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Communicating in the world of Web 2.0: society is teeming with online conversations. Business success today depends on whether you're in on them.

There are few times when we are given the opportunity to witness profound change in communication models. We are in the midst of just such an epoch.

Many believe that the Internet represents the most significant change to communication since Gutenberg made type move. It's an easy argument to make, but the Internet, like the printing press, is a tool. Change occurs according to how the tool is used. Gutenberg printed Bibles, prompting illiterate people to learn to read and leading ultimately to the Protestant Reformation.

What changes has the Internet (and its cousins, intranets) brought about? Most of its initial innovations, while indisputably important, were incremental improvements over less effective ways of doing the same thing. E-mail, for example, replaced to a large extent interoffice memoranda, snail mail, phone calls and voice mail. Most organizations viewed the World Wide Web as a way to publish material without incurring the high costs inherent in print.

The Internet's real significance was its promise to democratize communication, to forever alter the conditions that led A.J. Leibling to proclaim, "Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one." With the Internet, everybody could have his own printing press and become a publisher. In the Net's early days, though, for most people, the technological barriers were insurmountable, and the Internet remained the province of computer geeks and institutions with enough resources to hire them.

Today, that has changed. According to Intelliseek, consumers today are 50 percent more likely to be influenced by content posted by other customers and individuals than by traditional advertising. We have entered the era of consumer-generated media. Given the tools available today, anybody can publish. Anybody can produce near-professional audio and video, then distribute it to audiences eager to hear or see it. The world is quickly becoming a massive set of conversations. Business success in this world requires more adeptness at participating in the conversation than in delivering the message.

Welcome to the world of Web 2.0.

Roots of the conversation

Web 2.0 is a term some find forced and artificial. It is useful, though, to have labels that explain things that cannot be easily catalogued under old definitions. Web 2.0 generally refers to a social environment in which everybody has the potential to be a creator of content or applications. In this world, the audience controls the message. Organizations that wish to wield influence must do so through engagement with the audience. They must participate in the conversation. The days of crafting and delivering a top-down message are dwindling.

Several forces have converged to bring us to this precipice of change:

* Fed-up consumers. Over the course of the past half century or so, companies have become more and more detached from their customers. Citi, the financial services behemoth, recently introduced a credit card that actually lets people calling the company press "0" to talk to a live person. Citi advertises this benefit to differentiate itself from competitors that insist customers communicate through interactive voice response systems. They don't want to talk to their customers. And what happens when customers actually do get to talk to most companies' live representatives? They get canned, generic answers read from a binder and a referral to the next tier of support if the binder doesn't contain the answer the customer needs. People have had enough.

* Diminished trust. All you have to do is look at movies and television to see how people perceive business. The behavior of companies such as Enron and Parmalat has only reinforced this perception. It no longer shocks us to see chief executive officers in handcuffs on CNN. If the institutions on which we depend cannot be trusted, people (through the governments that represent them) will force transparency upon them by enacting onerous laws such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

* The open source movement. Dissatisfied with the quality of applications produced by software makers, individuals have banded together--using the revolutionary collaboration channels afforded by the Internet--to create their own tools. Linux was the first significant proof of concept for the open source movement--a stable operating system that didn't crash, built by a coalition of volunteers. They were driven to perform their programming tasks not because it was the job for which they were paid, but rather because they were passionate about it. They received no compensation. Thousands of free applications followed, from Firefox (which has gobbled up more than 10 percent of the market share for web browsers) to Audacity, a professional-grade audio recording and editing program.

* Reduced barriers to entry. In the early days of the Net, contributing your voice to the online conversation required a certain amount of technical acumen. Creating your own web site, for example, meant learning HTML or a web authoring tool such as Dreamweaver. It meant acquiring space on a server, obtaining a domain name, and learning how to use an FTP site to transfer content from one place to another. Today, publishing has become much easier. If you don't believe me, go to Blogger.com and sign up for your own blog. It'll take you less than two minutes, no matter how scant your computer experience. Application development has become simple, as well: With the development of technologies such as APIs and AJAX, anybody with the desire and a bit of skill can create a new application as easily as they can report a news story, produce their own television commercial or distribute a radio program.

If any one of these drivers had failed to materialize, the disruption of traditional communication models might never have occurred. The unique confluence of these factors, though, has been disruptive on a historical level. Let me give you a personal example.

For immediate release

Twice each week I co-host a podcast called "The Hobson & Holtz Report," part of a suite of podcasts called "For Immediate Release" that I produce with my friend and colleague Neville Hobson. Our podcast addresses the impact of new media on the communication profession. Without ubiquitous high-speed access, through which listeners can subscribe to receive audio, and inexpensive audio recording and editing software, the notion of a PR-focused radio show would be a pipe dream. No radio station would broadcast it, because the audience could never grow large enough to justify the advertising rates necessary to support it.

We record the show over Skype, a VoIp (Voice over Internet Protocol) application that allows us to record a crystal-dear conversation at no cost. This is critical, because I'm in the San Francisco Bay Area and Neville is in Amsterdam. We edit the podcast using Audacity, the open source and freely available application that rivals some of the most expensive recording and editing software you can buy.

Listeners can subscribe to the podcast so it will automatically arrive at their computers whenever a new episode is posted--they don't have to visit our site or download the file. This subscription is enabled by an open source standard called RSS (which stands for Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary or RTF Site Summary, depending on who you ask), one of the most important new enabling technologies driving all this change. Subscribers can listen on their computers, burn the show to a CD, or transfer the show to a digital media player such as an iPod.

The web site for the show is a blog, where we post our show notes, including the time codes for each show and any links associated with our content. Listeners can leave comments for us to read on the next show, or they can e-mail audio comments to our Gmail (Google mail) account. A few of our regular listeners have evolved into correspondents, including one from Australia (fellow IABC member Lee Hopkins), who contributes a weekly segment.

Occasionally, a member of our audience will write something on his or her own blog about the show and link to us, elevating the show in Google's search rankings. On our blog, we feature a link to a Frappr map. Frappr uses the Google Maps API to allow anybody to pinpoint their location in the world and identify themselves as a "For Immediate Release" listener. (This is what's known as a software mashup.)

One of our listeners created a logo for us, simply because he liked the show and was motivated to do so. We make several versions of the logo available for listeners to post to their own blogs and web sites so they can market the show for us.

"The Hobson & Holtz Report," then, is a community-driven show that taps into our ability to apply these tools to create our own content, and our audience's ability to produce their own content and become part of the show. Using this ability to create content, we have attracted thousands of listeners. And what does all this cost us? About US$25 per month for hosting of the audio files and the blog. And, of course, our time. A mere 24 months ago, the idea of producing our own radio show would have been impossible. Today, some 20,000 people do it, thanks to the ideas embodied in Web 2.0.

The audience in charge

The Web 2.0 world comprises several key communication models that professional communicators need to embrace:

* Monitoring. If we do nothing else, we must monitor the conversations that could affect our organizations' reputations and develop processes that allow us to respond quickly, before any damage is done. In mid-2005, a fellow with a blog posted an item about his displeasure with a company that failed to provide adequate customer support. The company's name: Dell. The blogger: Jeff Jarvis. Jarvis' blog is widely read, and word of Dell's mishandling of his problem spread quickly, resonating with a lot of people who shared similar experiences. Dell never directly addressed the situation. As a direct consequence of Jarvis' posts, Dell suffered a measurable decline in its reputation that affected sales. (One reader noted that Dell's customer support in his native Denmark was separate from the U.S. operation that had failed to serve Jarvis, but after reading Jarvis' tale, he said he still would never buy a Dell.) What happened to Dell is just one example. There are hundreds of others.

* Collaboration. People with similar interests work together online. The open source movement is a great example, but it's not the only one. Wikis--web sites that anybody can edit--have given individuals the ability to build remarkable resources such as the Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that boasts 20 times more articles than traditional encyclopedias because anybody can write or revise an item.

The communication world has its own collaborative wiki, The New PR (www.thenewpr.com). A Romanian communicator named Constantin Basturea created this resource for communicators seeking to learn more about new media. But Basturea does not write all the content. Take, for example, the list of CEO blogs. Anybody who learns of a new executive blog can add it. It's this collaborative spirit that has helped The New PR evolve into the rich resource it is.

* Passion. People who produce the content that characterizes the new media do so because they are passionate about whatever it is they're doing. This passion manifests itself in a variety of ways. For example, people who want to share their photos upload them to services such as Flickr.com, tagging them so they can be discovered in simple searches. (Tag your photo "cat" and it'll come up in a search of all photos tagged "cat.") Similarly, you can use a site such as del.icio.us to tag any web page you've found so that others can find it when seeking the same kind of content.

People passionate about products have gone so far as to create ' their own television commercials, uploading them to sites such as YouTube.com so others can see them. The practice is I called citizen marketing. Savvy companies have tapped into this passion, asking these devoted customers to create marketing ; content for them and coordinating the effort. This is known as open source marketing.

Individuals also report the news as citizen journalists. News networks covering the London subway bombings in July 2005 and the Asian tsunami in December 2004 used images, video and reports contributed by individuals who were on the scene armed with camera-equipped cell phones. Web sites have cropped up dedicated to citizen journalism, while MSNBC and other mainstream media outlets encourage individuals to submit their reports of breaking news. I strongly advise that you read We the Media, by Dan Gillmor (O'Reilly Media, 2004), to learn more about citizen journalism.

Community. Collaboration. Creativity. Passion. These are the foundations of Web 2.0 and consumer-generated media. Organizations that learn how to participate in it will be far more successful at delivering their messages than those that continue producing content and sending it to audiences.

all about blogs ...

Gallup says that one in five Americans who use the Web consult blogs "frequently" or at least "occasionally." Moreover, Technorati, which tracks 27.6 million blogs, reports that the size of the blogosphere doubles every five and a half months, and a new blog is created every second. In addition, 1.2 million new posts are contributed each day.

... and podcasts

Podcast Alley lists more than 14,000 independent podcasts in its directory. This does not count mainstream media podcasts (that is, podcasts repurposed from radio and other pre-existing content). The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that 6 million American adults have listened to podcasts. And The Diffusion Group estimates that the audience for podcasts will grow to 60 million by 2010.

Shel Holtz, ABC, IABC Fellow, is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology in Concord, California. With his co-host Neville Hobson, ABC, Holtz produces the podcast "For Immediate Release," available at www.forimrnediaterelease.biz.
COPYRIGHT 2006 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Holtz, Shel
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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