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Back to the Future: Bold, Timeless Truths From Web 1.0

  |  July 11, 2006   |  Comments

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I have no earthly clue when the term "2.0" entered my lexicon or found its tipping point in my buzzword-lined vocabulary.

All I know is I'm dropping the term so often -- and in so many ways -- that I'm ready to seek help from Buzzwords Anonymous. There's a growing roster of fellow marketers I'm eager to recruit for the first meeting.

It's hard to argue with the fundamentals of Web 2.0. Yes, the open-source, interconnected, world-is-flat, people-powered, social-media-oriented world is the real deal. Moreover, as someone who takes enormous pride in having coined and popularized the term "consumer-generated media" (CGM), I count myself among the most passionate proponents of these 2.0 building blocks.

But is it all brand-spanking new (pun intended), or are we just finally internalizing and accepting core fundamentals deeply rooted in our earliest -- dare I say, most intuitive -- read on the Web back in the so-called Web 1.0 era?

Indeed, after rummaging through an old box of articles, conference trinkets, and memos from my late 1990s stint as co-leader of Procter & Gamble's early interactive efforts, I'm convinced the core fundamentals were in place before we even heard the term "Web 2.0." I raise this question not to pooh-pooh the current Web 2.0 exuberance but to ground it in a more stable set of fundamentals. As marketers, and certainly at the CMO level, we have a deeply rooted penchant for preaching the new while funding the old.

So perhaps "what's past is prologue," as Shakespeare said. Let's review some of our earlier fundamentals in an effort to propel us forward with even greater momentum and intensity:

  • The Web is a focus group of unlimited conversation. This is practically pre-Internet and was the biggest motivation for my bolting my P&G job to start a crazy dot-com centered on, well, online focus groups. Since the beginning, consumers have expressed themselves in rich, unaided, unsolicited candor, all with enormous implications (and meaning) for brands. The key difference today is the expression venues have multiplied like Energizer Bunnies on steroids. The Web is a census of hand-raising, early adopters. Increasingly, the layperson, who leaves a digital trail, contributes a small amount every day to our collective knowledge.

  • Digital is the most measurable medium. Sorry, folks, this goes back to Nick Negroponte, maybe even earlier. If anything, it's getting more precise, granular, and conversationally consumer-centric. Relative to offline measurements, there's just no comparison. That said, more measures mean more complexity. The real question is how we integrate and consume this abundant harvest of new measurements.

  • Content is king. Can you say "déjà vu"? This goes back to the pre-Web early '80s. Content has been a core driver of the Web since its inception but found itself overshadowed by our attention around pipeline. Content lost favor because of not only the many spectacular dot-com meltdowns but also the many brands that did a horrible job executing on content models.

    What's critical moving forward, and where Web 2.0 and the blogosphere in particular are moving, is the potential to augment, as my colleague Max Kalehoff put it, "otherwise flat content with conversation and engagement." Many early content strategies were absolutely spot on, including P&G's early purchase of virtually every darn domain name in the consumer packaged goods category, including flu.com, toiletpaper.com, and beautiful.com. Brilliant, but inevitably vulnerable to post-dot-com "what were you smoking" logic, which threw more than a few content babies out with the bathwater. Most of those names are gone, and Google now has a $100 billion market cap grounded in selling shelf space on content-driven search results.

  • Brand Web sites build trust and nurture conversation. Of course brand Web sites are a big idea, and shame on all of us for tossing this notion out the window in the name of bagging early best practices and shifting all attention to paid online advertising. As Jim Nail and I learned in a 2004 study, Web sites nurture trust more than any other ad vehicle short of word of mouth. If click-throughs, engagement, word of mouth, and CGM media are a big part of our future, brand Web sites are a huge idea. Great brands are authorities and experts in their domain. They should build or nurture great content to tell that story. The great news today is they are far less expensive to produce, and they can now be commingled with many other sources of sticky data.

  • Deeper engagement matters: advertise that URL. Who wrote the righteous memo saying no-brainer actions like advertising the brand URL in TV commercials were a bad idea or don't prove ROI (define)? Probably fools like me who prematurely trashed brand Web sites. Rarely do you see brand domain names advertised anymore, which makes no sense at a time when marketers are demanding outcomes.

    Now curiously, the so-called Web 2.0 inspired engagement metric is all the rage. Just ask the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF). Didn't we have part of the engagement equation nailed when we started using our most expensive ad vehicle -- TV commercials -- to drive deeper engagement on our Web sites?

  • Time to shift from branding to bonding. This was a huge theme at late '90s industry events, and it was so spot on. Bonding is about deeper, more intimate, conversational relationships with consumers, while branding speaks to a more distanced, one-size-fits-all model. It's precisely this notion that makes corporate blogs like GM's Fastlane or Microsoft's Channel 9 so compelling.

  • Behold the power of the network effect. Communities and the network effect have always been central to the Web. Some of my most interesting work at P&G revolved around the dynamics of key communities like Women.com (now part of iVillage) and brand-sponsored plays like Beinggirl, early precursors to MySpace. Importantly, both intimate and incidental word of mouth have their biggest impact with networks. Communities and individuals are more effective and efficient when networks form. In this regard, Web 2.0 has added huge value to our earliest assumptions.

  • Influencers matter. OK, we didn't have as many fancy words back then, but the Web has always been a medium where influencers, especially activists, have a disproportionate influence. With the breakdown in efficiency and effectiveness of broadcast media and marketing models, those who can command our attention and trust become the ones capability of influence. Moreover, in a world of search, influence also accrues to first talkers.

Final Thoughts

As with the dot-com crash, there most certainly will be a Web 2.0 correction. Some social media play like MySpace may implode, and CMOs across the land are bound to scatter like flies. If history's any indication, new media and technologies tend to have a long-term cumulative impact, not an overnight disruption.

Let's think boldly about the 2.0 future, but let's use the early 1.0 rearview mirror to embolden our case. Great marketing is a long-term strategy.

Meet Pete at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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