If you’re an online marketer who hasn’t been locked in a dungeon for a year, you’ve heard the term “Web 2.0.” When you heard it the first time, you were curious. When you heard it the tenth time, you suspected it was just another trendy buzzword. When you heard it the hundredth time, you wondered if it might be relevant to you.
Riccardo La Rosa is director of emerging interactions at Molecular. He co-authored this article.
Ask a thousand people to define Web 2.0 and you’ll get at least that many definitions. It’s a slippery term to describe a gradual but fundamental change in how consumers expect the web to work and how businesses are using the web. Despite the sometimes overblown hype around Web 2.0, it represents a significant opportunity for marketers to engage with increasingly skeptical consumers.
Web 2.0 isn’t a set of technologies, but rather a set of three philosophies that include user contribution, openness and rich interfaces, each of which is important to explore in order to determine what Web 2.0 components might be effective for your brand.
This three-part series is a whirlwind tour through these three topics, with plenty of examples along the way, as well as advice on which ideas might work for you. Part 1 focuses on user contribution and how you can enable customers to effectively and actively contribute to your brand, website and business.
Next: User contribution
Increasingly, when we visit websites, we see the footprints of the users who have come before us. Browsing the web is no longer a lonely affair because the voices of others are all around us, from book reviews on Amazon, to tags on Flickr photos, to every word written on Wikipedia. Websites are empowering users to become active contributors of site content and thus active promoters of brands. What was once one-way messaging is now becoming a genuine dialogue with customers, introducing new challenges to online marketing.
How are users contributing, and how do you decide where to have this dialogue with your customers? Let’s run through the opportunities of user-generated content.
Next: Ratings and reviews
Customers have been contributing and relying on ratings and reviews for years, from Amazon’s product reviews to eBay’s seller ratings. This feedback mechanism enables users to talk back to you and to each other, and it creates instant credibility for sites that expose honest user opinions. Increasingly, users trust the wisdom of the crowd and reward these sites with their loyalty.
Some companies are turning one-way user feedback into a two-way dialogue by responding to reviews. Eastern Mountain Sports encourages customer reviews and responds to complaints with authenticity and action. Not only can a reply to a user review improve that customer’s experience, but others will see this genuine dialogue as well and become more likely to stick around.
What would your customers want to rate or review? Products or content are the most likely opportunities. Other options include people, places, companies, events, topics and site features. Users are likely already sharing opinions about your company somewhere; wouldn’t you rather have that feedback occur in an environment where you can participate and engage customers in a conversation?
Another way users can contribute is through tagging content on your site, similar to the way users can tag their own photos on Flickr with any keywords they wish. Other people can then use these tags to navigate through content, for example, users can find all photos that anyone has tagged “Antelope Canyon.” This bottom-up approach to navigation (sometimes called a folksonomy) ensures that the site continues to adapt to real user needs, and the time users invest in tagging translates into loyalty.
The music recommendation site Last.fm uses tags to expose users to new music. Users can tag artists and albums with a variety of keywords (such as “classical” and “New Zealand” for Hayley Westenra), then browse other artists who share the same tags.
Would tagging help your customers contribute to your site and better navigate your content? Tagging tends to work better for unstructured content that doesn’t already have a lot of associated metadata, so think about articles, images, and discussions. But it requires users to invest time to invent tags, so perhaps starting small is better to see if your customers will participate.
Next: Editorial control
This component of user-generated content has been around for years, but is gaining in popularity as more sites expose content based on real user behavior or preferences. CNN shows the most read stories on its homepage, Yahoo! lists the most emailed photos, and Digg organizes its homepage based on which stories get the most user votes. The underlying philosophy is that people are interested in the same things other people like, so why not take advantage of crowd behavior and preferences when deciding what to feature on your website? Giving over some editorial control is now going mainstream: USA Today creates its list of popular stories based on user votes, and Dell’s IdeaStorm site uses voting as a customer service tool to prioritize product improvements.
Retailers have known this for years, which is why more and more ecommerce sites use collaborative filtering for cross-selling products and services. “People who looked at this item also looked at that item” not only gets users’ attention, it also tends to be more successful at merchandising, because it reveals patterns in actual user behavior.
How can you give users editorial control? Look for ways to leverage the actions of users. What are people viewing? Buying? Signing up for? Emailing? Discussing? Voting for? Understand which of these data points would be helpful for your audience and where it would be effective to use.
Next: User-generated content
While everything discussed so far is user-generated content, many organizations are going beyond user reviews or tagging and are empowering users to contribute in far more significant ways. Wikipedia opened new doors by encouraging users to edit any page, and commercial sites are now experimenting with this new type of customer relationship. What happens when you allow users to be active co-authors of your site, and thus your brand?
Amazon now has wiki functionality on product pages because it recognizes that its customers are knowledgeable and passionate. Encouraging them to contribute product information makes them more engaged customers and simultaneously improves the site experience for everyone else. These collaborative publishing environments are largely self-policing, so errors and extreme viewpoints are filtered out by the collective intelligence.
Marvel has also embraced wikis to the extent that anyone can edit the biographies of its famous comic book heroes. Users want to engage with your brand and contribute in positive ways. Who would say no to that?
What content would your customers contribute? You might not want to give them the ability to edit your product descriptions, but what about other information? Perhaps they would provide content that would help other users find or select the right product or service. Or maybe they would write instructions for using your products or services, or tips and tricks that would benefit everyone. They might even share content that would greatly improve your Help section. You might decide it’s too soon to allow users to contribute in such significant ways; but at least you’ve asked the question and considered the possibilities.
Next: Social networking
There’s one more potential component of user contribution that lies underneath all the others: community. Social networking functionality, born on sites such as Friendster, LinkedIn and MySpace, is becoming more useful as organizations discover how to use social connections to enhance their overall online experience.
On Yahoo! Local, when you’re reading reviews of a restaurant and your friend has written a review, it appears first in the list and is highlighted with an icon. Similarly, when you’re browsing movies on Netflix and a friend has rated a movie, that information is easy to see because your friends’ opinions are important.
So, should you create your own social network? Maybe, but approach with caution, since few users are happy about creating separate social networks on every site they visit. But if community is critical to your strategy, then a social network could be just the thing to make your user-generated content truly shine.
User contributions are here to stay. Users are discovering that the web has always been about participating and contributing, from photo sharing to blogs. They’re simply asking the obvious question: If personal websites are so participatory and social, why can’t commercial sites be too?
Their expectations of how they interact with you are changing. Will you change to meet them?
The big fear (and, largely, myth), is that users will contribute in a negative way that will harm rather than enhance your brand. The fact is, users are already speaking out. It might be on another site, a message board, an email list, or in a coffeehouse. Do you want that conversation happening outside of your influence, where negative messages go unanswered? Or do you want to support that dialogue where you can participate and influence the discussion? Increasingly, giving up control of your brand to users enables you to (paradoxically) have more control over the social environment in which your brand lives. With or without you, users are talking.
If you’re ready to make the leap, keep three things in mind:
- In this new world that is more user-generated, we no longer create polished and finalized user experiences. We create platforms where users create their own experiences.
- Because we’re opening our site to accommodate content that users want to contribute, we create containers for content that we cannot entirely imagine.
- This means our once-static websites become organic systems that are flexible and evolve. They grow with our users and keep us in tune with their needs.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our tour through Web 2.0, which will focus on openness.