If the mention of Web 2.0 social networks conjures images of tech-crazed teens navigating virtual worlds at breakneck speeds or screenshots of flowery pink blogs, think again.
According to Laurel Papworth, Online Communities Strategist of consultancy World Communities, the Web 2.0 world can offer business opportunities that far surpass that of traditional media.
Speaking at the AIIA (Australian Information Industry Association) marketing forum last week, Papworth aimed to overthrow the misconception that online communities can only generate material that is both unreliable and useless to marketing, and that they are 'for kids'.
"Social networks did not start with, and do not belong to, Generation Y," she said, listing forums, chatrooms, AOL, Quantum link, AppleLink and Usenet as examples of pre-Web 2.0 Internet discussion systems.
Furthermore, currently popular online communities are dominated not only by emotionally verbose teenagers, but by professional adults, she explained, outlining research that revealed that more than half of all MySpace visitors were over the age of 35 as of June 2006.
And while material generated by online discussion and communities can sometimes go awry, priceless marketing gems may yet surface from having a target demographic market come up with ways of marketing to itself.
U.S.-based AdCandy is a Web site set up to capitalize on the collective power of an online community. The Web site features regular competitions encouraging members of the public to submit their ideas for slogans, images, products and marketing campaigns targeted at their brand partners. Previous competitions have been held for brands such as Snakes on a Plane, iPod, Heineken and Friskies.
"Ask your consumer to create an ad for your products and services, and you'll be amazed," Papworth said. "If you want the truth in advertising, ask your customers; your marketing will be better for it."
Put in this context, the Web may at first seem like a low-cost advertising method. However, Laura Chisholm, Senior Consultant of Deloitte's e-business division, Eclipse, was careful to warn against undervaluing the cost of an e-marketing campaign.
"For a very long time, the Web has been the poor cousin to other marketing channels," Chisholm said. "It's also been called the 'cheap' channel, but the Web is now mainstream, and should be treated as a mainstream channel; it's not always going to be cheap."
A successful Web campaign, Chisholm said, should be visionary, user-friendly, integrated with business purposes and with marketing across other channels, and must have its performance constantly tracked, measured and improved.
"With sound technology and governance, true return on investment (ROI) comes from functional, easy to use Web sites with compelling content," she said.
According to Papworth, Web 2.0 communities deliver significantly improved loyalty, brand and support ROI from traditional advertising and phone support.
Compared with Web 1.0 sites, customers visiting Web 2.0-enabled sites were found to visit nine times more often, staying five times longer. Web 2.0 sites were also found to produce four times the unaided brand recall when compared with a search engine, and often offer peer-to-peer support via discussion boards, that Papworth said to be five to 10 times more cost-effective than phone support.