In the annals of terms misused and cliche, Web 2.0 must surely still rank near the top. For years we heard it breathlessly spoken of by various media, PR and marcom flacks 'n hacks, usually without reference to its meaning or purpose. This, it become clear, was because they never quite grasped what it is they were actually referring to.
The term became iconic. For them it meant the "new, shiny internet" of the future, here! ... now! ... and to be fair, however shallow their analysis invariably was, they were not entirely wrong.
It also became a bit of a caricature, made fun of because of the earnestness of its early proponents, juxtaposed with the scale of their spectacular failures or successes . Indeed, there was an entire genre of websites dedicated to poking fun at the caricature of Web 2.0 company names , their logos , their products and the language it precipitated.
Tim O'Reilly and colleagues popularized the term as a catchy phrase to help market a web-related conference they were promoting in 2004. His conceptualization is complex and abstract, while Paul Graham's is much more practical, and, true to character, my musings here on Web 2.0 and its impact on business are greatly informed by his.
Regardless, Web 2.0, as any Internet Project Manager, or anyone focused on Digital Marketing will tell you, was about considerably more than an abstract, "next generation" internet, popularized by social networking sites, web apps that did things we never realized we needed done, and web sites of a certain style that had a bright, colorful and (mostly) uncluttered appearance that was itself a metaphor for Web 2.0.
In fact, for business, the process of buying and selling, and for human networking, Web 2.0 was the single greatest agent of change of its time, and was the critical precursor to the ubiquity of today's eCommerce and social networking practices and behaviours, and the adoption of mobile devices.
What the printing press did for the written word, Web 2.0 technologies and concepts did for the process of business and social networking. It was the paradigm shift that enabled the process of business for the first time to favor the buyer, rather than the seller, and in doing so, it changed forever what businesses must do to win and keep customers.
Web 2.0 de-mystified
Lets cut right to the chase - essentially, Web 2.0 has 3 core elements, each of which emerged in reaction to the public's generally poor past experience of doing business on the web - improved functionality and usability (through increasingly sophisticated and feature-rich web technologies), increased interactivity (through 'social networking' methods and behaviours), and improved accountability (through transparency and ease of access).
Vastly improved functionality and usability
The historic web was conceived of and initially standardized in relative isolation by a small cabal of poorly supported intellectuals, and subsequently thrown together by programmers pulled-off their real jobs of developing software applications. The implementation was often poorly conceived, functioned awkwardly, looked awful, and offered no real ROI to business for a long, long time.
There were essentially 2 elements - text and hyper links. In other words, the experience was similar to that of reading a typewritten document, with the addition of being able to jump instantly to other documents through hyperlinks.
In the corporate world, what then passed for eye-catching websites had become a status symbol, and they were thoroughly embraced by sales and marketing departments. Enormous amounts were paid for them - feature for feature, probably ten times the current cost. A quarter-million dollar corporate brochure site was not entirely unusual, although, to be fair, because of the web technology limitations, a full team of developers and creative folks was required, and for a much longer duration, to accomplish tasks that are now much quicker and comparatively trivial.
In the web-based, business applications space, (as opposed to static information presentation websites), Web 2.0 was already emerging, despite the technological constraints. While leading a web applications development project for Mitel , that saw us designing and developing web interfaces for the management of VoIP phone networks, it became clear that the ubiquity of the types of tools we were building was inevitable - that once the technology caught up to the types of useful functionality we were imagining, it would change the world.
And now that Web 2.0 practices have become normalized, its clear that we were right. Our world has been irrevocably changed by online and on-mobile practices and possibilities, and nothing short of apocalypse is going to change our present course.
This occurred largely as a consequence of the recognition by larger technology companies - particularly Microsoft, who essentially owned the desktop space - that, as a platform, the web offered greater possibilities than current network typologies, and, moreover, that adoption by the general public was already a fait accompli. Once big tech was onboard, standards and core technologies could be developed and implemented more broadly, which led to the professionalization of web development methods and practices, so that now, browser-based applications can compete with desktop apps in terms of powerful functionality, to meet the needs of both those who consume and provide online services.
An examination of the online shopping cart of today, versus just a few years ago makes the point well. In-depth analysis of the reasons for shopping cart abandonment - perhaps as many as 74% of online shopping carts are abandoned by shoppers - and the steps that can be taken to recover from this, demonstrate how Web 2.0 practices have made online shopping fast, easy, satisfying and stress-free for consumers, and immensely profitable for businesses that do it right.
Such practices as factoring shipping costs so they are apparent up-front, rather than at the end of the process, and providing an "express checkout" that does not require customer registration, reduce the friction in the sales-funnel, allowing customers to get in one end and out the other as quickly and painlessly as possible. And of course, should they leave the online store without making a purchase, emailing them a reminder to encourage them to return, while keeping their items in the cart, all helps to close a sale that would otherwise have been lost.
Turns out, not surprisingly, that forcing people through an uncomfortable buying process takes away their acquisitive appetite, and the converse, that reducing friction in the sales funnel helps to close sales. Marketing 101 applies to every platform.
Interactivity - both vertically and horizontally
Historically, business has been conceived and conducted in a top-down manner. Businesses have controlled information about their vertical, their products and product categories, and, either implicitly or explicitly, have colluded to ensure that consumers are restricted only to them as the single source for market intelligence. This has resulted in consumers having to buy whatever businesses have told them to, and having to pay the retail price (MSRP) demanded.
The early web reflected this conceit. Websites were self aggrandizing brochures, with little useful information for product comparisons or other market research, and certainly nothing that could be considered unbiased. Business simply duplicated their partisan off-line practices, and continued to dominate consumers.
This of course is no longer the case. The ideal nature of the web for locating and communicating highly specific information, means that consumers can now find well-documented information about products and services from a wide variety of different biases that include those of both consumers and business competitors.
The business information funnel has been inverted. Rather than business informing consumers what consumers need to know, consumers now inform business what business need to provide. Consumers do this in the same way business used to - by colluding to ensure that other consumers have exhaustive information available on which to base an excellent buying decision, and on how little that purchase need cost.
Because information is ubiquitous, business, to avoid being forced out, has had no choice but to buy-in to this new paradigm. They now compete on the basis of who can best inspire sufficient confidence to generate a buying decision, through full disclosure of product information, and provision of facilities for other customers to interact and share their own experiences.
Whenever I shop online, I invariably spend the most time on sites that provide product reviews written by customers discussing their particular use of a product that I can otherwise know only through an image on my screen. This allows me to understand whether or not the product meets my own criteria or not, because, after all, price is simply but one element that informs the buying decision.
What used to be a business monologue, has now become a dialogue between businesses, their competitors, groups of consumers, former customers, and existing prospects.
If anyone got the short end of the stick, it was usually the consumer - business is far too savvy for that! Either the consumer paid too much, or the business failed to completely deliver on what was promised. And then what could the consumer do? With the deck stacked against them, they invariably had to swallow their bile, and move on. So-what if the business lost them as a customer ? - there was no shortage of prospects out there.
The ability for anyone now to instantly broadcast information has however meant that business can no longer expect to indulge in free-reign behavior while being protected by anonymity. Any business that crosses the line - accidentally or otherwise - risks a full, one-sided account being published on the web, for all to see - the victim telling the full story as a PSA (public service annjouncement).
And this is not restricted just to individuals spewing bitterness on their personal blog, or consumer-related forums, or on crowd-moderated social networking sites such as reddit . The pro-business "Better Business Bureau" , which generates revenue from businesses in exchange essentially for managing customer complaints, publishes the results of those complaints on their website as part of the public record. Any hard-done-by customer can co-opt the BBB's credibility - either to mediate an accord with the injuring business, or, failing that, to attach a negative score to the businesses reputation, on which prospective customers will base their future buying decisions.
Interestingly, from this has emerged a new maturity amongst consumers, with their realization that the issue is less about the mistakes made by a business - statistically, out of a zillion transactions or operations, something bad is bound to happen - the issue is really about how the business responds to its alleged mistakes.
It's now okay for a business to admit an instance of fallibility, and to engage in a conversation with customers to figure out what went wrong, and how it can be fixed and prevented from happening in the future. They may as well, since their customers have already publicly broadcast their version of the outrage , with full details. But nothing defuses outrage faster than contrition and a commitment to fair resolution. Business now has an opportunity to tell their side of the story, and to neutralize any bad karma.
What a fantastic marketing opportunity - probably the most cost-effective method of winning customers, and keeping them for life!
A separate reality?
We can see that these elements of Web 2.0 have had enormous implications for the manner in which business is now conducted, and that the consequences for businesses that don't move ahead with the rest of us will be dire.
But some businesses still engage in a merely perfunctory pre-Web 2.0 manner. Their view is still informed by the notion that there is somehow a dichotomy between "online" and so-called "bricks-and-mortar" businesses.
The notion is that some types of business can do well online, and some are completely unsuited for it. Businesses, that, for example, sell highly commoditized products - like cameras - and for whom price is the only differentiator between them and their competitors, are thought to do well online, because the process can be completely automated, thereby enabling higher volumes at a lower cost of acquisition. Since the buyer most often already knows what they want, these merchants invest almost solely in technologies that enable volume selling, rather than in the process of product marketing.
Other types of businesses - high-end products, such as exotic cars or airplanes, or highly specialized niche products - are thought to be less well-suited for the internet, since they require a deeper marketing and sales engagement, as do, it is widely believed, products like, well, bricks and mortar.
This is of course an entirely false dichotomy. While the ease and simplicity of online sales transactions created new opportunities for purveyors of commodity products, the internet and web 2.0 paradigms also created new opportunities for other types of businesses.
The internet is now the center of all marketing
To understand how all types of businesses can and should leverage this revolutionary marketing tool, lets remember that the sales process doesn't start when the customer arrives at the sales counter, it starts when the customer recognizes that they have a need, and begins to ponder how that need might be fulfilled. That's why we invented marketing - to make sure that, as the customer pondered, it would be our product or service that came to mind.
We have a client, for example, that sells the stuff they dig out of holes in the ground. Yes, they sell sand and gravel - tons at a time - and their internet business is doing really, really well, because, when people have a need they don't know how to fulfill, they go to that great big shopping mall called the internet to figure it out. If you search for sand and gravel in our locale, our client is front and centre. Not only do they market their products online targeted locally, they actually sell them as well - that is, they take orders online - which means that their competitors are losing market share, and may just lose their businesses.
So, in essence, characterizing a business as inappropriate for online merely reflects a limited understanding of Internet Marketing. Online is an important and much more accessible additional portal to any business, and this fact is what made Web 2.0 such a powerful and revolutionary concept - because it has shaped customer expectations of how business should be conducted online, and these expectations have now bled into off-line interactions as well!
Web 2.0 has been life changing
Almost all of our own shopping at home has an online component - except basics, (like beer ). This extends even to groceries, since we check the weekly flyers online before deciding where best to shop that week.
When needing to buy just about anything else, we tend to check availability online. Books, clothes, electronics. housewares - just about everything is researched online first. And our shopping territory includes both Canada and the United States.
Because of Canada's small population and presumably the conservative nature of most Canadian businesses, there is less competition here, so prices are significantly higher and product selection is considerably smaller. This extends to Canadian online businesses, where product selection is just as limited, and prices are often twice that of American competitors.
As a consequence, we tend to periodically order items from various U.S. online retailers, and have them shipped to an agent in Ogdensburg, New York - about a 40 minute drive from where we live in Ottawa. Even after paying Canadian taxes, the cost is comparable. The real clincher though, for us, is the selection. Instead of compromising, and buying something that doesn't do exactly what we need, or is of a lesser quality - while costing the same or more - we get exactly what we want.
And U.S. online retailers will ship product across the continent for less money than Canadian retailers will ship product from only a few hours away.
For example, some time ago, when the cost of oil peaked, it looked like our home heating bill was going to triple. We live in an old, drafty house, in a climate that sees minus 20 degrees for weeks on end - often minus 30. Something had to be done to keep us toasty through those cold, long nights - without breaking the bank!
We liked the idea of electric blankets, but were disturbed by the inconclusive risk data - with respect to fire and burning, and possibly cancer-causing magnetic radiation. Online research led us to an entirely new technology, perfected by a single U.S. manufacturer , that uses low-voltage DC current, rather than the conventional high-voltage AC current. The benefits apparently are two fold - low voltage means lower temperatures and therefore inconsequential risk of fire or burning, and DC current does not generate a magnetic field. Plus, the quality of the blanket was really high, and they use as little power as a small light-bulb.
Further research led us to a small mom-and-pop online retailer in Minnesota, run by
Kimberly and Thomas Carlson, evidently from their home outside of St. Paul, and with a warehouse nearby. He was a cop, she was a social worker. To have a better life together, they started an online business using Web 2.0 technologies and practices, and in doing so, they helped make our life better too!
OMG! World Peace!
This then is the true power of the online business revolution enabled by Web 2.0. ideas and technologies. In helping to support a "global village", it has made us all neighbors, with relationships based on reciprocity. And, as we all eventually learn, the recipe for a healthy life is to develop cordial relations with your neighbors!
As already alluded to, Web 2.0 has helped transform expectations for off-line transactions also. The cost of online success for business is acceptance by them of certain principles and practices. But customers don't really distinguish between the online and off-line side of a business. Failure of any business to acknowledge this reality - for example, by providing a lower quality of service in the off-line environment, will lead to the same consequences as a business failure online - broadcast of the details, resulting in loss of reputation, and then sales revenues.
What comes next?
For many, the notions of Web 2.0. are old news. Invariably, wags over-use the nomenclature and opine upon Web 3.0 - the so-called "Semantic Web".
Current notions of Web 3.0 refer essentially to the deriving of meaning (semantics) from content. When searching for "wag", do you mean the movement of a finger or dog's tail, or the "person given to droll, roguish, or mischievous humor; wit"? Currently, you still have to be more specific, to receive the most useful results.
The "Semantic Web" is one that understands what you mean in context, and that can combine existing data in new ways, to provide, for example, a map that plots licensed dogs of a certain breed, within a kilometer of your location... with videos... on your mobile device!
Is this a shift of the same magnitude that transformed the limited technologies and vision that existed prior to Web 2.0, or is it simply another refinement, an additional feature or layer of complexity? Is Web 3.0 simply a matter of... semantics?
Either way, the speed of the feedback-loop between what evolving transactional technologies can accomplish, and what we demand of them, continues to increase at an exponentially faster rate, and, in doing so it creates a broader commonality between peoples everywhere, and makes the world a smaller place.
Historically, this type of culture change has proven to be advantageous for some but perilous for others. I remain optimistic however that, overall, the web 2.0 revolution and the ideas it engendered have been so emancipitory that their consequences must, when finally judged, be considered as a significant step forward for all of us.
An Internet Marketing Project Manager has responsibility over tasks pertaining to promotion and sales of products or services online. For the purposes of online promotion, tactics such as search engine optimization - SEO and search engine marketing - SEM, are deployed, which may include pay per click advertising - PPC, for example, and use of social media applications, electronic direct mail - EDM.
The objective of Internet Marketing however, is to sell, and this is accomplished online through e-commerce and fulfillment applications, the development of which are also overseen by the Project Manager.