The web has always had more than its fair share of buzzwords and acronyms. But, every now and then, one pops up that causes everyone to go completely nuts, yet no-one can actually explain what it means. Web 2.0 is one. A search for it on Google returns no less than 820 million results, more than 'iPod'. At this year's Internet World in May, six speakers, including Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman, chose to talk about Web 2.0, and drew the biggest crowds as a result.
But, what is it and, more importantly, what impact will it have on brands' web marketing? As with most buzzwords, there are various interpretations.
Even Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of computer book publisher O'Reilly Media, who coined the term in 2004, required 17 pages to clarify its meaning in an article last year, in which he admits: "There's a huge amount of disagreement about what Web 2.0 means, with some people decrying it as a meaningless buzzword and others accepting it as conventional wisdom."
It might be easier to start off with explaining what Web 2.0 isn't, rather than what it is. James Aylett, chief technical architect at Tangozebra, says: "One of the things everyone is agreed upon is that Web 2.0 isn't a technology or even a group of technologies: it's a different way of thinking about web sites."
Many see Web 2.0 as the second generation or phase of the internet, and the key thing that differentiates it from 'Web 1.0' is that it is more open. Or, as Julian Smith, senior research analyst at Jupiter, says: "(The web) has moved relatively quickly from a predominantly one-way, read-only medium to a more two-way, participatory, collaborative and interconnected medium."
This is reflected in the popularity of blogging platforms such as MSN Spaces and Blogger. According to a report by Technorati last year, a new blog is created every second.
Other sites seeing huge growth include: social networking site MySpace.com (now owned by News Corp); online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, edited by millions of people; Youtube, which lets users upload videos; and photo-sharing web site Flickr.com. These are all regularly cited as classic examples of Web 2.0 services, and what they have in common is that they allow users to upload and share their own content.
The Web 2.0 movement is being aided by new technologies such as AJAX, RSS and Ruby on the Rails, which enable web developers to create more dynamic, interactive content. These tools, along with the rapid growth of broadband, are giving users more control over what they consume.
If we take Web 2.0 to mean the democratisation of content and the empowerment of people, it becomes more than just a meaningless buzzword. There's no getting away from the fact that many web sites being built today are more interactive than those developed 10, or even, five years ago.
"Applications like Flickr and Youtube have the consumer at the centre.
These sites exist because of the content consumers contribute and their success speaks volumes. Millions of people are viewing the content," says Rob Forshaw, managing partner at digital creative agency Grand Union.
MySpace's user base has more than quadrupled to nearly 80 million over the past year, with as many as 270,000 joining every day.
The idea of users participating online and creating communities isn't new. For example, eBay is an online community built around people buying from, and selling to, each other. Shopping sites like Amazon have allowed consumers to post their reviews for many years. Agency.com's European chairman and founder, Andy Hobsbawm, says: "The difference is that (user participation) is on a much bigger scale now because there are more than a million people online."
Steve Sponder, director of digital marketing agency Lawton eMarketing adds that, because people have been doing it for some time, they are "more comfortable" with participating.
To a certain extent, it could be argued that Web 2.0 is being over-hyped.
But it could have a huge impact on web marketing. Many digital marketers believe traditional advertising models - broadcasting messages via banners and other rich-media formats - will not work in the Web 2.0 world, where the balance of power is shifting from media owner to consumer.
"I suppose you could stick some ads around the content that consumers are placing, but that's going to have limited cut-through and reach," says Damian Blackden, Universal McCann's European VP of strategic marketing technologies. "You're talking to an advertising-cynical audience, so it's going to be the more collaborative marketing techniques that work."
Brands can let people have conversations on their sites in any number of ways: by allowing them to post comments or reviews; set up discussion boards; or rewrite content, which is how Wikipedia works. "Different ways are appropriate to different sites, but the aim should not just be to generate content but to build a community," says Tangozebra's Aylett.
Some brands are already doing this. Travel company Thomson invites people to write reviews on its web sites while Lastminute.com has created a branded blog platform for its customers. There have also been great examples of high-profile campaigns using offline media to drive people to a site to participate.
Dove's 'Campaign for real beauty', for example, asked consumers to vote on pictures used in its offline ads.
Alternatively, brands can go one step further and give users the tools to create their own content, such as a TV spot, or play with existing content. This practice has been called 'mash-up' and 'co-creation'. High-profile examples include last year's Levi's Mobile Audio Mixer (MAX), where users could create their own ringtone as part of an online competition, with the winner having their track remixed and pressed on to vinyl.
In the US, Converse lets brands create their own TV spots via its site, while car brand Chevrolet placed tools on its site that allowed users to remix and 'mash-up' its latest Chevy Tahoe ads. Some brands have even let users influence the creative of their online ads. In a campaign by mustard brand Colman's, users could create their own characters to participate in a virtual march through banner ads. All these examples are less about pushing a message to users and more about coming up with a creative idea they can be part of. "This phenomenon means brand managers and guardians are having to cede control of the brand and its messages to consumers," says Chris Clarke, executive creative director, London, at Modem Media.
For businesses that have invested millions in creating a brand, this is a daunting prospect as it can easily go wrong. Chevrolet took down its 'Make Your Own Tahoe Commercial' site after receiving a different response than expected. While it attracted 400,000 participants, 16 per cent created ads mocking the over-sized cars, the nature of the ads and the company.
Graham Donaghue, head of new media at TUI UK admits it was a huge step for the company to allow users to write their own reviews on its site.
"We're not in control any more, and that's a huge move for us, but we have to do it because our customers tell us they want it," he says. "With the power of blogs and citizen journalism, someone can easily write information about your brand and post it online, so it's almost better that it's on your own site than elsewhere. It's also incredibly powerful content; a Forrester survey last year revealed that while people trust recommendations from their friends most, reviews on sites were the second most trusted source."
Sponder agrees it's better to let users talk about you in a branded environment: "A brand can gain so much in terms of the credibility it will receive by being approachable and having a human face rather than just communicating one way."
The difficulty for brands is to get the balance of power right. How much control should they concede? Clarke believes E brand control will become less about a set of strict guidelines and more about a core concept or 'DNA'. "You have to be clear on what you can control and comfortable about what you can't," he says, adding that there will always be people who are negative. If brands try to control these environments too much, they could end up doing more damage than good. "There's a fine line between making a success of it and your customers thinking it's a big publicity stunt," adds Sponder.
While it's relatively easy to see how brands can allow users to create content on their sites, it's not so easy to see how brands can participate in user-centric sites such as MySpace without appearing intrusive. There have been ads on MySpace and some brands have hosted a specific area and these have received a mixed response so far.
But, simple moves like making TV ads or content available to these channels can be effective. Forshaw says Sony uploaded the photos from its Bravia bouncing-balls campaign to Flickr before the ad aired on TV. This linked to a site where the ad and images could be downloaded. "By the time the commercial aired on TV there was a good deal of consumer involvement and activity around it, with people posting the ad on their blogs and distributing it through their social networks," says Forshaw.
Tom Hyde, new business director at Profero, feels that, to earn the right to exist in this space, advertisers should enable and enrich consumers' creative tendencies. "Help them to make their MySpace the best and reach a bigger audience. We should celebrate their creativity rather than take advantage of it."
Time to innovate
This could involve creating tools that allow people to do something new or save time. Lastminute.com co-founder Brent Hoberman believes innovation will be increasingly important. "There's never been a better time to innovate.
The viral nature of the web means that if you innovate, people will talk about it, and you won't have to spend a lot of money on marketing. It's simple - give customers tools they can use all the time and they will tell their friends about it," he says.
Rather than simply being a place where people go to find out more about the company and its products, a brand site could become more application-based, suggests Modem's Clarke. "Brand sites, as we know them, will probably become a series of applications that are useful, relevant or entertaining," he says, adding that these branded applications should be viewed as media spend in the same way as an ad campaign.
With so many consumers expressing their views online, Web 2.0 also has a huge impact on reputation management. Katy Howell, managing director of PR firm Immediate Future, thinks Web 2.0 bridges the gap between PR and marketing.
"Social networks, blogs, user-generated content, tagging, wikis, P2P - all those are about conversation and fall neatly under 'reputation management', which is, essentially, PR," says Howell. Companies need to be out there, looking at what people say about them online, and respond in an open and appropriate way. Ignoring even one customer's negative comments on a blog could do serious damage to a brand's reputation.
She highlights the Dell Hell example, where one individual, Jeff Jarvis, ranted in a blog about his bad customer service experience, which quickly spiralled out of control, with more bloggers joining in and spreading the message. "It must be a nightmare being a brand marketer and seeing all these messages going around about you, but you can't just ignore the web because it makes you feel uncomfortable," says Howell. "Web 2.0 is making it more powerful, but it would be a shame if people look at it with fear. The reality is that there's a great opportunity to build true advocacy."
Brands can learn an awful lot from blogs and social networks, which they can use to their advantage; not just to get their marketing messages right but also on a deeper business level, by involving consumers in product development. It's a great way to find out what people are talking about and what the key trends are. Or, as Lawton's Sponder puts it, to identify the 'zeitgeist'.
"It's probably one of the best opportunities we have and can help forgo the enormous expense of creating the wrong products. By talking to the people who buy them in a cost-effective way early on in the process, brands can find out what products are likely to be well-received," says Forshaw.
"It also overcomes the large-scale changes that a brand has to undertake when trends take hold." He says many debates, such as the current ones over obesity and global warming, actually start online before they hit mainstream media.
Web 2.0 may be difficult to define and is, perhaps, being hyped up more than it deserves, but it's clear that something significant is happening that should be taken seriously by marketers. If a company's messages do not align with what consumers are saying about it online, a credibility gap could emerge, which will have a huge impact on brand reputation.
Forshaw adds: "One of the problems with Web 2.0 is that it is a fashionable, fickle term, but many of the things that are happening in terms of social networking and social computing are phenomena that are going to stay."
Marketing 2.0: campaigns that have embraced user control
A rising number of digital marketing campaigns over the past year have enabled users to generate their own content. Here's a few:
Orange Paper Film Festival, by Poke
Entrants were invited to shoot a film on their mobile and send the clip via MMS to the Orange web site, where they could then edit them, and add a soundtrack and titles. Winners of the 'Palm de Paper' were presented with awards at a ceremony. The campaign won a BIMA award for best integrated campaign last year.
Sony PlayStation Summer of Freedom, Greenroom Digital
Sony ran a competition to find four 'Freedom Explorers' to act as cheerleaders for the brand. They were whisked to events throughout the summer and kept video blogs of their experiences, which users could read on the PlayStation Freedom site. Visitors could also upload their own video blogs, with a prize awarded to the best each week.
Coca-Cola World Cup campaign, bdnetwork
The soft-drinks giant invited users to take a digital photo of themselves, which showed just how much they love the World Cup, and send it in via MMS or email for the chance to win a pair of tickets to see a World Cup game every day throughout June.
Levi's Mobile Audio Mixer (MAX), Lateral
The fashion brand created web tools that enabled users to create a ringtone as part of an online competition last year. The best submission had their track remixed and pressed on to vinyl. There are rumours that the brand is considering launching the winning track as a single.