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pr_tactics.jpgIn the 11 years since the introduction of the first Web browser, the Internet has been considered an interactive communications tool, but we’re just beginning to unlock the Web’s ability to help us truly interact. Instead, most organizations still use the Web primarily to disseminate information.

That’s about to change thanks to a movement called, “Web 2.0,” a collection of emerging technologies that enable social networking by offering Web users the ability to add and edit Web content. It was initially referred to as “Consumer Generated Media,” but the label proved to be too restrictive for the sea change that has been occurring.

As illustrated by the blogs, video blogs (vlogs), podcasts and wikis, Web 2.0 is essentially a platform for sharing information of all kinds.

A Fundamental Change
In the past decade, search engines have turned the Web into an enormous user-driven and non-linear repository of information. Instead of the information source dictating how information is presented and consumed, the user is in charge.

The belief that the Web user should have some control is at the heart of Web 2.0. As the name suggests, these technologies are fundamentally changing the Web and how it is used.

Unfortunately, public relations practitioners have generally failed to grasp how this revolutionary change can be leveraged. Instead, most organization Web sites continue to mimic corporate brochures and still take a sequential approach to presenting their information. First we’ll tell you this, and then click here and we’ll give you that.

And even though the Web makes frequent updates possible, most corporate sites remain static for long periods.

In an environment in which Web users scan their favorite blogs daily, these old habits can signal to the market that your organization isn’t keeping up. On the flip side, numerous organizations have used blogs and podcasts in the past year to support their positioning as trendsetters.

Examples of Web 2.0
A great example of how everyone can have a voice and everyone can be part of the conversation is Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com), the popular online encyclopedia completely generated, edited and updated by Web users. Not only is Wikipedia a great channel for getting your organization’s message out, the technology that makes it work is available to incorporate into your organization’s Web site.

Using wikis, an organization may enlist its customers to help collaboratively produce how-to guides for their products – or might present new product concepts in order to gather immediate feedback. Internally, wikis might be used to develop more user-friendly employee handbooks by encouraging employees to tinker with the wording.

Two other popular sites that illustrate the power of Web 2.0 technologies include Del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us/) and Flickr (www.flickr.com).

Del.icio.us describes itself as a collection of favorites. Essentially, the site’s community of users list Web sites that they like. It might sound innocuous, but in fact this knowledge sharing can be very powerful. Each time a user adds a favorite site, they choose a few words to describe the site, which is called “tagging.” For instance, possible tags for this article include: Web 2.0, public relations and social networks.

Public relations counselors can make del.icio.us a standard part of their PR program by establishing a list of favorites with their organization’s Web site and adding each news release, article or white paper as they are posted online. It’s hard to predict what might capture the attention of the user community.

Flickr, another quintessential web 2.0 site, shares many attributes with del.icio.us, except users generate the content in the form of uploaded photos. Users create tags to describe the images they like, which again offers a unique, current and relevant look into the minds of the publics we are working to reach and influence.

How to Get Started
Public relations strategists generally are behind the curve in terms of understanding how to leverage Web 2.0 technologies to achieve greater results through improved flexibility and cost efficiencies. However, it will be increasingly difficult to keep it business as usual in the midst of a technology revolution.

Following are a few specific steps you can take to get started:

  • Be willing to share control with the Web user – By giving Web users the ability to add and edit Web content, you can foster a community and build an indelible connection between the users and your brand. Even though you may prefer to control all aspects of their communications programs to the smallest detail, the true power of the Web only comes when you enable Web users to add and edit Web content. 
  • Build flexibility into your PR program – The real power of Web 2.0 technologies is they immediately tap into the attitudes and behaviors of Web users. To capitalize on this knowledge, develop PR plans that allow you to quickly adjust course and capitalize on opportunities the spring up.
  • Take responsibility for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – Many PR Firms have finally discovered Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for press releases.  Tech savvy firms have been involved in SEO for years with their clients showing up in Yahoo news and attracting additional media coverage.  But Web 2.0 is more about gathering information for strategy formulation.  Helping your clients being an active part of the conversation even with sometimes over reactive bloggers.
  • Continually Listen and Analyze – Take advantage of the feedback loops in Web 2.0 technologies to keep tabs on what people are saying about your brand. Beyond that, examine the words and phrases used to describe your brand. You might find that the market views your products or services differently than you do, which can prompt a review of your positioning.   
  • Make it a point to experiment with emerging technologies – In the past year, numerous organizations have experimented with blogs and podcasts. This year, look for corporate vlogs and wikis to join them. They won’t be right for every organization, but learning and trying can be rewarding too.

If your organization is still approaching the Web the same way it has for the past decade, this should serve as a wakeup call. The wired world is changing.

Visitors to your Web site are no longer entering through your home page and flipping through the site as they would a brochure. They are using search engines to hunt for and transport them to specific bits of information.

Now, Web 2.0 is taking that user behavior a step further by transforming the Web into a platform for sharing information of all kinds – text, sound and images.

By tapping directly into the minds of the Web user, Web 2.0 technologies provide public relations counselors unfiltered information with which to create strategic solutions that resonate with their publics. Web 2.0 can help reveal what target publics really care about, in close to real time. This can be invaluable in helping ensure that messages and tactics are aligned with the interests and concerns of their publics.