Technology evolves at such a breakneck speed that it's a challenge for big companies to stay current, much less small businesses with less time and fewer resources. Many SMB owners are just now learning to work effectively with "regular" technology such as servers and networks only to hear terms like Web 2.0, podcasting, wiki and blog bandied about during conferences and business meetings.
None of them want to admit they don't have a clue, and they're secretly scared to death their competitors will catch on before they do. All too often they smile, nod and pretend to know the score, but very few know what the technologies can do for their companies if anything. A simple Web search for the term 'Web 2.0' yields over 54 million results doing little to clear up the mass confusion.
Web 2.0 loosely refers to a bunch of online technologies such as RSS, podcasts, blogs, wikis, tagging and the like. The "2.0" is a nod to the rapid advancement of online technology and connotes a second, slightly pumped-up version of the Web. We'll go through and define the various terms under the Web 2.0 umbrella.
RSS is an acronym for Real Simple Syndication. It is a means to seamlessly disseminate text, audio or video content to people or outlets that have chosen to receive it.
For example, let's say you do a great job of keeping your Web site up-to-date with all the latest news about widgets. Other businesses may want to offer that content on their Web site. If you are amenable, you can set up an RSS feed also called a stream for your widget content to be sent to any Web-based outlet in the world as long as they have set up an RSS aggregator to receive your content.
An aggregator is software that gathers RSS feeds from various Web sites and delivers it an easy-to-read format. It is helpful to think of the content itself as a baseball in motion and the aggregator as the catcher's mitt. Stock tickers are a good example of RSS in action.
What's the benefit? RSS can deliver customized content to any source within minutes. It has the potential to increase your Web site traffic, and it can help you build a stronger brand because depending on the quality of your content your company can become the go-to source for specialized information.
The word "blog" is a portmanteau of the term "Web log", a Web site where the site's owner, or "blogger," makes live entries or posts similar to an online journal, and readers can optionally interact by writing comments in response to posts. The blog posts are then made available to the masses via an RSS feed.
The blogosphere, as all things blog-related are collectively known, has allowed businesses of all sizes to communicate with their customers and audiences in a very immediate way. Because of its journal-like structure, a blog's content can be updated continuously with no more effort than it takes to type a Microsoft Word document.
Having a relevant, active blog makes business owners seemingly more accessible. It allows for the true essence of a company's brand to shine through and, in many instances, it serves as a lead-generation tool.
Kirsten Osolind of Re:Invention, Inc., a boutique-marketing firm that helps corporations market their products and services to women executives, says, "Our blog has evolved into an insights library for corporate marketing executives. It's become a much more significant marketing tool allowing us to demonstrate our segment expertise, impart our knowledge about women entrepreneurs and executives and to highlight successful women leaders."
But, don't just blog because you can. You have to offer something relevant to your customers. "Wield your blog with a purpose", says Elisa Camahort, co-founder of Blogher, an online guide to women bloggers.
"Blogs can be very useful, but a small-business owner has to look at using the tool in the same way that she would look at using any other business tool. If you're going to invest both time and money, make sure you take the time to craft goals a list of positive outcomes. Ask yourself why you want to start a blog. How will you use it? What message do you want to send? Define reasonable growth and determine the work that's necessary in order to achieve the goals you set," instructs Camahort.
Tagging your blog posts with keywords so that your content can be easily found and associated with other complimentary content will get you more bang for your search engine buck
The term podcast is a noun and a verb a term used to describe both the method of delivery and the content itself. Podcasting is the process of distributing multimedia files over the Internet using RSS to be received by mobile devices (i.e., iPods) and computers.
Essentially, a podcast is the multimedia version of a blog; delivering audio and video content as opposed to a blog's written content. Usually a podcast is anywhere from five-to-30 minutes long. Any longer than that, and you risk losing your audience remember this is still the Internet.
Zane Safrit, CEO of Conference Calls Unlimited, sees podcasts as the next iteration of blogs. "In a blog, you can wordsmith the content to craft what you want to say. A podcast captures the spontaneity in the speaker's voice. The challenge becomes how to corral that spontaneity into the short span of a podcast. If you're a small business leader and you're serious about podcasting, you'll need to work at becoming a concise speaker."
What's the benefit? Safrit says you simply can't beat the payoff. "The most powerful competitive advantage a small business has is its authenticity and its close personal relationships with its customers. Podcasts let a you communicate directly with your most passionate and loyal audience in your own voice, in a format and at a time that is most convenient for you and your audience."
A wiki is a type of public or private Web site that lets visitors edit the Web site's content, many times without having to register on the site or secure advance permission.
Why would a business want to do this? Wiki is the Hawaiian word for quick, and as such wikis take the bureaucracy out of online collaboration. Anyone can post basically anything at anytime to add to the conversation and every company can benefit from three-way communication. In this way, wikis are very similar to blogs. But, Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wet Paint is quick to clarify, "Blogs are great if you have a number of customers who are very engaged and want to dialog. The problem is that most blog readers are only passively engaged and will not subscribe to the blog or post comments. In addition, a blog does not work for every business model."
Private wikis, also known as enterprise wikis, are mainly used for a company's private internal uses such as project updates, idea vetting and data storage. Wikis also let a company create an electronic paper trail without having to save hundreds of e-mails.
Elowitz says that wikis help small business owners to "build a fabric of community and conversation around their company. Your customers are going to have conversations about your business whether you are there or not. Why not enable that conversation with a wiki and be a part of it?"
Managing a wiki used to take a lot of technical expertise and code proficiency but, if you're not a coder (and you don't play one on TV), Wet Paint has made the steps as simple as one, two, three. Registration is free and takes about 10 minutes.
Now that you know that making use of various online technologies doesn't have to require an MIS degree or a large cash outlay, isn't it time to see if any of them might be right for your company?
Lena L. West is the creator of the Technology Diet, an eight-week teleconsulting course that helps business owners harness technology to build the business of their dreams.
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