“Conversation Collaboration Aggregation”

Web 2.0 early adopter research – “Conversation, Collaboration and Aggregation”

A big concern of small companies is to be seen to bigger and more successful than they really are. Small companies are very good at making a little money go a long way and the web really helps. A research project carried out this year in partnership between Brunel University and Howtodobusiness.com has been talking to some early adopters about how they have been using web 2.0 techniques to punch above their weight. The project will produce a workbook and workshops based on the case studies later in the year.

Our early adopters recognise that marketing is about creating a good story that connects you with your customers and telling it in the right places – especially on the web. They seem to have grasped the 3 key facts about the internet

· You need to appear to be everywhere to your customers

· You need to create your promotional materials using the terms that people instinctively use to find you

· The more you systematically network yourself, the more channels to market you create.

The advantages that an effective web presence delivers are reach, richness, speed, visibility and relationships. What the web 2.0 toolset adds in the words of one of our interviewees is “Conversation, Collaboration and Aggregation.”

Our interviewees have mostly been recruited via Ecademy -a leading social business network. It provides a rich toolset for members to create updatable profiles and embed multimedia elements like video clips in them. It lets them make contact on line and meet offline and provides a range of tools like discussion fora, blogs and market place ads. Above all there is a tradition of mutual support and people learn to use these techniques from each other in a hot house environment.

web 2.0 tools

Our early adopters combine blogs, search engine optimisation and the creation of multiple points of presence to build a web presence that drives traffic to their site. Many of our interviewees are experts in web-related topics. However the most interesting group are those who have applied these techniques to running “normal” businesses – lawyers, technical authors and financial advisers.

As well as being accomplished face to face networkers they focus on the power of written materials – books, factsheets, training materials – judiciously positioned and widely available to boost credibility in their respective markets. They grasp the effective use of keywords and systematically research and use them in their collateral. They’ve learned how to use RSS (really simple syndication) to transfer information created in one location on the web into somewhere else to build the multiple points of presence needed appear ubiquitous.

Finally they understand how to use collaboration to obtain referrals. They’ve grasped the fact that testimonials and advocates are much more convincing to the potential customer than anything you might say yourself and, in the case of one of our interviewees, he has greatly improved his ability to run public training programmes by collaborating with a fellow member of the platform.

They learned to start with on-line conversations, develop trust, build collaborative partnerships which spread the costs of customer acquisition and use the tools of Web 2.0 to build and deploy an on-line knowledge base of testimonials and examples of their work to build credibility and attract interest and referrals.

But the most interesting thing of all is how individuals – often in their second or third careers and often one man bands – use the collaboration implicit in web 2.0 to rapidly develop their own knowledge of how to exploit these tools – a knowledge denied to their corporate counterparts by the IT department and the rigours of having to compete with each other.

basic web marketingSo in an on-line environment like Ecademy we find that the new boys will start to find their way around, stubbing their toes on the conventions that despite being in what looks like a business/sales environment, the way to become successful is to become attractive – by creating a presence that adds value to the community rather than doing more selling harder and going for the jugular as per the corporate model. They have to learn to give first before they can receive. Though they don’t in fact know it they are being educated in the ways of pull/permission marketing rather than push marketing as per Seth Godin.

They eventually learn to do this by a process of trial and error but as they persist they discover that they are in an environment where they are bombarded by posts about Search engine optimisation, marketing tools, how to drive traffic to your site and (if you get tired out and need reviving) life coaching. They start to build a presence through conversation and they discover that they can get answers to technical problems simply by asking the audience. As long as they haven’t driven everybody else mad by too much hard selling people will tell them what they want to know. How do we know the answers are right? Because of the process of informal peer review – if the info is wrong some-one else will blow the whistle. As long as we’re predominantly dealing with fact rather than opinion it works pretty well.

Then they start to discover that they’re being exposed to all kinds of new tricks – like being able to embed a You-tube video in their profile and like being introduced to voice over IP via Skype and being able to build systems cobbled together from free tools here and subscription software there. This allows quite sophisticated internet presences to be built from effectively free-ware – and all the time you’re in an atmosphere where it’s quite normal to play with this stuff. In fact one interviewee actually said “I depend on loads of internet junk cobbled together with virtual sticky tape and string”.

As well as being exposed to tools of aggregation, they get exposed to tools of collaboration – such as BaseCamp – an externally hosted project management environment or Ecademy’s own club system – which is a kind of invitation only forum.

Contrast this with the situation in the corporate and public sector ghettos where the worker bees huddle behind their firewalls drinking skinny latte and answering emails.

The ferment in the social business networks operates well because of a sort of knowledge based invisible hand. Everyone is living inside a marketing playground where demonstrating your expertise might get you business. Doing that in a corporate environment where suppressing knowledge is power would only get your legs cut off. I had the experience of developing some training materials not so long ago for the re-launch of an extranet in a public sector organisation. Being used to the kind of energy you get in Ecademy, I was shocked at how little it was used and how reluctant people were to share information. Worse still – the distance learning materials we created were severely cramped by the fact that the poor old worker bees are not allowed sound cards in their machines.

Because this is the other difference. In the “official” world the role of the IT department is to keep everything locked down in the interests of security. This means that people can’t play with or use technology imaginatively. The security of the firewall is paramount, you can’t go onto you-tube, you can’t use Skype (in fact some of the IT Stasi invest in products like Skype-killer and you certainly couldn’t fool around with RSS feeds). Finally because of corporate paranoia and the danger of careless talk affecting the all-important share price, blogging in some places is a sackable offence. Senior Telco employees are sometimes known to say things like “what’s it like out there?” and “we can’t communicate with you – you’re in the red zone”. If he were alive today Rousseau might well say that “information is born free but everywhere is in the chains of the IT department”

While we can concede that if we were charged with keeping the IT systems of a corporate up and running we might be paranoid too, it nevertheless poses some issues for corporate marketers who need to be free to experiment if they are to be able to confidently run marketing campaigns in this brave new world.

If a sufficiently large section of the population gets its information and does its business in an informal and creative way, how does the corporate marketer, ensconced behind his firewall communicate with them? Writing good copy is about imagining yourself in the customer’s mindset. If you can’t get there, you’ll never make the connection.

This seems to be a key fault-line in many areas of life at present. There is a discrepancy between the official world of security, audit, tick-box and prescription on the one hand and the behaviour patterns for learning, communication and doing business that people adopt when they are able to drop the bureaucracy and behave honestly, immediately and creatively.

We see it in marketing and IT as we’ve been discussing it here but it’s a more general issue that pervades much of the learning and regulatory agendas that government, employers and educational institutions have been failing to resolve all my adult life. We currently don’t appear to have a political party that really gets any of this. Everywhere you look there’s a clunking fist.

The truth is the official ways are too slow and prescriptive to deliver that agility that’s needed to survive in the virtual / internet based world. We have no means of acquiring the skills we need to be successful in 2020 except by doing it and encouraging others to take part. However the funding don’t work that way. Until a valid synthesis is achieved we’re going to continue to bump along the bottom and the “Abandoned Heroes” of our previous study are going to continue to struggle with the problems of growth as they hit the re-entry barriers of formality and scalability of the business model which occurs when the size of their businesses means them re-engaging with the “official” ways of doing things

Either that or they will continue to stay small, flexible and simply use the technology to avoid going back there.

So dear reader, I’m interested in whether you think this is an accurate description or just wishful thinking.

PS Shameless Plug Alert

We’re in the process of developing some training materials for people who want to be web 2.0 warriors). We’re running a 3 hour pilot at the Hub on the morning of the 6th July which will basically take you through how to do the things in the first diagram in the article. It costs £25 + VAT – basically to cover materials and refreshments and will be run by me and my partner in crime, Dr Lisa Harris of Brunel Business School – if you want to come you can sign up via the ad in the Ecademy Market place or directly here.

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