Unless you have been living off planet, you most likely have heard about Web 2.0. You may connect it with web offerings like Facebook, My Space, You Tube, or Second Life, and with tools like blogs, wikis, and discussion forums. What you may not realize is how much Web 2.0 will shape how you do business in the next few years.

I’ve been working with Web 2.0 tools for several years and have learned just how useful they can be in a variety of business settings. And there is a lot more to come.

The first step is to understand the basics. So what follows is some background on Web 2.0 and why it’s so important. Then we’ll look at some of the popular tools that are increasingly used in business and, finally, consider how you can apply it to your specific situation.

What is Web 2.0?

There is only one World Wide Web. Web 2.0 is not a new web. It’s a convenient term for a collection of capabilities that open up new types of website. These capabilities include collaboration and communication among people located anywhere on the planet; large, small, and “micro” online communities where people exchange ideas and share resources; and collections of multimedia resources including video and audio (“podcasts”). The new capabilities have enormous potential to change the way that people and organizations communicate and do business.

Is Web 2.0 really important or is it marketing hype? It’s very important. With every new development you get skeptics and naysayers. Sometimes they are right; in this case they are not. What is so important about Web 2.0 is that it changes what people do online. It offers new ways to communicate and collaborate with the public, with customers, with peers, and with staff.

One of the main shifts with Web 2.0 is that the Internet becomes a two-way street. Instead of just viewing websites, with Web 2.0, users create and manage a lot of the data. Think about where the 65,000 video clips uploaded daily to YouTube or the nearly 2 million articles in Wikipedia come from and you will get the idea. The same idea can be applied to internal teams creating collaborative knowledge.

What do you have to do to get Web 2.0? Nothing. If you have a reasonably recent web browser and a reasonably fast connection to the Internet, you already have it.

So what’s different about Web 2.0? Web 1.0 — the original web — was built around a language called HTML. HTML does well at presenting information, but is not a true programming language. A few companies like Amazon, eBay, and Expedia took the capabilities of Web 1.0 quite far. But for the most part, Web 1.0 was about presenting products and services and simple e-commerce.

Recognizing the need for more powerful capabilities, programmers set out to build tools to make the web far more powerful. It was a tough job that took more than a decade. But what emerged as Web 2.0 makes it possible to design websites that go beyond “brochureware” and are as powerful as traditional software.

Meanwhile companies like Comcast and Verizon were bringing fast, always-on broadband to businesses and consumers. Broadband, which you may know as Cable, DSL, FIOS, or T1, makes it possible to move large amounts of data quickly, and to present it as music and video.

What is the new technology that supports Web 2.0? Unless you are a programmer, you don’t need to worry too much about the technology.

What’s important is that technologies that make up Web 2.0 are the underpinnings that make a whole new set of web applications possible.

Web 3.0, when it arrives, will allow companies to create far more powerful search and knowledge applications than are possible today. But Web 3.0 is still in the design stage. Once it is created, there will be a lag of several years while tools and applications are being built. So it’s not something most of us need to focus on right now. But keep watching because Web 3.0 is going to offer a lot of opportunity. It will be the semantic web, and will feature powerful searching and knowledge management.

The Tools of Web 2.0

What makes Web 2.0 so useful are the tools that support communication and collaboration. With these tools you can engage customers, prospects, and peers. Or you can use these tools internally to improve productivity.

Five important Web 2.0 tools are blogs, discussion forums, wikis, social networking, and media repositories. There are many products in each category and many are available free or at low cost, so it’s easy to explore them. But understand that it takes a lot of dedication to get these tools to yield good results. What you need are (1.) a good idea and (2.) someone willing to put in the time, energy, and creativity to build participation.

Look at a successful Web 2.0 tool and you will find that a large part of its value comes from information added by users. You Tube would not be compelling if no one uploaded video clips, and others didn’t rate and comment on them. My Space would be empty if people didn’t create personal spaces with photos, songs, blogs, and other content that interests their friends.

A core characteristic of Web 2.0 tools is that they only work well when they engage an active group of users. In most cases you will find that attracting an active user community takes a lot of effort. The best way to get started is to get clear on what you want to accomplish and how a blog, wiki, discussion group, or other tool will help you achieve your goal. Then get as much visibility as you can. Deliver consistent value and be prepared to evolve your ideas as you gain experience and knowledge.

For an interesting example of an innovative and well thought-out business Web 2.0 community that uses a number of the tools discussed here, take a look at IBM’s alphaWorks Services (http://services.alphaworks.ibm.com/).

Business teams use Web 2.0 tools to operate more efficiently and productively. Through communication and knowledge sharing, they can collaborate more efficiently. Web 2.0 tools are excellent for supporting virtual teams whose members are in different locations. They also make it possible to integrate partners who work for other organizations. The biggest problem is getting staff to overcome their initial resistance to using new tools.

Web 2.0 tools are not all that different from each other. A blog is a lot like a discussion group and a wiki. Each has a slightly different emphasis; it’s important to choose the one which best fits your business goals:

Blogs. A blog is most like an online newspaper column. Blogs, originally called “web logs,” started as online personal diaries in which individuals commented on a topic of interest such as politics, wine or work. Blogs are best used when you want to present information to an audience and invite them to comment. Examples of effective blogs are www.engadget.com, www.boingboing.net, www.zeldman.com, and www.leadersintheknow.info.

Bloggers typically publish relatively brief articles that contain commentary and opinions. There is usually a way for readers to comment on the article. This makes blogs ideal for a situation in which you want to share ideas and information with an audience. The current article appears on the first page while previous posts are archived by date and topic so that readers can locate them.

At the lowest end, some blogs are diaries intended largely for family members. At the highest end, some blogs, such as engadget (www.engadget.com), and Boing Boing (www.boingboing.net) attract huge audiences.

There are a lot of blogs on the internet; Technorati (www.technorati.com), which is a blog search engine — a kind of Google for blogs — reported in May that it was indexing 71 million blogs. Many of these, of course, are personal blogs that are infrequently updated.

How can you use a blog in business? For most businesses, the goal of a customer-facing blog is to create a community to promote products, offer customer service, and get customer input. For small companies, a blog may be a major communications channel, while larger companies may use blogs for back channel communications — getting ideas out informally.

A study released in March by Melcrum Publishing (www.melcrum.com) of 2,000 managers working in internal and corporate communications found that 55 percent are using blogs or planning to start them in the next year. Some of these blogs are used for customer communication, while others foster internal collaboration and facilitate communication between senior executives and staff.

Despite the enthusiasm for blogs in business, 70 percent of the companies surveyed have no policies about what constitutes appropriate blogging, and few know how to monitor what is said about them online. This requires attention because there can be legal and customer relationship issues related to electronic communications.

Creating a blog is easy. While you can obtain free software that you can install on your own website (see www.wordpress.org for an example of a high quality blog platform you can download for free), in most cases it is easier to start with a hosted service such as Typepad (www.typepad.com). With a hosted service, you can be up and running in a few minutes with no installation or IT issues for less than $50 per year. Google offers a free blog service at www.blogger.com as well.

Wikis. The term “wiki” comes from a Hawaiian word meaning “quick.” Wikis make it quick and easy to create and edit documents that are then available as web pages. Wikis are about content — many of them are structured as on-line encyclopedias. Wikis are best used when you want a group of people to work together on sharing and organizing a repository of knowledge.

I believe that the wiki is the most powerful of the social computing tools for business. In its most basic form, a wiki is simply a document that a group of users can edit. What makes a wiki so powerful is that it reflects the collective knowledge of its authors. Since you and I know more than either of us alone, a document to which we both are contributing is likely to be more comprehensive than one which either of us writes alone.

When people think of wikis, they tend to focus on the large public sites such as Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) and WikiHow (www.wikihow.com). It would be worth your time to explore both these sites to get a sense of how wikis work. WikiHow is particularly easy to understand. Find an article where you have expertise and add some edits or improvements to quickly understand how wikis work. Both Wikipedia and WikiHow allow anyone to edit articles. In a business setting you may choose to restrict the group of people allowed to edit.

In its simplest form a wiki could be a single page. For example, with a wiki you could post a draft mission statement on your intranet and invite the staff to refine and revise it. But all wikis have the ability to create additional pages and link to them. This “encyclopedia” model is very flexible and is ideal for knowledge that can be represented as a series of interlinked articles.

Wikis do not have to be targeted at a mass audience. They are ideal for smaller groups and internal teams. If you are addressing a niche market, you can use wikis to create a body of knowledge on any topic. These are becoming popular with professionals who share expertise on best practices in a particular area. For example, check out www.libsuccess.org to see a wiki created by librarians using free software.

In addition, Wikipedia has created a public project to create collaborative textbooks. Check it out at www.wikibooks.org. You can use wikis for such internal purposes as documentation, product information, competitive information, sales support, market research, and customer service.

Compared to blogs, wikis can require a lot of maintenance. The ease of editing articles, which is the basis for the wikis’ collaborative power, also makes it easy for people to mess up articles, either maliciously or through ignorance. To protect against this, wikis maintain a history of all changes. It is simple to revert back to a previous version if you don’t like an edit that someone has made. Wikis also have discussion pages where people can comment on an article and discuss how it should be edited. For business you may want an editor to assure accuracy and appropriateness of content.

As with blogs, you can download software so that you can run a wiki on your own website, or you can sign up for a hosted service. The hosted service is the easier route and many are free. A good place to start looking is on Wikipedia, which has a comprehensive article titled “Comparison of wiki software.” Also check out www.wikimatrix.org for an extensive comparison. If you want a hosted wiki, you can start by checking out www.wetpaint.com and www.wikispaces.com.

Discussion forums. Discussion forums are the oldest of the social computing tools. Their roots go back to the 1980s. A forum is a community in which people conduct many conversations by posting comments online. In this way a forum is like a blog — however, while blogs are managed by one author (or a small group), any member of a forum can initiate a discussion thread. Sometimes businesses open forums for a limited time to get input on new product ideas. Don’t confuse a forum with a chat room in which the participants all need to be online at the same time.

Discussion groups are best used when you want to encourage discussions about multiple topics. Examples of leading discussion groups are http://tabletalk.salon.com, www.well.com, http://pages.ebay.com/community/boards/index.html, and http://boards.fool.com/

A closely related tool is the listserv or E-mail group, where people with common interests post via E-mail and everyone receives a copy. E-mails may be sent out immediately or posts can be collected into a digest that is sent out once a day. An example is Yahoo Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com); Google has a similar offering at http://groups.google.com. The advantage of listservs is that participants receive the latest information in their E-mail and do not have to go to the forum itself, even to reply.

There are so many forums online that it is difficult to choose representative examples. One example of a niche forum based on common interest is www.bizymoms.com/discus (note the single “s” in the URL); another is CSM, which brings together customer service managers (www.customerservicemanager.com/community/).

There are many forums for discussion of website issues; one example is www.webmasterworld.com. Discussion forums are also used for providing customer service and technical support. And of course, discussion forums can be used internally for staff discussions.

Forums can grow quite large and there may be problems with malicious users (called “trolls”). In most forums you can view posts without registering, but you need to register to be able to post. The forum is usually run by a forum administrator, and moderators have the ability to edit posts and block troublesome users.

As with the other tools, you can download software to run on your own site or use a hosted service. If you choose to download software, consider vBulletin (www.vBulletin.com) and phpBB (www.phpbb.com). Both of these forums are available through various companies in hosted versions as well. There are many choices for a hosted service, here are a few: www.websitetoolbox.com, www.forumspring.com, www.runboard.com, and www.myfreeforum.com.

Social networking. Social networking software is a less-defined category than the previous tools. In the public arena, social networking tools include MySpace (www.myspace.com), Windows Live Spaces (http://spaces.live.com) and Facebook (www.facebook.com). Wikipedia has a list of notable social networking sites (go to www.wikipedia.com and search for “List of social networking websites”).

Social networking websites are best used when you want people to be able to find each other and share content. Leading examples are www.myspace.com, www.facebook.com, www.orkut.com, www.tribe.net, and www.classmates.com

These sites are the natural successors to the personal web pages that many people create. They may include blogs, forums, photo and music galleries, and similar tools. Many of these social networking sites restrict access to an individual’s space. While anyone can look at a “space,” only friends can post and share information.

Some businesses have created social networking spaces. For example, Garritan Music Software, which manufactures software for musicians, uses MySpace to showcase some of the compositions created with their software. You can also download a free CD of Christmas music created by Garritan users (to see the Garritan Libraries space, go to www.myspace.com and search on “Garritan”).

Proctor & Gamble is using a social networking site to promote its TAG Body Spray — a fragrance aimed at teenage boys. Knowing that fact may help you understand the thinking behind their site at www.sleepless-scoremore.com. It’s not for everyone.

Less controversial is Scripps’ cable television DIY network (go to www.diynetwork.com and click on the “My Projects” link.)

Large enterprises are using social networking spaces to enable staff to find resources with the skills needed for specific projects. LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) and Plaxo (www.plaxo.com) are used to help connect individuals through networking.

A good way to get started would be to create a space on MySpace, Facebook, Windows Live, or one of the other offerings in the Wikipedia article mentioned above.

If you want to create your own social network, and are willing to host and configure your own software, you can explore some of the open source offerings such as Drupal (www.drupal.org) and Mambo (www.mamboserver.com). However, setting up one of these sites can be a significant task.

If you want to investigate hosted solutions, consider Pringo Networks (www.pringo.com), PixPulse (www.pixpulse.com) or KickApps (www.kickapps.com ).

Media repositories. These websites are best used when you want to make video, audio, and print resources available to a community. Some of the best known media repositories are www.youtube.com, www.video.on.nytimes.com, http://creativecommons.org, and www.podcast.net.

The most popular media repository is YouTube (www.youtube.com). Founded in 2005, the company was sold to Google for $1.65 billion in 2006. Now that’s fast growth!

YouTube allows users to upload video clips, which are made available to other users, who can view, rate, and comment on them. YouTube makes it easy to send out E-mail links of videos they found interesting, creating a powerful viral marketing environment.

YouTube is extremely popular, with about 100 million views per day. According to Nielsen, in 2006 the site was receiving 12.8 million unique visitors; the largest segment of visitors was 12 to 17-year-olds.

The growth of YouTube is an exciting business story, but not one that you can count on repeating. Businesses are experimenting with ways to use YouTube, and if you have video clips that are entertaining you might consider it. The best received clips appear to be short, funny, and with a soft-sell message. Be aware of the demographics. YouTube as it exists today is better in the B2C space than the B2B space. But that may change as the technology evolves.

If videos are too expensive, you can also consider creating podcasts. These are audio programs. You can upload descriptions and a link to podcast.net or to iTunes.

The web continues to evolve and Web 2.0 is an important step along the way. It’s not the ultimate web — there’s a Web 3.0 in development and perhaps more beyond — but Web 2.0 affects so many aspects of communication and collaboration that savvy business people need to be aware of its capabilities and the opportunities it offers.

Charles Kreitzberg (charlie@cognetics.com) is CEO of West Windsor-based Cognetics Corporation. He was an inventor of one of the first pre-Internet browsers and is a usability specialist who designs websites and web tools. His passion is making computer technology easier to learn and use.

Cognetics recently launched a web application called In the Know!® to help leaders and their teams work more effectively. It organizes and manages the information needed to keep people, projects and priorities in sync. Aimed at small business, non-profits, and consulting firms, In the Know! is available by subscription over the web at (www.intheknow.info).

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