So what exactly is Web 2.0? I’m not an analyst or some dotcom pundit. But being online since 1991 (or since 1982 if you consider bulletin board services), I’ve witnessed enough to have a good grasp of what’s going on.
So here’s my perspective.
At the dawn of the Internet the web was primarily a unidirectional, one-way communications process. The web was comprised mostly of static web pages, filled with hypertext and links. It was akin to the direct mail industry, only this time it was served up on a computer monitor rather than on a piece of paper.
In fact, web pages that worked the best, especially in a direct marketing context, were ads and salesletters that closely mimicked the long-copy print salesletters we often get in the mail.
For many years and until recently, this was true.
The most effective web salesletters, based on split-test results and actual response rates achieved, are those that looked similar to direct mail pieces. They’re displayed in white, fixed-width centered tables, with colored backgrounds. Just like a salesletter you would place on your desktop. (The top of a real desk, that is.)
Why? It’s because people hate change. We all do. Change is scary. We hate getting out of our comfort zones, and studies prove that we’ll even react hostilely to something that’s different and threatens that zone.
In fact, David Ogilvy, in “Ogilvy on Advertising,” gave some wonderful advice on this subject. He said: “The eye is trained from an early age. Move away from what the eye is used to, and you stop readership.”
So at the dawn of the Internet, people were used to magazines, newspapers and particularly direct mail. Therefore, websites that initially mimicked that to which people were accustomed were those that naturally produced the highest sales. This was proven in test after test. And to a great degree, they still do.
However, things are changing.
The Internet is no longer “new,” or at least not as new as it used to be 10 or even five years ago. The Internet is noted as being the fastest-growing medium in history, reaching over 500 million users in only five years, as opposed to the 13 it took for the TV or even 20 for the radio.
While the web is still in its infancy, it’s no longer a baby. It’s more of an independent, peer-seeking, moody, sometimes angst-filled, authority-challenging and demanding teenager that just graduated from grade school to high school.
(Web 2.0 is just another fancy way of saying the web is growing up.)
We’ve had over a good decade of it now, and we can no longer say that people are not used to the Internet anymore. In fact, while the Internet keeps growing, a recent study in the UK shows that TV audiences are on the decline, most likely because of the Internet. (Many other studies seem to parallel their findings.)
Just recently, the Internet has reportedly reached the one-billion user mark. It has become so pervasive in our culture that we now take it for granted. It’s such an intrinsic part of our lives to the point that we would be lost without it.
So if we keep insisting that the web is still “young,” we’re lying to ourselves… and more importantly, to our prospects.
But Web 2.0 is more than just a label on a medium that’s growing up. The way the web has evolved is just as important, going from a one-way, linear, static communications medium, to a two-way, bidirectional, dynamic conversation.
This isn’t new. It was predicted many years ago. For example, I wrote about it as early as 1999 in various articles. But I’m far from being a visionary. I just saw where we were heading based on what others have foretold before me. In fact, the coming of Web 2.0 was predicted as far back as 30 years ago.
Chris Locke, co-author of the book “The Cluetrain Manifesto” first published in April of 1999, claimed that the web is not comprised of computers, companies, or even consumers for that matter, but of conversations.
This thought-provoking book, which can now be read online for free at Cluetrain.com, contains some of the most innovative ideas about the Internet. (They certainly were at the time.) In fact, some of the first bloggers on the Internet, even before “blogging” was coined as a term, were the authors of Cluetrain.
But it goes further back than that, even before the Internet.
In the late seventies in his book “Megatrends,” futurist John Naisbitt wrote about several significant future shifts — one of which predicted that our society will become not only more high-tech but also more high-touch. (And that was close to a quarter of a century ago!)
Largely due to the rise of the Internet in our increasingly fast-paced culture among other things, Naisbitt saw it important enough to write a spinoff book a decade ago entirely dedicated to that single “megatrend,” appropriately entitled, “High-Tech/High-Touch.” Here’s a brief synopsis from Naisbit.com:
“Focusing on the effects of technology in reshaping society, the book brings together a mountain of evidence implicating technology in relentlessly accelerating our lives and stirring profound yearnings for a more emotionally satisfying existence. In our craving for emotional authenticity, Naisbitt locates the great challenge of our frenetic era.”
Nevertheless, what does this all mean?
While Naisbitt never mentioned it directly, my interpretation of his trend is this: the more technology-driven we become (i.e., the more automated, static, robotic and impersonal we become, as is the case with the web), the more we will crave and seek out human interaction.
Why? It’s just human nature. We are social animals. We need to communicate, interact and socialize with other people. It’s just who we are.
While the Internet was mostly technical, uninviting, and daunting in its early years, the now millions of people online have jumped on the bandwagon for a reason. As Locke said in Cluetrain, “They came for one thing: each other.”
Online, these predictions-cum-reality take the shape of tools and technologies that help facilitate that interaction, as well as actions marketers take to humanize their digital presence by giving their electronic façade a human face.
From as simple as a blog, a message board, an ezine or a discussion list (and now audio and video), to as complex as customer relationship management technology, marketers do and should do what they can to humanize their websites.
When we observe what’s going on, we can get a sense of where things are heading, such as by watching the increasing popularization of social networking sites, and the creation of new interactive technologies aimed at facilitating user-rated content, user-submitted content and user-reviewed content.
Now, while such things are affecting the Internet as a whole, and how people browse and use it, do they also apply to how they buy from it?
Astute marketers are paying attention, because these trends do offer some interesting clues into human behavior, as well as how they will eventually and ultimately affect salesletters and sales-driven websites.
Again, from Naisbitt.com: “In a High Tech world with an increasing search for balance, High Touch will be the key to differentiate products and services.”
Bottom line, people want to connect with other people. They want to deal with, trust more and buy from other people, not computer monitors. In fact, what they really want is to feel more secure and comfortable. As a result, they are screaming for credibility. They want more proof. They want to believe.
And they most certainly want to buy.
Think “social sites” don’t really apply to salesletters? Think again.
If they can’t get the proof they seek from the businesses themselves, they will look for it elsewhere, whether they do so consciously or unconsciously — including, and probably more so, social networking sites.
Why do you think there’s an explosion in blogs? But don’t think they’re limited to some rank-and-file netizens spewing senseless diatribe about their meandering thoughts “du jour.” They’re certainly not.
For example, take a look at how they’re also used with affiliate marketing, particularly promotions based on recommendations and peer reviews.
(Just think of all the videos now popping up all over the Internet offering a product demo or review, often used as a way to recommend and pre-sell products currently sold on a, you guessed it, long-copy salesletter somewhere.)
People are tired of hype and scams. But contrary to popular opinion, they are not moving away from salesletters. They simply want to believe more, they want to trust more, and they certainly want to buy more.
If people seek proof, credibility, opinions, feedback and recommendations from other sources like these “gathering sites,” or if they tend to buy more with the help of these videos, demos and reviews during product launches or in affiliate promotions before they see the salesletter, then the question is…
… “What about the salesletter itself?”
Ah, yes. There’s the kicker.