How to think out of the 2.0 box

Hmm, looks interesting..thanks David.

A basic two-by-two matrix can be the key to quantifying the risks and opportunities that are bundled together under the banner of web 2.0, says David Bowen.

At a conference for corporate web managers a few months back delegate after delegate muttered that they were thoroughly fed up with web 2.0. It may (does) contain many fascinating concepts, but if it makes people in charge of the world’s biggest web presences yawn, it has a problem.

I have a suggestion that might get them fired up again. Stop talking about web 2.0. Extract the useful concepts, classify them in a way non-technical managers understand, and explain how they can be exploited, managed and controlled.

The individual concepts are indeed powerful. Blogs can spread good news or bad at the speed of a working Large Hadron Collider. Wikipedia is a brilliantly useful idea that is absolutely terrifying for any reputation-conscious organisation. YouTube has been a star of the US presidential race. Facebook makes us all into little web publishers.

But they should not be bundled: catch-all expressions such as web 2.0 mean that the benefits and risks are thrown together like a dodgy mortgage-backed security. It’s not surprising they are viewed with suspicion.

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Let’s take the techniques and give them some order. As a consultant I have an obligation to use a two-by-two matrix; fortunately, that is just what I need.

It makes no sense to include only ‘the new’ – websites themselves have to be part of the mix, so do established techniques such as forums and on-site video. And it is helpful to more traditional managers if we add offline communication techniques, to put the online world in a familiar context.

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The matrix is largely about risk management, something every manager understands. The x-axis is to do with territory: on the left are the things you control, essentially those that sit on your own servers. Call this the ‘home web’. On the right is the ‘extended web’: YouTube, other people’s sites, other people’s blogs, social media sites. Here you are tiptoeing on someone else’s turf – huge opportunities, but do take care.

The y-axis is about a different form of control. Traditional communication is one way – make an announcement, send out an annual report, place an advertisement. Websites are still essentially one-way channels, as are some of the new devices such as YouTube (there is some interactivity, but it is marginal). This is the ‘vertical web’, contrasting with the ‘horizontal web’, which is where you let your customers, or anyone else, talk back. The horizontal web provides great opportunities – any sales person will tell you a conversation is better than a pitch. But it is tricky to get right and brings, obviously, greater risks.

What the matrix shows

First, you cannot neatly divide the old from the new. Podcasts may be new and fashionable, but they are an old-fashioned concept: one-way communication you control. Forums, by contrast, have been around for a long time yet they are true conversations on sites you do not control, and need to be handled as subtly as any blog.

Second, what the web has done is to multiply risks to corporates. The top right square is populated with scary online concepts, but relatively few offline ideas. Syngenta, the Swiss-based agribusiness, found that out when protestors occupied a GM (genetic modification) test site it ran in Brazil, and two people were killed. By that evening stories associating Syngenta with the killing has been spread by blogs and were thoroughly entrenched on the web. Wikipedia, which is written and edited by its readers, is also a potential threat to reputation. By contrast, how often has your company’s reputation been scarred by a television discussion or a town hall meeting?

Third, vertical content remains powerful. Your website will always be the most important online property, because it is the official voice of your organisation. Indeed, its importance will increase as stories and rumours fly around the extended web, and people want to know what the company is saying for itself.

Finally, individual concepts need to be unbundled. You can post your own YouTube videos (which puts you in the bottom right square) or other people can make videos about you (top right). The former are likely to help, the latter can be deeply damaging. Because they are on the extended web both can be proliferated with alarming ease, but it is important to avoid deciding that YouTube is good or bad, without considering ‘which YouTube?’.

‘Which blogs?’ is a more complex question, because they can roost in any of three squares. At top left we have a typical corporate blog – put on the site in the hope that some sort of conversation will build up. It rarely does, though if you have the right mix of good subject and good blogger, it can work. IT companies find it easiest (for example, Dell’s Direct2Dell), but GM (General Motor)’s FastLane Blog also works because it lets car buffs chat with the big car buff, vice-chairman Bob Lutz.

It is noticeable that Mr Lutz’s posts get many more comments than others – ‘Comments: 0’ is a common sign-off on most corporate blog posts. Does that matter? Not if it’s a ‘bottom left’ blog. These have nothing to do with creating a dialogue, but act instead as a dressdown version of the website and allow the company to say things it would never think of doing formally.

The best example I know is not a company, but the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Have a careful look at the blog from the diplomats in Zimbabwe, and consider that this is on an official British government site; it works, it’s powerful, because it’s a blog.

Top right blogs are the ones that give blogging a risky reputation – this is the Wild West of the internet, where people can write what they want without any checks. It is the square that got Syngenta into trouble and is also where companies have to be scrupulously careful. Put a foot wrong, and they will be exposed and abused. But with great subtlety this is also the type of blog that will do you most good, because it allows for third-party endorsement as well as abuse to spread at neutron speed.