that you can incorporate into your website with web services. You essentially make money through referrals by putting their catalogs on your website. Aside from the initial setup of integrating the product data feeds, no further maintenance is required. The products automatically populate within your website and there are many packaged solutions that will help you get off the ground running in no-time.
News and Information Data Feeds
Any website that offers XML / RSS information data feeds can be integrated into your website. Just like product data feeds, once you set up the integration, no further maintenance is required. Check out my RSS / XML Feed Integration page for a few examples.
Speaking of data feeds, you can also provide data feeds to other webmasters. Data feeds can be the basis of your affiliate marketing efforts. By allowing webmasters to syndicate copies of your data on their websites, you can extend your market reach exponentially with very little effort. Click here to read about affiliate marketing.
Community Building with Forums (aka Discussion Boards)
Your customers have something in common: your products and services. By establishing an online community, you maintain control over the content contributions. What happens if you don't setup a community? Your customers will do it for you on other websites in which you have no control at all!
User communities can be as simple as a discussion board or as complex as integration with external communities like Facebook. One thing to remember about any online community you establish though is that you have to commit time to being a part of the community. There is also a control factor. Ultimately, the community will decide how it develops but you can be an integral part of shaping the community to fit your business needs while allowing the people the freedom to express themselves. Develop an interesting community full of good people and you'll find your customers coming back to your website everyday!
Online collaboration comes in many forms, whether it be Wiki's (see http://www.wikipedia.org), project tracking systems, product bidding systems (see http://www.guru.com), calendar and event registration systems, multi-author blogs, file sharing (i.e. videos and music - see http://www.youtube.com) and various other technologies. The basic premise is that you become the hub of content and conversation.
Are You Ready to Embrace a Web 2.0 Strategy?
Web 2.0 extends all the technologies we already know by enabling interactive collaboration with the website audience. No longer do website owners have to provide all of the content for their own websites. In fact, a person who embraces a Web 2.0 strategy understands that interaction and contributions from the audience are necessary if not essential to their company's future success. Some websites are built entirely on user contributed content!
What About Control of Content?
It is possible to implement controls over the user contributed content on your website while allowing for a certain amount of freedom for your visitors to speak their minds. It is simply a matter of determining what content you will allow to flow freely and which you'll moderate. Moderation can happen before or after content is posted to your website. It is all a matter of how much time you're wiling to commit to the website and how much control you're willing to let go of. Aside from the examples noted above, all of which I have had experience in implementing, I would be happy to discuss how a Web 2.0 strategy can help your business grow and better serve your customers. Click here for my contact information.