What's New With Web 2.0?

“The term ‘Web 2.0’ describes the changing trends in the use of World Wide Web technology and Web design that aim to enhance creativity, communication, secure information sharing, collaboration and functionality of the Web.” – Wikipedia definition.

Lisa Helminiak relies so heavily on Web 2.0 tools to run her company that taking them away would be tantamount to removing her from life support. The president of Azul 7, a technology-services firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Helminiak uses Web 2.0 – so named because it represents the next generation of Web applications – for myriad purposes encompassing accounting, business planning, marketing and networking. Included under the Web 2.0 umbrella are technology tools such as Web services, social networking sites, Web feeds, podcasts, blogs, viral videos and more.

Web 2.0 isn’t just for teenagers using Facebook or MySpace anymore. Helminiak is among a growing number of businesspeople, including many Toastmasters, who use these new applications to run their small businesses more efficiently, network with peers, track customer perception of their products or services online and promote their organizations.

In these tough economic times, those who have lost jobs, homes or much of their retirement accounts also are using Web 2.0 networks as a way to connect, commiserate and build a sense of community so they don’t feel so alone.

It’s the practical uses of Web 2.0 that have really captured the imagination of the business community. For example, Helminiak uses Web services – in essence, software that resides on the Internet instead of on computer hard drives or servers – for a plethora of operations in her small business. She uses Basecamphq.com for project management, Quickbooks.com for her financials, Harvest.com for time tracking and Salesforce.com for customer relationship management, to name just a few applications. What’s the benefit of this rent-a-software model? It reduces the hassles of software installation, gives users the flexibility of leasing instead of buying and ensures access to the latest version of software. It also places the user in an instant online community, where help with problems is only a click away.

Networking Online
On the networking side of Web 2.0, sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn have taken Web collaboration and interactivity to a new level. One benefit to online business networks like LinkedIn comes in creating a “personal friends,” or business connections group as part of your site profile. This function enables online friends to easily search your personal network for any relevant business contacts, valuable for things like job hunting. Some LinkedIn members use the site to update their network on business services they offer – with the smart ones avoiding any semblance of a hard sell. Many of these sites also allow you to publish your own blog.

Some large companies have created their own internal versions of social networks. Best Buy, the electronics retailer, established its “Blue Shirt Nation” to enable employees to ask and answer questions, help solve each other’s problems and swap sales tactics. This online “trading post” has helped boost sales and enhance customer service.

                    “Think of LinkedIn or Twitter as online versions
                    of a Rotary club or golf country club.” 

Others are using Web 2.0 to monitor social networking sites for comments or concerns made by users about their businesses. Comcast Corp. made news last year when a top executive responded within 20 minutes to complaints about a cable outage posted by a blogger on Twitter.com. The executive made sure a technician was dispatched post-haste to fix the customer’s problem. And Dell, the computer manufacturer, has a dedicated team of 40 customer service employees who spend their days talking to customers on Facebook, Twitter and the like to address any Dell-related complaints or questions posted to the sites. The idea is to get upset customers to talk directly to the company, rather than spread their displeasure far and wide on Internet message boards.

Blogs, another proliferating Web 2.0 tool, offer an important new way to keep your name in front of potential clients or business contacts. Those who become commentators on well-trafficked blogs, for example, often gain credibility and visibility that lead to new business opportunities.

“What’s interesting about Web 2.0 is it pushes organizations to look at their employees more as individuals, rather than as a collective unit,” says Helminiak, the Azul 7 technology company president. “For example, we encourage everyone in our company to comment on our blog, and we give them a set of possible topics they can talk about.”

While promoting that individual voice is easier for smaller companies that may not have the bureaucracy or legal concerns of their multinational brethren, Helminiak says blogging and use of internal information-swapping networks, such as Blue Shirt Nation, are making inroads in larger companies, as well. Online templates and blogging software like Wordpress.com have made it relatively easy for any company to start its own blog.

Viral Videos Take Off

The growth of broadband – bigger Internet “pipes” through which to transmit video, audio and data – has created new ways for companies to tell their stories using Web 2.0, says Albert Maruggi, president of Provident Partners, a marketing firm in St. Paul, Minnesota. One way they’re doing that is through “viral video” campaigns to promote products or services; using this guerilla marketing technique, companies shoot their own videos and upload them to online sites. Maruggi knows of one software company that films short, gritty videos inside customers’ offices that feature users talking about how the software has improved productivity and profitability; then the company posts the videos to Blip.TV and YouTube.com sites. The idea is to give the company exposure beyond its own Web site, and in the process drive more traffic back to that site. Some small businesses link their videos to community pages on social networking sites, making it that much easier for search engines to find them.

A related Web 2.0 tool that’s being embraced by more Toastmasters clubs is podcasting. Podcasting is an easy-to-master audio technology that’s an alternative to traditional marketing or public relations tactics. One reason for podcasting’s growing popularity is that many journalists, who once relied on press releases received directly from companies to get their story ideas, now conduct online searches for interesting podcasts and blogs to spark those ideas.

Slow But Steady Adoption

Although Web 2.0 has entered the business mainstream, its many tools are still used primarily in smaller or more entrepreneurial companies, with larger companies slower to board the bandwagon. According to a survey by the consulting firm McKinsey and Co., companies reported using about three Web 2.0 tools on average in 2008, up from two in 2007.

One reason for the slow embrace is that executives of the cell-phone generation, still higher on the organizational food chain than up-and-coming managers of the Web generation, are hesitant to believe that tools such as online social networks can produce the kind of sales leads or business connections that traditional sales or networking tactics can.

Maruggi counsels clients of a certain age to think of LinkedIn or Twitter as online versions of a Rotary club or golf country club. The same effort, knowledge and credibility needed to make connections in those brick and mortar settings is what’s needed in the virtual world to generate new business, referrals or positive word of mouth. But just as in those time-honored settings, sales rarely happen overnight online, and rarely as the result of any hard sell.

“Like any relationship, the more you give, the more you usually get with online business networks, but the payoff may not happen tomorrow,” Maruggi says. “But if you create a reputation for providing good advice and useful information, and not just for self-promotion, those sales and referrals will come.”

 Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer who divides his time between Wisconsin and South Carolina.

The ‘Middle Children’ of Web 2.0

Most of us are familiar with popular Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, podcasts and social network sites(Facebook, Twitter, MySpace). But there are other arrows in the Web 2.0 quiver that don’t have the same familiarity or name recognition. Here’s a rundown of some of those lesser-known tools:

  • Wikis. A wiki is a page or collection of Web pages that enable anyone who accesses them to modify or contribute content. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is one of the best-known examples. Your company might use a wiki to create a central database of online knowledge on particular topics, be it information technology, regulatory issues or successful sales practices, that everyone in the organization can contribute to.
  • RSS Web Feeds. “Web feed” formats are used to publish frequently updated content such as blogs, podcasts, video or news stories in a standard format, sending them out on a regular schedule to users. Web feeds benefit publishers by allowing them to syndicate content in an automatic fashion, and they help users by creating astandard way to receive updated content from Web sites, or to combine feeds from many sites into one place.
  • Web Services. Also known as “cloud” computing, Web services represent software you access and use over the Internet, rather than the kind you download to hard drives or workstations. Web services provide a way of outsourcing functions you once performed in your own organization, offering the advantages of “renting” rather than owning business applications.
  • Folksonomies. Folksonomies are a way of indexing or “tagging” online content to better categorize and organize it. What distinguishes folksonomies (think plain old folks + taxonomy) is that they’re generated not just by experts, but by creators or users of content as well. User-chosen keywords are used to organize content instead of a defined
  • Video sharing sites. These are sites, such as YouTube or Blip.TV, that allow people to upload and share their promotional or informational videos with the public at large. Companies often use the sites as a way to market their businesses and drive more traffic to their Web sites.