By all accounts, Web 2.0 — the second generation of Web-based services and communities that emphasize online collaboration, networking, and user-created content — is growing at a phenomenal pace. A recent Booz Allen Hamilton study shows just how prevalent this interactive consumer behavior has become and, at the same time, puts to rest any notion that social networkers are all 17-year-old boys — or that “average people” don’t read Weblogs. The study found that 50 percent of all Internet users frequent social media sites, and that more than half of the visitors to MySpace, the notoriously youth-oriented social networking site, are 25 or older.
Among the many activities taking place on new technology platforms, such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, and online communication pit stops, is one that should particularly pique the interest of corporate managers: More and more, consumers are sharing their opinions about products, services, and the behavior of companies. What this means for business is not always clear, but most executives have a sense that their company must respond to this phenomenon. They’re just not sure what to do or how to begin.
One useful approach is to frame the issue as a challenge: How do Internet-based social media change the marketing environment for companies? How do companies factor the hyper-connected marketplace into their brand and corporate promotion strategies? We have identified three ways that the Internet is altering the landscape, along with the hidden opportunities in each.
1. Web 2.0 means companies are no longer solely in control of their message. Corporations are unable to rely on traditional one-way methods of communication — for example, TV and print ads — to reach and influence consumers. Web 2.0 has turbocharged the whole notion of “word-of-mouth,” circumventing traditional marketing by letting individuals talk directly to each other about their passions, their buying preferences, and their pet peeves.
Hence, instead of trying to “control the message,” companies should focus on joining in these conversations. Web 2.0 offers limitless opportunities for companies to engage their customers in meaningful dialogues and learn exactly what they’ve wanted to know all along: precisely what their consumers think about their products and brand.
Companies can begin at sites like Technorati.com or Icerocket.com to find out what’s being said about them online and respond to postings about their products or services, correcting misconceptions or addressing concerns as warranted. And they can begin generating conversations themselves by creating their own blogs, as Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz has done with Jonathan’s Blog, or Southwest Airlines has done with Nuts About Southwest.
Schwartz’s blog receives some 50,000 hits per month, and each post generates dozens of comments from existing and prospective customers, as well as shareholders. Southwest’s blog has received more than 6,300 comments since it started in April 2006, in response to little more than 250 posts. And Southwest says that it has adjusted its approach to assigned seating and advance scheduling as a direct result of customer feedback on its blog. By actively participating in online conversations, these companies are engaging with their customers and demonstrating that they care about their opinions — which gives them a fair shot at influencing those opinions.
2. Web 2.0 is fragmenting marketing channels. The explosion of blogs and social networking sites — some 100,000 new blogs launch daily — is breaking already-fragmented marketing channels into even tinier pieces. Visitors to the Web no longer start at large portals like Yahoo, AOL, or MSN; rather, they go straight to niche communities and Web sites catering to their specific interests.
But fragmentation has its upside, offering companies a shortcut to highly desirable demographic groups. Want to reach mostly female animal lovers? Advertise on Cuteoverload.com. Or need to get the attention of professionals with an average of 15 years of experience? Try LinkedIn.com. Moreover, establishing a brand presence on online channels costs a fraction of what it does in traditional media channels. And it allows companies to leverage “consumer evangelists” — those customers who, once captured, undertake their own word-of-mouth marketing campaigns and help a company's customer base evolve.