Media 2.0

An introduction to a few of the new media for savvy business owners

by Bill Simmon

Back in June 1995, our magazine, then called Business Digest, launched a monthly section called “Modem Operandi,” the main purpose of which was to introduce our readers to ways businesses were using modems to connect to the world. We advised on uses for electronic mail and newsgroups. In interviews with area business owners, we covered such new-to-business outlets as listservs, sponsored pages and banner ads. We published a glossary of useful terms for readers wishing to be au courant.

It was only 12 years ago, when Netscape, HTML and Java were dazzling the world, that our publisher wrote that electronic mail was “literally faster than a speeding bullet.” Well, it’s even faster now, and boy, have the options exploded. –VLS

Ann ZuccardiAnn Zuccardy

Ann Zuccardy’s first foray into online promotion for her business, The Vermont Shortbread Co., was a blog. In fact, the blog was the Huntington co.’s only Web presence for a whole year before she set up her business’s more traditional website. “When I realized I could have some fun and slap up a blog quickly, cheaply, and without a lot of technical know-how, I knew it was a perfect way for me to engage in conversations with my customers,” says Zuccardy. The blog, combined with online networking, her e-zine newsletter and basic search engine optimization (SEO) techniques, helped to secure a high search-engine ranking for The Vermont Shortbread Co. without any initial outlay of money.

Zuccardy describes herself as “the queen of frugal” and says she relies on the free marketing tools that are available online. “My blog and social networking sites have given me the biggest bang for my buck,” she says.

Zuccardy is not alone. According to the latest statistics, there are now more than 70 million blogs worldwide with more than 120,000 new blogs created every day. Blogs and other Web 2.0 online applications are changing the ways people communicate, organize politically, and do business with each other.

Ted AdlerTed Adler

Ted Adler, owner of the Web development firm Union Street Media, says he’s seen the shift in business’s attitudes toward the Web. “We used to have to sit down with small businesses and convince them that they needed a website,” he says. “There was a huge generation gap between those who understood and used the Internet, and those who had come of age in business in a time when the Internet didn’t exist.” Adler says he no longer has to make that argument because these days everyone understands the need for a Web presence. “The way it is today, if you don’t have a website, you’re practically not in business,” he says.

But while most business owners recognize the importance of having a website, having a blog is still relatively new to most entrepreneurs. What are the differences between a blog and a traditional website? How can Vermont businesses best take advantage of blogs and other new online marketing tools?

The phrase “Web 2.0” was coined by publisher and technology evangelist Tim O’Reilly in 2003 to separate what he saw as a newer, more useful Internet from the dot-com boom days of the early World Wide Web. According to O’Reilly, emerging Web applications like blogs, wikis and social networking sites distinguished this new “read-write” era of the ’net from the old “read-only” version. Along with these new applications came a high degree of usefulness. You could suddenly do a lot more than send email and check weather forecasts the stock prices online — you could actually interact with the Web and make things — useful things.

Dave WinslowDave Winslow

Dave Winslow, the president of EpikOne, a Web analytics and development firm in Williston, points to one recent example of the new, useful Web: shopify.com. Winslow says that with shopify, you can build a shopping cart application for your site in just a few minutes free of charge. You sell your product or service with your new shopping cart, and shopify takes a small percentage of your sales. “All of a sudden, a company doesn’t have to spend ten or twenty thousand dollars on a shopping cart,” says Winslow; “They can get it for 3 percent of their sales until the point where it becomes too big a hit on their margin.”

Winslow describes the shift to Web 2.0 as a major sea change — especially for smaller businesses. “There weren’t a lot of useful tools for companies online in the early 2000s,” he says. “That’s completely shifted now, where everyone is focused on building useful tools.” He seems excited by what the future holds and says the business world is “in for a bit of a shake-up,” particularly with Google now freely releasing its Web Analytics software, allowing website owners to carefully track a variety of key statistics. “You can find out immediately if something works or not,” he says. “You can really assess every marketing medium — every tool that you buy — and separate what works from what doesn’t.”

Elaine YoungElaine Young

Google’s is not the only analytics software, says Elaine Young, a professor of marketing and e-business at Champlain College. “It happens to be free, which is fabulous for the small business, but a company like DR Power Equipment in Vergennes, which does a lot of Web analytics work, uses a totally different system that it paid for.”

Winslow is careful to warn his clients about jumping into these new technologies too fast. “Marketing today has become easier in the sense that there are more tools available, but it’s also become harder because there are more tools available,” he says dryly.

With all of these free or inexpensive services at the fingertips of business owners, Winslow advises his clients not to overextend their online efforts. He says to start small, maybe with a blog and an e-mail campaign. “Work those into your budget,” he says. “As one becomes successful, you build a process for it and then try something new.”

Along with these Web 2.0 technologies has come a new culture with a new set of cultural norms. As a result, some traditional assumptions about marketing may not be as effective in these new media.

Young is an active blogger (champlainprofessor.com) and uses Web 2.0 tools regularly. She points out that just having a blog doesn’t mean it will automatically be a successful marketing tool. “A blog can do a lot for a company’s online visibility,” she says, “but it must be authentic.” A blog shouldn’t be about how great the company’s products are, but should be more focused on the particular expertise of the blog’s author. She points to inspiredprotagonist.com, Seventh Generation’s blog, as a good example of what she means.

Many of the blog’s posts are written by Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollander; others are written by staff. “Notice that they aren’t aggressively hawking products,” she says. They manage to showcase their products and mission on the blog just by writing about the things that the staff members are passionate about.

Young encourages honesty. “If your blog is about getting people to know about the products you offer, don’t try to hide it,” she warns. “The worst thing to do is to disguise what or who you are.”

This new model of marketing is encapsulated in a 1999 publication called The Cluetrain Manifesto, a list of 95 “theses” (intentionally aping Martin Luther’s list of 95 theses that started the Protestant Reformation in the 1400s). They posit the central message that “markets are conversations.” The authors of the manifesto make the case that because of the interconnected nature of the new media, person-to-person conversations are not simply possible, they’re the norm, and that this environment is fundamentally different from traditional modes of mass marketing.

Winslow cites a coffee blog run by Winooski coffee roaster freshcoffeenow.com as a good example of how a blog can be used effectively. Joe’s Coffee Blog is just that: a blog about coffee written by a guy named Joe. The posts at Joe’s Coffee Blog are all about coffee, but they include anecdotes from Joe’s life and his personal musings on being a coffee roaster. It’s a combination of Joe’s expertise as a coffee roaster and his personality that makes the blog work. “We put links in there back to freshcoffeenow.com, but we never sell directly from the blog,” says Winslow. “He’s building ‘buzz’ as the go-to guy for espresso or anything coffee-related. That’s how a blog should really be used.”

Cathy ResmerCathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer, the online editor of Seven Days, agrees that the strength of blogs is in their authenticity. “Blogs give you a really great chance to have a dialog with your customers,” she says. “They give you an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s me, I’m a person, I’m not just some computer spitting out information from some PR department.’”

Resmer points out that blogs can be a good way to respond to negative comments about your company. “People say, ‘I had a really bad experience,’ and you can address it right there on the blog,” she says. But, she warns, be prepared to respond quickly and positively. “When you get a negative comment, you can’t let it sit there and fester in the online world. You’ve got to build that kind of time into your schedule.”

Winslow concurs. “Keep your ear to the street,” he says. “Listen to what your customers are saying about you.” He points out that whether you have a blog or not, your customers are probably already discussing your product or service on the Internet, and if there’s something wrong, like a product defect, your customers probably know about it before you do. “You’ve got to be proactive,” he says; “you can’t ignore it or pretend you don’t know about it.” Winslow suggests addressing the situation in as positive a way as possible and assuring your customers that you recognize the problem and are working to fix it.

For Ann Zuccardy, Web 2.0 tools have created new opportunities. Using Google’s free Web Analytics application, she was able to recognize a niche she could fill. “I noticed a lot of folks were coming to my website and blog using the search words ‘shortbread molds,’” she says. “Then they’d realize I don’t sell shortbread molds and leave.” Zuccardy has a custom Vermont Shortbread Co. shortbread mold in the works that she plans to sell on her site.

Zuccardy has this advice to offer other Vermont business owners who are curious about blogging and Web 2.0 applications: “It’s easy to get intimidated and overwhelmed. Don’t be. Pick one thing and give it a try. You don’t have to be a technical whiz.”

Zuccardy has been surfing a much more traditional style of network — the face-to-face kind. Whether it’s the real world or the virtual one, Zuccardy says that being polite and knowing lots of people are the foundation of any networking activity. “I try to remember that, when I feel overwhelmed by all the new kinds of networking and marketing I’m not doing yet,” she says. •

Glossary of Terms

Analytics. Data reports of Web-site traffic and user behavior on a website. Helps businesses to track return on investment, set measurable goals and make improvements to their sites based on tracking hard data such as clicks and time spent on pages. There are free services and enterprise services that can be deployed.

Blog. An online journal or “Web log” used by individuals to express themselves. There can be individual, group or corporate blogs around specific topics. There are many free (and easy) blogging tools.

Collaborative applications. Online applications that include word processing, spreadsheet and and presentation tools that allow multiple users, viewers and editors. Much like wiki, where groups of individuals work together in a virtual environment to create, edit and update information.

Feed reader. A browser, computer or Internet-based application that pulls in RSS feeds.

Online visibility. The use of public relations techniques on the Web in order to obtain greater visibility for an organization’s website, and therefore increased organic rankings on search engines. RSS, blogging and social networking are ways to increase online visibility.

Organic search. The “natural” placement of a website’s listing (i.e., not paid for) in search engine results due to a well-optimized site.

Paid search. Paying for a sponsored link to be at the top of search engine results for specific key words or terms. Also includes sidebar ads in search results.

Really Simple Syndication (RSS). Allows organizations with frequently updated Web-site content to push those updates directly to consumers who have a feed reader. Blogs and news sites are examples of types of sites that benefit from RSS. Allows consumers of information to “subscribe” to updates without using e-mail.

Search engine optimization (SEO). The process of making an organization’s website friendlier to search engines, potentially increasing the organic ranking of a website on a specific search engine.

Social media. The various online tools that allow anyone to create, share, modify and critique content as well as join communities and collaborate. Some see this as a democratization of the Web, moving away from one-to-one communication to a flatter, many-to-many communication. YouTube is an example.

Social networking. Online communities that allow users to post profiles and share information and communicate and congregate around shared interests. Examples include MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Social presence. Emerging set of social media tools that allow individuals to communicate where they are and what they are doing to a wide range of people. Examples include Twitter, Jaiku and Pownce.

Website optimizer. A new tool launched by Google, linked to its AdWords and Analytics applications, that allows organizations to conduct multivariate testing on specific pages to improve goals and conversion rates.

Web 2.0. Used to describe the change in how people are using the Web, moving from a static information source controlled by a few, to an interactive and collaborative environment that is open to all, is flatter and is what mamy see as more democratic. Many of the tools in this list are considered Web 2.0 functionality.

Wiki. An online collaborative space that allows users to work together to create, edit and update information. The best-known example is Wikipedia, where individuals of all backgrounds from around the world contribute to an ever-changing, ever-growing online encyclopedia of information.

This glossary was written by Elaine Young, associate professor and program director for marketing and e-business management at Champlain College. Champlain College offers a series of one-credit, online courses on using many of these tools. Other colleges also offer online courses for business people. •