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Web 2.0 makes marketing a conversation

Blogs. Wikis. Podcasts. Mashups. Weird new words for a weird new marketing on the Web. Those are the tools of Web 2.0, a trendy name for a set of new approaches to the Web that are turning the practice of marketing on its ear. And it is the flavor of the month—Web 2.0 even made the cover of Newsweek recently. What are these new tools and what should marketers be doing with them? Find out what you need to know in this month’s Biznology newsletter.

Let’s start with the basics of Web 2.0—Web users are changing from being consumers to participants. The Web we know makes information and products available to anyone with an Internet connection. Web users consume information on any subject without a visit to the library and can buy anything they want without a trip to the store. But most Web users don’t do much else besides take in information and buy stuff. Web 2.0 aims to change that.

Blogs allow anyone with an opinion to post their thoughts on a regular basis. Ordinary folks without the skills to put together a traditional Web site can put pages out there for all to see. Wikis, made popular by Wikipedia, allow multiple authors to write, edit, update, or even replace information on any subject. It’s literally groupthink, the theory being that information written by groups will be fresher and more accurate than anything written by a single person. Podcasts provide a way to record and download audio to iPods and other MP3 players. Mashups allow new Web experiences to be created out of multiple components, such as showing every library in your area by taking an address list and combining it with Google Maps.

Individuals can participate in Web 2.0, but company employees do it, too. One change in marketing techniques is for companies to allow employees to blog their thoughts in the hopes that these unfiltered opinions will reach younger customers who value “authentic” information without the traditional marketing and public relations “spin.” But that’s not the biggest change Web 2.0 brings to marketing.

Web 2.0’s participatory nature changes the traditional game of pushing your message. In the good old days, brand marketers got the “creative people” to offer up a few ideas, test them out with some focus groups, decide the one they liked best, and push it out to the market over and over again, by any means necessary. TV, radio, print, billboards, you name it—if we could put our logo on it, we did.

Those days are not over. Traditional advertising will always have its place, but its place is diminishing. In the UK, Web usage has surpassed TV viewing for the first time. Younger markets, especially, are harder to reach using traditional means, because they read fewer newspapers, listen to their iPods instead of radio, and “Tivo out” commercials.

So, marketers are increasingly turning to the Web to deliver their message. But, so far, Web users have been treated as the same captive audience found in other advertising venues. Banner ads aren’t much different than print ads. We put the same product slogans and features on our Web pages that we put in our old printed brochures.

Web 2.0 will cause marketers to rethink that approach, because as the Web becomes less a place for consumers and more a place for participants, those receiving marketing messages won’t passively read them. They will want to take action.

If your product does not live up to expectations, expect a Web 2.0 user to post a review of your product on Amazon. Or rate it at shopping.com. Or blog about it on their personal Web site. Or leave comments in your company’s blog whenever that product is discussed. Or start a discussion group on Yahoo! for others who were similarly disappointed. Or create a “hate site” if you’ve really annoyed them. In short, your marketing message will not go unchallenged.

What about customers that have a good experience? They are likely to take all the same actions to boost your product. They might even decide to sign up as an affiliate to sell your product. Whatever they do, they are more likely to do it in public than ever before, in full view of your existing customers and future prospects. And, if their opinions catch on, they may be able to get as much attention for their perspectives as you get for your official company line.

In the past, relatively few companies had to cope with “public relations problems”—tobacco companies, companies under indictment, those with labor disputes, for example. But in the Web 2.0 world, no investigative reporter has to get wind of the story. The story doesn’t have to be widely interesting to be told. Just as the Web can be used by marketers to reach highly targeted market segments, so can your detractors reach those same small groups, almost free of charge.

That’s why it is more helpful to think of marketing as a conversation, rather than as a message. Your marketing message is not the last word. It is the first word. Whatever you say is the conversation opener and you can expect the blogosphere to respond. Some companies are opening up wikis for public discussions with their customers on important subjects. These conversations can’t be controlled the way marketing messages have always been. And they are not as susceptible to the spin control that public relations folks use with the mainstream media, because these folks are not media professionals, they are your customers. Or maybe they are social activists that needed reporters to air their views in the old days. No more.

So what is a company to do? Give up the illusion of control. Stop expecting to control the message and start connecting with your customers and listening to what they say. Learn from their feedback and respond by changing your approach when you are wrong. If your company is seen as open, honest, able to admit error, and learn from its mistakes, then you’ll achieve credibility for what you say—how priceless is that in marketing? Your customers will see you as a participant in their struggles rather than someone else to struggle with. You’ll be a Web 2.0 marketer.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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