15 Golden Rules for Web 2.0

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This document was originally designed to address the questions which were sent to me by large customers wanting to launch web 2.0 initiatives. Very often these clients wanted to jump on the bandwagon, but they didn’t know how to do it. They required help and guidance, even to understand the very meaning of Web 2.0.

Evaluating what should be done as part of such Web 2.0 initiatives with large organisations implies that we rethink the definition of Web 2.0 (see O’reilly’s 2.0 meme map to start with). An exec summary of this definition is provided hereafter. More than often, we have noticed that the main motivation for large corporations to jump on the bandwagon is to keep up with the Joneses.

In this document we will describe the main principles and the main reasons why you should or should not opt for a Web 2.0 initiative. Large corporations are getting increasingly interested in launching 2.0 initiatives. To a certain extent we can relate that to the fact that an increasing number of success stories are relayed by the press and that most of them are related to impressive buzz marketing operations, which are seemingly easy to replicate. The entire world is full of the concept of Web 2.0, so the idea is often not to miss the opportunity to do something about it. All of this is very tempting and hard to resist. However, companies should never launch 2.0 websites just for the sake of it.

Indeed, it requires a lot of forward thinking about what one is trying to achieve and how it fits in the overall strategy. To a certain extent what we are witnessing today with Web 2.0, is not very far from what we have witnessed in the 1990s, when large corporations wanted to launch their first websites. More than often, the same question prevails: that is to say, is this website going to support or jeopardise my brand.

How can you tell a website is 2.0-ready?

There are several characteristics of Web 2.0, which we have described hereafter:

  • human characteristics
    • Collective intelligence: this is a concept which was developed by Howard Rheingold. This concept implies that when a group is cooperating, the result of this cooperation is stronger than the sum of all the contributions from all the individuals which are part of this group.
    • The user is the producer: With Web 2.0, users are also producers not just spectators. Web 2.0 sites are definitely alien to advertising and communications. Ignoring that and pursuing the old habit of delivering pre-formatted top-down product-orientated messages would be a non-starter.
  • functional characteristics:
    • RSS: RSS is more than just a feature, it is has a real functional impact on user behaviour. RSS (real simple syndication) enables users to receive information without having to make any effort to collect it. The use of RSS feeds imposes that the user installs a feed reader. More and more these the readers are integrated within the Internet browser or within the Internet toolbar (Google, Yahoo, etc.). The exponential development of RSS is at last making it possible to push information towards the user as was originally designed at the end of the 1990’s.
  • technical characteristics:
    • thin clients, light programming and mash-ups: the basic idea is that Web 2.0 websites can be built very rapidly by using existing objects or even objects and pieces of code or data drawn from existing websites. These existing websites can also be external. A typical mash-up example is that of websites which use Internet maps (mainly from Google), in order to make geo-localisation possible.
    • The web as a platform: this is the recycling of the ‘old’ (2000+) asp concept (application service provision). The idea is to use the network as a repository, and to avoid thick clients (see previous paragraph).

Strictly speaking, there is no objective definition of what Web 2.0 is and what it isn’t. In this Web 2.0 category (comprehensive listing available at http://www.go2web20.net/) going to work 20.net) we will find a great number of websites which have nothing to do with one another, because the 2.0 concept is in fact more recent than many of these sites themselves. This ‘new’ Internet is more about concept than definition. It is about freedom of expression, it is about horizontal innovation, it is about openness and it is about exchange of information, and more than anything else it is about the respect of individuals who are also contributors.

To sum it up, for a large corporation, for a big logo, embracing Web 2.0 is more about culture than technology. It implies that the large corporation has to give up its natural tendency to the levelling of differences, lack of transparency and generalisation of paranoia mainly with regard to anything related to the brand. In other words large corporations which would like to embrace Web 2.0, would need to be technically and mentally but mainly organisationally prepared in order to be able to withstand suggestions, critique, and even possibly destruction in a totally transparent manner.

Any attempt at jumping into the web 2.0 bandwagon in a different way could be very negatively criticised online and the impact on the brand could be tremendous. Web sentiment analysis tools such as flair (developed by Orange labs in San Francisco) allow the monitoring and also the prevention of Internet buzz (either positive or negative). Such tools have to be combined with support engagements delivered by specialised principal consultants. Very often, reputation management is overlooked by large organisations which fail to understand that the Internet is not a traditional media which works in a top-down manner.

How to build a (really) collaborative website?

To sum it up in a few words, the real question about a Web 2.0 website is not a question of definition (we have already concluded that it doesn’t exist) but the real question is to know whether the main principle as which client collaboration on the Internet have been respected or not. We have listed hereafter 15 different criteria which may collaborative website the success or a failure. A we have listed the 15 potential criteria which make up the main characteristics of web collaboration on the Internet:

One: users don’t come on websites by chance

Installing an online forum and letting users enter comments, adding a bit of technicality here and there is not enough to transform a static website into an interactive and collaborative website. Users and Web surfers never come by chance on a website. Forgetting about that principle is only going to lead you to create an empty shell where collaboration will not actually happen.

Two: do not confuse comments for collaboration

Comments are reaction, not action nor pro-action. On the contrary, collaboration is about working together (co-laborare in Latin). And it is about working from the bottom up (Howard Rheingold talked about the guy in the basement)

Three: facilitate, facilitate, facilitate

In order to create a new effective collaborative website, facilitation has to happen at all times, and especially at the beginning of the initiative. Collaborative websites do require that a large number of information be created upfront in order to attract new visitors before generating collaboration (caution! This content has to be real and not just formal).

Four: your brand has to be adapted to the spirit of Web 2.0

Web 2.0 is more about spirit and concepts and principles than definition, as we have seen already. It is imperative that your brand be in accordance with that spirit before launching your initiative. In other words putting Web 2.0 Sunday clothes on your static website is never going to make it for you. If your brand is incompatible with this experience of openness and exchange it is advised to create or use another brand or sub-brand as a workaround and not use the main brand for this initiative.

Five: avoid talking about your products

Web 2.0 users come to your websites to gather information, to exchange, to share, to receive too, but they will not go there to look at your product descriptions. Otherwise they will just go to your static website.

Six: great causes can work wonders

Great passion emerges often (always?) from great causes, not from small products. Seven: think about user benefits: don’t forget to serve users and to analyse why they will be attracted to your content and why they will come back to the website. If all you can do is think about yourselves, and your company, you will be the only ones to go and visit this website. And being alone on a collaborative website is not a decent objective.

Seven: be empathetic, think user-benefit vs. company-benefit

If you want to try 2.0, you had better start thinking differently. It means putting others first and your business interests and objectives second. Start thinking YOU YOU YOU rather than WE WE WE. Anyway, this is not just for the Web, but all your Marketing approach should be like that. If it’s not, chances are you could improve your sales quite significantly by using a little empathy.

Eight: openness and transparency

The collaborative web does not agree with closed circles. Collaboration implies transparency. Corporate speak is not allowed and online advertising is not of the essence of Web 2.0 either. If you forget about this basic rule, at best visitors will be indifferent, and at worse they will be very critical.

Nine: the tone of voice

Your tone of voice has to be very straightforward and very honest and you’re well advised to avoid taking users for children or worse. The Web 2.0 spirit implies that the user-producer be respected and showed confidence and appreciation.

Ten: reactivity and spontaneity

You have to respond to suggestions or comments as soon as they have been added. The Web is about real-time dictatorship. If the user-producer feels that his suggestions have not been taken seriously, or too late, then he or she will be discouraged and will never come back, or even he or she will speak evil of your in his or her blogs. Spontaneity is Web 2.0 politeness because it shows the interest that your organisation is bestowing upon the user-producer.

Eleven: quantity and flow of information

The collaborative web revolves around content. If you launch a collaborative website which generates only one or two comments means that you are exposing your company to critics and jokers.

Twelve: be ethical

You have to avoid creating fake blogs (aka flogs) at all cost. Fake bloggers also have to be avoided and all other attempts at cheating with your users and visitors. There are many chances that you will be uncovered rapidly and that retaliations will be extreme (see the example of the website for the Sony PSP Playstation at Christmas 2006[1])

Thirteen: modernity and ‘geekiness’

Very often, large companies have lost track of the reality of the world of the Internet, because they are very far away from it (or their IT managers are far from it). Chances are that some of your employees know more about collaboration and up-to-date IT techniques than some of your IT staff. There is nothing worse than a corporation which wants to do something on the Web 2.0 and therefore apes existing web successes (Second Life for example) and the result being very wide of the mark. With Web 2.0 development techniques also have to be Web 20 related: free software, collaborative design, creativity meetings and collaborative meetings (barcamps and all the variations on the theme).

Fourteen: total immersion

Avoid creating fake 3-D environments at all cost if the objective is to provide a real total immersion experience (chances are that we would be talking about Web 3.0 here and not 2.0 anymore), you have to abide to the rules. That is to say that you will have to start from scratch and recreate an entire meta-verse such as second life (which is very difficult to achieve), or more pragmatically that you would massively invest in Second Life itself in order to carry out innovative ‘immersive’ marketing.

Fifteen: when the rubber meets the road

Last but not least, even if you have respected the first 14 rules, chances are that you have probably done anything yet. As always when it comes to implementing information systems, execution is everything. In other words it’s not just a matter of content it’s a matter of implementation, of state of mind. Let’s repeat once more that Web 2.0 is not just about following the rules of the game, it’s a way of life.

Recommendation: bringing real answers to real questions

For a large corporation wanting to embrace a Web 2.0 initiative, the question is not to know whether or not do it, but to understand whether any benefits can be withdrawn from such an initiative, and to define which benefits can be shared with its users. Quid pro quoi is indeed the real essence of a collaborative experience on the Internet. As a consequence, you will have to ask yourself this fundamental question about your Internet strategy at large. Many chances are that being on the Internet in an open and collaborative environment where collaboration is everywhere users are going to be absolutely free to express themselves. As a consequence, embarrassing questions are very likely to crop up to the surface (environmental question, reliability question, ethical question, political question, social responsibility questions etc). And I’m not even mentioning the lobbying and pressure groups.

My recommendation is therefore threefold:

Stage one: you have to define your Internet strategy

Define your objectives for the collaborative website, and what can be the key success factors with regards to such an operation. You will also have to define the boundaries which will protect your brand and your reputation. Then you will have to determine the leeway you will have, the support and internal and external sponsorship as well. Then you will have to target a subject matter (AXA has done something similar choosing health prevention as a great cause before they launched their 2.0 initiative). You will also have to evaluate the questions surrounding branding (see the point dedicated to how your brand relates to Web 2.0). The potential alliances with non-governmental organisations and associations for instance will have to be evaluated too.

Stage two: define your actions

You will have to deduce from the above the necessary actions for you to fill in the gaps before jumping to a technical solution that means nothing. Before you start a collaborative experiment on the Internet, start collaborating yourself with the experts of Web 2.0 (if you don’t understand this, forget about launching a Web 2.0 initiative altogether) you should ask these Web 2.0 experts to help you cope with this new initiative. Last but not least, don’t forget about your clients themselves and I am sure that they would also be very interested in taking part in to design adventure. Your employees to might like the idea too, don’t overlook them, some of them are experts and they are probably somewhere in your basement.

Stage three: test your vision

Test a first version on a reduced sample, but large enough to generate enough collaboration and feedback. Then turn this platform this test platform into a tool for real-time test, through the involvement of renowned bloggers and influential 2.0 players. The latter will not only analyse and evaluate your online communication skills but they should also participate in this initiative. This might mean that you have to compensate some of them for their time (money though). Finally, a permanent and constant follow-up of this initiative has to be put in place right from day one.

Important notice: expecting transparency beforehand is indispensable, even before you start thinking about this project. If you do, it could turn your organisation into a web 2.0 wizard in the blogosphere and an Internet co-marketing role model for the rest of the world.

Think about it!

Original Post: http://visionarymarketing.wordpress.com/2007/07/03/web20/