Barry Lee, board account director at ZED, argues that Web 2.0, with its social network sites, like MySpace, and user generated content, like YouTube, is fundamentally different from the information distribution role of the mainstream web (Web 1.0). Now, it is the users who are in charge. He describes the appeal of Web 2.0 to the users, the media owners and how it can help brands.
'I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people-to-people. But that was what the web was supposed to be all along.'
While user-generated content (UGC) and social networking seem to have become part of our lives only recently, this quote from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the inventors of the World Wide Web, dispels any such notion.
According to him, the web was designed to be a collaborative space where people can interact. To the person in the street, however, mainstream web content is significantly different from so-called Web 2.0. While web content is in essence the distribution of information via the internet, Web 2.0 encompasses social network sites, such as MySpace, Facebook, and FriendsReunited, while user-generated content on sites such as YouTube allows both the sharing of information and knowledge.
We can take information as being a message received and understood, and that adds knowledge to the person receiving it. The classic definition of knowledge classes it as something that must be justified, true and believed. It is this inclusion of true and believed in conjunction with a sense of ownership that explains the sensitivity that users display within the social network and UGC arenas. This is a key consideration if marketers are ever to exploit social networks or UGC to their benefit. For example, most of us accept that commercial TV stations interrupt programming with commercial messages, but if our camcorder slipped in a 5-second ad every 20 minutes of our wedding videos, imagine the uproar.
The same is true for Web 2.0 (I will use this throughout, for convenience). As users feel in charge, unconvincing attempts by marketers to force commercial messages on them are likely to be unsuccessful and could backfire on the brand. However, Web 2.0 has something magical and it is clear that everyone, from media owners to brands, is keen to 'master' it, to achieve any type of positive return.
APPEAL OF WEB 2.0
Web 2.0's magical appeal comes down to numbers. The sheer volume of social network users in the UK is staggering: MySpace alone has more than 8 million UK members, with 19,000 new users registering in the UK each day; and the number of blogs globally has doubled in size approximately every five months for the last three years, bringing the total number of tracked blogs to more than 26.6m (source: Technorati).
Consumers have always congregated around areas of shared interest. This ranges from mass information such as the latest news, sports, fashion insight or the best deal, to smaller niche areas of expert knowledge such as local community projects or pigeon racing in Belgium.
Web technology is merely an extension of this and has moved people online. It has enabled them to rendezvous, connect or collaborate through computer-mediated communication in its various guises: from news groups, through multi-player online gaming, to YouTube and MySpace. People have bought in to the solution it offers, rather than the technology itself, and because its immediacy allows them to connect with each other in real time.
The main reason for people to use social network sites is to maintain contact with existing friends or find old contacts (source: The Communications Market 2006, Ofcom). In fact, 42% of people with internet access at home have used them for this purpose. Nearly one-third do so to discuss hobbies and interests, and a further 27% for work-related topics.
When it comes to blogs, nearly half of adult bloggers use their pages to talk about their lives in general, hobbies and interests, and to share images such as holiday snaps or wedding videos with friends and family. However, a large proportion also use their blogs to express their views, either by publishing their own material or to comment on current affairs or politics, bypassing traditional media.
In my view, social networks and UGC don't deliver freedom for individuals to express their views and share their knowledge, but rather provide a structured framework for shared expression by the masses. This may seem like semantics, but the commercial ramifications are considerable and need to be understood by marketers, both to protect their brands and maximise opportunities. It is corralling individuals into single large entities that provides both the opportunity and the challenge.
For example, every MySpace user plays the 'Who has the most friends' game. After all, single users may express their views, but they need the audience, or friends, to make them count. This also explains the recent phenomenon of Tila Tequila, a brash US rapper, singer, model, blogger and actress who has become queen of MySpace. It is thanks to her more than 1.5 million friends – who are seen as one single entity – that she is currently working on several lucrative projects.
APPEAL TO MEDIA OWNERS
It is no secret that traditional media owners had been struggling to get to grips with digital, but 2006 saw a real turnaround when they finally started to offer services in line with consumers' digital demands. In addition to multimedia newsrooms and downloadable newspaper editions, a key development was the launch of Monkey, a weekly digital-only men's magazine.
Last year also saw a flurry of activity from media owners to buy into the hot independent online publishers and social networks. So far, we have seen MySpace acquired by News Corp, Mykindaplace and Aura Sports by BSkyB, FriendsReunited by ITV, YouTube by Google, and Handbag.com by the National Magazine Company.
The main reason for media owners to acquire Web 2.0-related sites is future revenue and digital growth. Other media owners, such as the BBC and Channel 4, choose to gradually incorporate user-generated content in their offering in order to achieve the same objectives. There is no right or wrong, but one thing is certain: with digital advertising growing further still, traditional media owners needed a foothold in the market and the still-emerging business revenue model of all things digital.
As it is free to join social networks such as FriendsReunited and MySpace, their main source of income is from advertising. There was a concern that when social networks were acquired they would be flooded with commercial messages, turning away the audience the new owners paid good money to gain access to. So far this hasn't happened; and with digital advertising becoming ever more sophisticated, for example through behavioural targeting, advertising should become even more relevant to users' interests.
Other income-generating activities involve sponsorship of activities that appeal to network users. YouTube, for example, currently runs a competition encouraging users to send in their funniest World of Warcraft® moments to stand a chance of winning a gaming rig powered by Intel.
While film and TV studios are already using social networks to promote new films and programmes, it is widely expected that whole films or episodes will become available for paid-for download in future, adding to the networks' income.
For channels like the BBC and Channel 4, their investment in user-generated content is more about interacting with their audiences. Not only do they receive newsworthy footage they would not necessarily have shot themselves, but it creates loyalty and a sense of partnership with the audience. Of course they hope this will translate into higher user and viewer figures, benefiting their bottom line.
Ultimately, traditional media owners have embraced Web 2.0 not out of curiosity, but necessity. Over the past few years they have been grappling with declining audience and reader figures, as consumers embraced other media platforms including Web 2.0, mobile, broadband and IPTV. To secure their future revenue streams and to continue offering their advertisers value for money, media owners had no choice but to embrace these new channels. Web 2.0 in particular is crucial for engagement marketing, allowing advertisers to re-connect with their customers.
BENEFIT TO BRANDS
Historically marketers have been able to exploit the mass-information environment; after all, it is their comfort zone. They have even been providing targeting and interaction alongside reach. And although this has been executed with varying degrees of success, in most cases it has been accepted by consumers, as they are used to paying the small price of advertising to receive desired information.
Now that media owners seem to have caught up with Web 2.0, marketers are considering how they can get involved and engage users with their brands. So far, most have been reluctant to put their ads in the unpredictable environments that are social networks. No one wants their ad associated with user content considered in bad taste. On the other hand, too much uninvited advertising could drive audiences away to a new social network free from external influences, whether real or perceived.
Most people, however, will not object to advertising as long as it's relevant. When MSN analysed its Windows Live user base it found that within personal pages users consider traditional standard advertising formats as acceptable – as long as they do not contradict their truths or beliefs.
As with every medium, marketers should consider the target audience carefully when devising advertising campaigns. And while social networks is a catch-all for many different formats, the homepage of MySpace is very different from an individual's space. FriendsReunited, by the nature of its usage (getting in touch with old contacts), does not compare to Flickr, which allows users to store, sort and share photos.
Any advertising activity should reflect this: the usual rules apply. Web 2.0 advertising will be accepted if it uses the right creative at the right time for the right audience. Although Web 2.0 appears to be a new concept, the same basic advertising rules apply here as they do to all media.
Aside from site advertising and sponsorship opportunities, brands can do lots more to be truly engaging with users, as long as they are invited in. YouTube, for example, allows brands to communicate with users by uploading videos. The challenge for marketers is to create videos with the right mix of entertainment and information, so that in addition to engaging the user, they also deliver true benefit for the brand.
Some brands have already started capitalising on Second Life, with Reuters running a news bureau as part of its strategy to embrace new media platforms. Reebok, by contrast, is encouraging users to customise and buy shoes for their characters, which they can then also purchase in real life. This perfectly and succinctly links online and offline brand awareness.
And of course, brands can create profile pages for their products on MySpace. They become a member of the social network subjected to the general goings-on just like other, real users. Automotive brands have been particularly successful at doing this. Volkswagen, for example, set up a page for Miss Helga, the female star in one of its commercials, which has attracted nearly 9,000 friends; while the Toyota Yaris has nearly 90,000 friends and ran a video context where users could win $5,000.
Apart from social networks, marketers could also enter a two-way dialogue with their users through the use of blogs, allowing them to engage with as well as shape the brand. This requires a high level of transparency and a willingness by the brand to face and handle criticism. A perfect example is McDonald's, which runs a corporate blog in an attempt to increase consumer trust and facilitate two-way communication between the company and its customers.
There is the downside that often such corporate blogs are perceived as deliberate attempts to influence users' opinions. This explains why even though the number of corporate blogs is proliferating, there are still only around 5,000 globally (source: Technorati). Particularly global IT companies have made this new channel a part of their communication strategy, with Microsoft corporate blogs accounting for approximately 18% of the total number, Sun Microsystems for 8% and SAP for 2%.
Nevertheless, the power of blogs shouldn't be underestimated, as people trust blogs almost as much as they trust newspapers. This makes bloggers themselves a perfect target audience for corporate messages. However, marketers should take care to thoroughly research, plan, monitor and measure any campaigns targeted at bloggers.
Any Web 2.0 marketing activity should be targeted and relevant. If the user community feels manipulated, lied or sold to, they will be quick to hit back. In fact, marketers should never lose sight of the fact that for the first time the consumer has the platform, freedom and technical expertise to respond or comment in real time.
Any poorly targeted ad placed on a personal or information site is likely to cause frustration, but nothing more. A poorly targeted, intrusive ad placed on a MySpace page can cause the same frustration, but the individual now has access to millions of other users to share their frustration with your brand. And this time they can access large single entities to spread the word.
So does this mean that we have a new set of rules for advertising in this space? I don't believe we do: we merely need to remember the rules of engagement. Any activity should be carried out only if it's right for the campaign. Not just from a delivery or reach perspective, or because we think we should 'do' Web 2.0, but because it's the most effective way to engage with the audience.
These rules haven't changed, and as long as marketers adhere to them, something that they haven't always managed to do, they will achieve the same level of success with Web 2.0 as with other channels.
THE FUTURE OF WEB 2.0
While 2006 saw the rise of social networks, 2007 is likely to be the year during which brands will truly understand the benefits Web 2.0 could bring.
In the long term, however, social networks and blogs will find themselves caught up in media convergence. Already, they have been identified and acknowledged as the perfect channels to go mobile. I do not believe that dedicated mobile social networks are the future, but rather mobile will be yet another means for people to access their profiles while on the move.
Such adoption will greatly depend on the technology. Sophisticated handsets will be needed to run mobile versions of social networks and blogs, which should be suitably priced to ensure that the people that will use it can actually afford the handsets.
Of course, it is possible that a new revolutionary idea will edge people on from social networks and user-generated content. Whatever happens, as the web was designed to be a collaborative space where people can interact with each other, user-generated content and social networking are here to stay.