At a conference for the public-relations industry a couple weeks ago, I was asked to speak about Web 2.0—those interactive Web sites where we, the public, supply the material (Facebook, MySpace, Craigslist, eBay, YouTube, Flickr, TripAdvisor, and so on, not to mention blogs, podcasts and amateur video).
Before my talk, though, an emcee warmed up the audience with an exercise. He pointed out the wireless laptops on every table in the ballroom, and explained that anything typed on them would appear on huge screens. Using this instant-feedback mechanism, he posed P.R.-related questions to the attendees and commented on the responses as they appeared on the big screens.
One of them was: "Why isn't your company (or client) taking advantage of Web 2.0?"
The audience loved that one; within seconds, there were 132 responses on the screen in a huge, scrolling list. "Not enough money." "Don't understand it." "No technical resources." "Not enough manpower." "No visible return on investment." "Fear of ridicule." "Fear of slander." "Fear of permanence." "Fear of the public running amok."
The fears are rational enough: over and over again, we've all seen blog comments devolve into juvenile, offensive bickering, backstabbing and grandstanding.
Even during my early blogging days, The Times's blogs didn't have comments. And yet, as several of my own readers wrote: Without comments, a blog is not a blog at all. It's just a Web page—Web 1.0.
The solution, of course, was moderation. A couple of years ago, The Times opened up my blog to comments, and the results have been spectacular. The quality of discussion on Pogue's Posts is just astonishing. An assistant and I moderate the comments (which sometimes run into the hundreds for a single post), removing comments containing spam or obscenities. But otherwise, we approve every single comment. And the humor, wisdom and good nature on display is just amazing. If you compared these comments with the unmoderated ones on, say, YouTube, you would assume these were forums patronized by completely different species.
Another example: When Microsoft was developing Windows Vista, it actually permitted its programmers to blog about their progress. There was a security blog, a Windows Media blog, a Shell blog (about the actual user interface), and so on.
They were absolutely fascinating. They were glimpses into a faceless corporate world the public had never been offered before. Here were discussions of the process, the feedback, the features that were under consideration.
I still laugh when I think of one completely tongue-in-cheek post called "Features that didn't make the cut." "We have taken flack in the past for Minesweeper and its use of mines," wrote the slap-happy Microsoftie. (In that standard Windows game, you click a grid, trying to avoid finding the mine hidden under one of the squares.) "Although we don't have land mines in the USA, in many countries they are experienced in daily life, and are not something to make light of in a video game."
The proposal for Vista, he wrote, was therefore to replace Minesweeper with Mimesweeper, where the goal is to click grid squares without uncovering Marcel Marceau.
Ultimately, though, this idea was dropped from Vista—because "Although we don't have mimes in the USA, in many countries they are experienced in daily life, and are not something to make light of in a video game."
Now then. We all know, intellectually, that no matter what image a corporation tries to project, it's made up of ordinary people with personalities, insecurities and lives. But because the marketing and P.R. teams work so hard to scrub, control and package a company's image, the public ordinarily sees none of that human side.
When a company embraces the possibilities of Web 2.0, though, it makes contact with its public in a more casual, less sanitized way that, as a result, is accepted with much less cynicism. Web 2.0 offers a direct, more trusted line of communications than anything that came before it.
It's not just blogging, either. It could be podcasts. Or videos. (One blender company has quintupled its sales by posting hilarious amateur videos at WillItBlend.com.) Permit the public to make mash-ups using your company's characters, logos, music or products. Let's have some more inside looks: at your product design cycles, your focus groups, your rejected designs, your employee cubicle videos.
Yes, you'll have to moderate this stuff. Yes, it means spending money with no immediately visible return on investment. Yes, it's more work for everyone.
But you'll gain trust, goodwill and positive attention. You'll put a human face on your company. And you'll learn stuff about your customers that you wouldn't have discovered any other way.