Web 2.0-a combination of business processes, principles and technology that enables customer participation and collaboration-is an online juggernaut, a phenomenon with far-reaching implications for marketers.
"It's the ability for users and experts to collaborate," said Jake Winebaum, CEO of Business.com, a vertical search engine for b-to-b. "It's much broader than what kind of interface you're using. Internet phase one was about publishing information out to users. Web 2.0 combines publishing and communication."
Gene Lewis, founding partner-director of Web and technology development at Digital Pulp, an interactive agency, calls Web 2.0 true one-to-one marketing. "For years we've talked about one-to-one relationships, and we're only now seeing it come to fruition," he said.
Web 2.0 has exploded onto the scene because companies such as BitTorrent, Digg, MySpace, Reddit and Wikipedia have built engaging and useful Web experiences shaped by user communities.
"[Web 2.0] is the fastest-growing category on
the Web right now," said Charlie Buchwalter, senior VP-industry solutions for Web measurement company Nielsen//NetRatings.
The possibilities of Web 2.0 as a marketing platform have been embraced by a number of b-to-b marketers, which are experimenting with such concepts as user-generated content and social networks.
"The future of b-to-b marketing is about aggregating customers and potential customers to your community," said Larry Weber, chairman-CEO of W2 Group, a marketing services and PR agency holding company.
Intuit, maker of Quicken and other financial software, is one marketer that has taken the leap and has seen early success with community-building.
Scott K. Wilder, group manager at Intuit Online Communities, led the launch of Intuit's first Web 2.0 community 18 months ago as a sideline to his e-commerce manager role. (He now devotes 100% of his time to the community effort and has a team working with him.)
Two weeks ago he launched a site for small businesses with several Web 2.0-type features.
Intuit Community Small Business Center grew out of Wilder's observation that Intuit Online community members frequently posted business questions beyond the realm of Quickbooks, Intuit's small-business accounting software line.
"An e-commerce site or a support site can't address all the issues," Wilder said.
The new site includes multiple forums to facilitate discussion between users, blogs, a map feature that enables a business to search for local business service providers, Widgets (a list of cool technology from outside companies that users can download to help them run their business) and a feedback button called "We Hear You" that enables Quickbooks' users to submit product feedback.
After comments are posted in the feedback area, Intuit responds publicly in that forum. Moreover, the software company has made 67 significant changes to Quickbooks to date, based on these user comments.
Intuit also solicits customers for text and video content. "We're providing the infrastructure for users to create content and help each other," Wilder said.
The site even has specific "heavy users," dubbed "All Stars" who can access a private forum, and Wilder and his team rely on them for regular feedback. "We run everything by them," he said. For instance, he posted the small-business site design there and got feedback that was incorporated before the site went public.
Part of the allure of Web 2.0 communities is that peer collaboration within online communities can help slash a marketer's customer service budget.
Wilder said that 50% of activity in the user forums is support-related and 80% of user questions are answered by other users. Additionally, a recent customer survey revealed two out of 12 customers polled prefer going to the online community with questions before ringing the call center. "I'm exploring that more now in terms of trying to measure how real that is," Wilder said. "We measure call deflection [in the call center]. We're looking at the cost impact of building a community versus a call center."
Other early adopters
Business.com launched Work.com in October, a Web community of small-business owners that contains more than 1,000 how-to guides written by business experts and rated by users, as well as discussion forums. Users can write guides in their area of expertise as well as suggest guide topics. The site also includes links to other Web sites and small-business resources.
Another company, ITtoolbox, recently introduced professional networking features on its site, including a place where IT professionals can create their own IT home page, with the ability to post content on the site. Targeted display ads and contextually matched content such as sponsored white papers and webcasts will appear, based on users' profile information.
Another b-to-b vertical search site, GlobalSpec, which also caters to engineers, announced last week it has relaunched CR4, its 18-month-old online community for engineers and industrial professionals, with several major Web 2.0 enhancements. Like Intuit's small-business site, CR4 also contains blogs from industry professionals.
These companies understand that through the Web, tech-savvy customers have an ever-expanding array of sources at their disposal to evaluate companies and products, and that reviews from like-minded peers have a great deal of influence in decision-making. For these reasons, they are creating destinations where users can congregate and find the information they seek.
It's not as if the idea of community is brand new; there is a long history of user communities tapping into bulletin boards and online discussion groups for information.
"The idea of a social network is not a new thing for veteran users of bulletin boards," said Susannah Fox, an associate director at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "There are now tools to more easily do what people have always done." She said networks are both wider and more niche-oriented.
Another executive agreed. Shen Tong, founder and president of Vfinity, an enterprise software company, said the ability to form dynamic groups can be realized with Web 2.0.
"Take Adobe," he said. "If you have a group of customers interested in the Adobe Creative Suite as far as prepress is concerned, while another group is interested in the Video Production Suite, Adobe can now take the MySpace concept to form a dynamic group [around each]."
Pulling all the information into one place can be powerful. Jake Winebaum said for Work.com, "It's about harnessing all the expert information out there to benefit our small-business users." The benefit to a marketer facilitating those discussions is reinforcement of its brand.
"In Intuit's case, the brand attributes are being knowledgeable and being approachable," Wilder said. "Intuit becomes the place to go for small businesses to grow their customers. We reinforce the brand and our position in the marketplace. It's thinking about marketing on more of an engagement level than, `hey, buy this now.' "
Wilder said credibility and the absence of any overt marketing agenda are important elements for Web 2.0 sites. Unlike ITtoolbox, Intuit has a "no solicit" policy for its community sites. "That includes us," Wilder said. "We do not explicitly highlight our products and services."
But that doesn't mean he doesn't measure. Wilder regularly surveys users to determine their "Net Promoter" score, a companywide method of measuring customer loyalty based on the likelihood of recommending Intuit products. He also knows the value of customers over time by measuring their interactions on the site as well as tracking them to the shopping cart to come up with a lifetime value for that customer.
Hewlett-Packard Co. has also gotten in on the Web 2.0 act with some early experiments that, like Intuit's, are being measured in terms of engagement rather than typical Web metrics such as traffic.
"The team at HP is very proud to start experimenting with all of this [2.0 technology]," said Mary Bermel, director, interactive and emerging media at HP. Bermel's remarks were made earlier this month during BtoB's webcast, Using New Media Tools for Marketing to IT Professionals: Blogs, Podcasts, Video, RSS and Social Networking.
"I don't think we've got it figured out totally, but certainly we think it's a huge opportunity to not only take advantage of the technology pieces themselves but also to encourage participation of the audience in a much deeper way than we have before," she said.
One experiment, Change Artists, is a series of webcasts and podcasts designed to reach the CIO/CTO/VP-IT-level audience with stories of companies that have successfully tied technology to improved business results.
"We wanted to get that community together and provide a point of view to an audience that hopefully stimulates participation of all the people in our prospective customer set," Bermel said. The webcasts are also available on demand, through RSS feeds as well as through podcasts.
"The need for marketing accountability and measurable results is absolutely key," Bermel said, adding that she measures several things.
"We look at view time and interaction rate, and we look at the back-end behavior, which varies program by program: whether people register, sign up for e-newsletters, request additional information, even things like pages viewed. Getting to that whole portfolio of back-end data is critical," she said. "I don't think engagement means one specific thing."
Bermel said HP customers have given them feedback on the Change Artists program. "Unlike many HP campaigns that are usually short-lived, this one has legs and is ongoing based on audience feedback. The audience has been very vocal in terms of suggesting the set of speakers they'd like to hear."
Measuring engagement can be challenging, but W2's Weber said two simple ways to measure engagement are "the time people spend on the events and the content you have presented within your communities, and how many have been downloaded."
Marilou Balsam, senior VP-client consulting at Tech Target, a provider of IT content and services, said her company has developed a proprietary algorithm for measuring engagement.
"There are a lot of factors that go into that," she said. "We rank level of engagement relative to all of the leads generated in the client's program so they get a good sense of how effective their content was and who it affected at each level."
Weber said this latest iteration of the Web makes the Internet "very emotive."
"It's not a channel anymore," he said. "B-to-b marketers need to understand the profound impact this platform will have in their buying and selling, and in their relationships with customers. The job of marketers in b-to-b today is to be that of an aggregator of products, trends, issues, events and communities."
He said marketers will need to venture beyond their own sites to other Web destinations where customers congregate. "A lot of the b-to-b companies don't understand that they have to go out to other people's `parties,' " he said. "It's just like networking in the physical world. You have to start going out so that the community comes back to you as well."
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