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Make technology your friend.

Many communicators have found themselves faced with the harrowing task of developing communication solutions using technologies they haven't even heard of. Whether you are building an intranet site geared toward employee communication or a corporate communication plan involving the World Wide Web, you'll be confronted with a host of options that will make your head spin. And that's if you know what you're doing. If this is all new to you, you'll be in even worse shape. What's a communicator to do?

First, relax. Remember that technology is your friend. It offers communicators real tools that can fundamentally improve a company's success in both market share and mind share. Besides, there isn't a human anywhere who knows everything about the technology that is available. The idea is not so much to be concerned, or worried, about understanding all the technology options that are available, but how to tap into your creativity in a new way - a way that takes advantage of what amounts to a new dimension in the world of mass media. Take your inspiration, then, from other companies who have learned how to tap into this vast resource. Soon, you'll be telling yourself how easy and wonderful it all really is.

MICROSOFT

One company that has been taking its public relations lumps recently is mighty Microsoft. Nevertheless, it has been highly successful using the web to develop a cutting edge communication program as part of its efforts to win its much-publicized battle for the web browser market. The company built a highly focused web site for both novice and expert web developers called the SiteBuilder Network (http://www.microsoft.com/sitebuilder/). The site offers comprehensive support for the technology that lies behind Internet Explorer, which, never mind the debate over the company's marketing tactics, is substantial. In fact, there are so many features built into Explorer that to explain them all would fill up a CD-ROM. So Microsoft made a CD-ROM freely available to SiteBuilder members (membership is free) that came packed with advice, technical information, free software and other goodies. The site itself also includes an impressive catalog of free software, which can be easily downloaded from the site.

On the browser war front, these kinds of activities are all very important. The software for Internet Explorer is engineered in such a way that you could theoretically develop a site that looks spectacular in Explorer but crummy in Netscape. Of course, it could be argued that the opposite is also true, that a web developer can build a site that looks great in Netscape and rather plain in Explorer. The issue here, however, is not which technology is superior, but which technology is getting into users' hands. By offering support to web developers on a massive scale, Microsoft is in effect trying to influence a substantial number of developers into building web sites that look better in Internet Explorer. I doubt that this is some grand scheme cooked up by communicators within Microsoft, but loading up their site with free software, tools and technical advice is a heck of a way to communicate to developers.

Naturally, the company doesn't refrain from using the site as a direct promotional vehicle. For example, many developers argue that both Netscape and Microsoft directly impose their will on the W3C, the international standards committee responsible for maintaining the open standard that has made the web so easily accessible and widespread. Microsoft responds by offering an article on its site describing the composition of W3C and the process the committee uses to agree on standards and specifications. The company then refutes the argument outright by arguing that despite its differences with such competitors as Netscape and Sun, the companies all have common goals that somehow lie above the battles of the marketplace. In another instance, the company used its site to post an immediate reaction to Sun Microsystems' lawsuit, which took aim at Microsoft's implementation of the Java license Microsoft had previously purchased from Sun.

SUN

Sun Microsystems used the Internet to develop a core constituency for the Java programming language long before Java became a hot media buzzword. The company did this by making the Java Development Kit (JDK) freely available.

The JDK was simply a set of tools that allowed anyone with a computer to write Java code and compile it to run on any machine or on a web page over the Internet. This meant that anybody with Internet access could download the JDK and, in theory at least, write a word-processing software program that could work on any platform - Mac, Windows 95, Unix and others. The excitement among developers was nearly instantaneous. The media frenzy that eventually ensued originated in large part because of the excitement of programmers who fantasized of the day they would no longer have to write separate programs for Macs and PCs. As little as a year after the first JDK was released, the number of Java developers was reported by some sourced, be in the hundreds of thousands.

The JDK was made available on a site devoted exclusively to Java (http://www.java.sun.com/), along with an impressive set of tools to make life easier for Java developers. The web site is currently heavily flavored with a "100% Pure Java" campaign complete with logo and a listing of companies who have hopped on the "100% Pure Java" bandwagon. You can find the logo on other companies' sites and software packages. It's all part of a clever strategy aimed at Microsoft in a heated public discussion about Java. Sun says Microsoft has co-opted Java and is trying to turn it into a language that operates best on Windows machines, while Microsoft says it is merely making improvements to the language. I'm personally not as interested in who is right as I am in how each company handles the argument online. If you really want to watch how companies handle such a high-stakes battle in the digital world, bookmark those two sites in your browser.

POINTCAST

Accompanied with a ton of hype, Pointcast came on the scene in early 1996 as a news delivery service using another highly touted technology called "Push." Push technology differs from the web in that consumers subscribe to channels that automatically update themselves according to a set of parameters chosen by the user. In Pointcast's case, the user downloads free software and receives news from sources such as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and others. There are also subject-specific channels that specialize in such areas as business, sports and computers.

Pointcast was initially highly successful because of its ease of use and ability to deliver some value to advertisers, who were able to buy space on the Pointcast screen. But it drew the ire of corporate information managers because the software ate up a lot of resources on employee computers and clogged up networks. Nonetheless, the company has quietly continued to build its brand by establishing separate business and consumer networks, and has streamlined its software so that it is less of a drain on resources. It recently signed a deal with WavePhone and PBS to use part of the unused television spectrum to deliver its fare.

Many companies, especially in the high-tech industry, use PR Newswire or Business Wire to issue press releases, which are then fed to the Pointcast Network and come in as news stories with a PR Newswire or Business Wire byline. The line between real news and press releases is blurred because the headlines are downloaded in a way that it is impossible for the user to know until they read the story if it's a press release or a newswire story. The risk in using this strategy is that news-savvy users may be offended by this blurred line, but the risk is borne more by Pointcast than with the companies that use the online press release services.

THE ALLIANCE STRATEGY

Of course, PR Newswire and Business Wire also feed their stories to other Internet sources, such as Yahoo, as part of a widely implemented alliance program. The Internet is such a vast entity that it has proved extremely difficult for any one company to singlehandedly manage any kind of communication strategy on a mass scale. So smart companies are pooling their resources. Commerce on the Internet is driven in large part by alliances between firms seeking to consolidate their publicity efforts in a cost-effective way.

Take Edgar Online (http://www.edgar-online.com), a well-known resource for pulling U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings off the Internet. Since the middle of last year, the company has formed alliances with Time Inc.'s Money. corn, CMPnet's TechInvestor, CNET's Snap! Online, Rogers New Media of Canada for Quicken Canada, NetEvents' Rapid Content and several online brokerage firms.

TMP Worldwide, a national recruitment ad agency, has built several alliances for its online job board. Click on Advertising Age's job bank (http://www.adage.com/job_bank/index.html), and you'll see TMP's Monster Board logo under the Advertising Age logo. This kind of dual-identity web site promotion is all over the web. Although high-tech companies have been the major players in this kind of activity, other companies are beginning to form similar alliances. It's a strategy anyone can use, and it's highly cost-effective.

THE LESSON

The lesson here is that flashy technology is not what drives successful online communication campaigns. As always, it is creativity and foresight that wins the day. In the first two examples cited in this article, each company used the Internet to develop a substantial following of enthusiasts before launching broader-based campaigns to a mass audience. Well, sure, you might say: They're high-tech firms. Of course they know how to use the Internet.

High-tech companies, though, aren't the only ones who know how to play the game. Consider the case of food companies. You can bet that the first company to put recipes on its site was given credit for being an innovator. Today it's hard to find a site maintained by a food company that is without recipes. So now companies are forced to do more.

That may be one reason why the Campbell Soup Company integrated database technology into its web site (http://www.campbellsoups.com/index.html) to allow users to enter information about their meals and receive an analysis of that meal's nutritional value (or in my case, lack thereof). Using the Campbell's web site, I found that my lunch, a double cheeseburger, derived 46 percent of its numerous calories from fat. Will that make me go out and buy a can of soup? No. But it does help promote a feeling of goodwill for the company that develops the site, and that's what we're striving for as communicators.

THE TECHNOLOGIES

Other than using such online press release services as Business Wire and PR Newswire, none of these strategies has an immediate pay-off. They require patience and a dedication to an. idea, plus a certain persistence, in addition to a solid familiarity with technological trends. An in-depth knowledge of the technologies involved isn't a necessity for using them effectively (of course, it doesn't hurt).

If you are still morbidly afraid of technology, you can probably avoid interacting with these tools altogether if you're determined to do so. You can write a press release and have it beamed across the Internet by other people who know how to do it. You can develop a series of alliances with other companies by using the telephone. And you can lay down a comprehensive web or intranet communication plan on a storyboard and have other folks execute it.

What you can't do is pretend the technology is not there. And after you learn how to use it, you'll be glad it is.

RELATED ARTICLE: TECHNOLOGY How Much Is Enough?

For most of us, the safest thing to do when making decisions about how much technology to use is to keep it simple. Multimedia promises to transform the web, but not until the World Wide Wait is over. One word everyone should be familiar with by now is bandwidth. There is generally too little of it, and people don't like waiting for pages to load. This is especially true of areas on your site that require or request user interaction. If you ask users accessing your site over the Internet to fill out a registration form, don't put graphics on the form page.

Remember that the thrill of seeing graphics on a web site is pretty much over for most people. Unless the graphic adds value to the web site, leave it off. This is a principle many of us have heard by now, and if you're looking for one simple way to understand how to apply the numerous other technology and multimedia options to your online communication efforts, all you really need to do is apply that same principle across the board. Real Audio? Great, if you've got a music site. Streaming video? Not on my 28.8k modem you don't. Shockwave? What's an acceptable ratio of browser crashes for your site? Two out of 107 Three out of 107 And what about Java? Same thing, only more so. Active X? Only on corporate intranets.

The truth is, currently very few viable multimedia technologies are available for anyone building sites with a broad audience in mind (by broad audience, I mean an audience with a variety of access methods that range from low bandwidth modems to high-speed T1 lines). Corporate intranets, however, are a different issue, because there, your organization is in control of how employees access the site. Those with high speed access have many more delivery options (see sidebar #2). And a slew of technologies on the horizon promise to bump up the access speed considerably. By the end of the year, there may be a considerable segment of the Internet-surfing public accessing the Net at speeds 10 times faster than they do today.

RELATED ARTICLE: High Speed Intranet Access? Put on Your Tech Hat, We're Going for a Ride

Here's a brief review of some of the technologies you'll want to look at if you're developing a high-speed corporate intranet:

Java: The hype has subsided, but some 200,000 Java developers have begun to help fulfill some of this technology's promise. Java is particularly useful if your corporation has different operating systems that need to access what is called by the computer industry 'legacy" databases, which is just tech-speak for old databases developed under systems that existed prior to Java. Needless to say, plenty of corporate intranets are out there that would love to marry the aging database systems containing employee information, company policies and other existing corporate info, and Java handles the job superbly.

ActiveX: If you've heard to ActiveX, you've probably heard it's just like Java, but it's not. Without getting too technical, it's basically a piece of Windows-based code that's been ported to the Internet. It's an excellent tool that can e used by companies with extensive DOS-based operations for a wide variety of purposes, including highly specific software programs run from intranet web pages. But their functionality is limited to Windows-based machines because their behavior on Macs can be unpredictable.

Dynamic HTML: A better solution than ActiveX in many cases, because all you need to do is make sure everyone in your organization has Internet Explorer 4.0, which is free and available for both the PC and Macintosh. Although not as robust, Dynamic HTML offers many of the same options ActiveX and Java do, including database access. And your designers will love it because it lets them design in layers and style sheets without using tables. Netscape Navigator 4.0 doesn't offer the full range of support for HTML 4.0 and style sheets as Internet Explorer 4.0 does, and it offers no support for data-binding (accessing databases without repeated trips to the server), so you really need Internet Explorer to make it work.

XML: There's always a "next big thing" as far as the web is concerned, and XML is the current such vogue. XML will provide a wide range of options that will involve the entire computer system with the Internet, rather than just the browser. With Netscape and Microsoft both planning to include support of XML in their next browsers, XML is an acronym worth remembering.

SMIL: SMIL is a mark-up language similar to HTML and is based on XML. If that's one too many acronyms for you, maybe it will make you feel a little better to know that SMIL is pronounced like the word "smile." SMIL is a very simple multimedia mark-up language that is in its infancy but will help make desktop video presentations a reality for the most casual users. Some experts are forecasting that desktop video will become as big as desktop publishing - and SMIL will be one reason why.

Chuck White is art director/production manager for IABC and Communication World/CW Online. He also maintains a web site that focuses on technology issues for the communication and advertising industries at http://www.javertising.com. He can be reached at cwhite@iabc.com.
COPYRIGHT 1998 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles on the amount of technology to be used and available technologies for building high-speed corporate intranets; use of technology in business communication
Author:White, Chuck
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Words:2860
Previous Article:It's open season on the Web ... and technology is calling the shots.
Next Article:Technology: it's about time.
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