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What does Web 2.0 really mean for publishers?

Everyone’s heard the hype surrounding Web 2.0, the catch-all buzz-phrase that refers to the ‘new’ participatory web, where users interact with each other, upload their own content and shape their own experience. But what, asks Robin Crumby, does Web 2.0 really mean for publishers?

By Robin Crumby

Social networking sites like MySpace, FaceBook, YouTube and Bebo are certainly attracting huge media attention and dizzy valuations. Rather than writing this off as a teenagers’ fad with no real significance for publishers, their widespread appeal should be seen as an outstanding opportunity for traditional businesses to embrace social networking and better engage with their audiences. More and more sites are now emerging to target the business end of social networking like Linked In, Ryze, or Ecademy and publishers have the opportunity to use these new technologies to their advantage.

Most of us will remember the Chicken Little cries of ‘The Sky’s Falling In’ from the last dot-com boom when new players like VerticalNet threatened to dominate niche industry markets and supplant B2B newsletter publishers. Often with more money than sense, they managed to turn the paid content model on its head by giving away quality content to drive online traffic. These arrivals forced traditional print publishers to change tactics and rush out new sites that gave away content just to stay in the game.

So what’s different this time? Why is everyone so excited about Web 2.0 and eager to embrace emerging technologies?

Well, B2B publishers have used the last six years to test different online content strategies and successfully mix free and paid models. Take Agora Inc, based in Baltimore, Maryland, who publish dozens of free financial enewsletters to support a publishing empire of over $200m. Agora have very successfully proven that giving content away for free, such as white papers, in return for ongoing permission to send customers daily or weekly enewsletters, is a great way to begin a profitable customer relationship, upselling them to paid-for services. US publishers like Agora are perfecting the art of building large circulation enewsletters by linking Google Ads and other online advertising to conversion landing pages that offer a free report in return for the visitor’s contact details, normally just an email address. These conversion landing pages offer no distractions, no links, just a pure offer to sign up to get the freebie and subscribe to the enewsletter. Research undertaken by Don Nicholas at the Mequoda Group has reported time and again that publishers can achieve average revenue per enewsletter customer of anything from $25 up to $250 a year using this simple strategy. When you multiply this average by a circulation in the tens of thousands, a free enewsletter suddenly becomes a real money-spinner.

My own company, Melcrum, a research and training business for internal communicators, has been publishing enewsletters since 1998 and these names are closely guarded by marketers as the best-performing lists. So enewsletters are certainly nothing new in the world of B2B publishing, but the role they play in an integrated content strategy is becoming more central and core to the business.


So, what about blogs and podcasts? Where do blogs and podcasts fit into today’s marketing and content mix?

Take blogs first. In the beginning, blogs were simply personal diaries or soap-boxes for angry people with something to say. Today, corporate blogs are used by companies big and small to engage their customers in a dialogue and build a more open and interactive relationship. From CEOs, like Charles Dunstone of the Carphone Warehouse, to multi-author blogs pioneered in the UK by the BBC, blogs are proving a popular way to give yourself a voice in the ‘blogosphere’ and discuss topics that are important to you and cement your position as an expert. Melcrum has recently launched our first two blogs, one written by two associate trainers with stories and tips from our training courses, and the other a muti-author blog written by our editors which can be viewed at

Chances are, your company and its products are already being talked about by other bloggers, so starting your own blog gives you a chance to enter and lead the debate. Blogs are normally updated regularly, have lots of links in and out, are keyword-rich, highly visited, and, not surprisingly, search engines love them and they secure high organic rankings, which is a desirable side effect.

Blogs will ultimately be viewed simply as next generation websites. They strip away the need for developers and proprietary software and offer the one-man band or multinational organisation a simple and inexpensive way of publishing to the web. Several companies are now building whole websites using blogging software like, or integrating blogging capabilities into existing sites like

Blogs enhance rather than replace existing online content. They allow the customer to feel part of the debate, with the opportunity to comment on ideas and opinions. Whilst blogging etiquette frowns on publishers pushing products, it is perfectly acceptable to link to other resources and useful content, providing you are upfront and tell the customer that registration is required or the product is for sale. But passing ownership of blogs into the hands of marketers is unlikely to make for a high-traffic blog.


Turning to podcasts, these are a fantastic opportunity to engage with customers on the move. Podcasts are mp3 files that can be subscribed to and downloaded and played on an iPod or other portable music device. So, customers can listen to an editor discussing a topic or a speaker at an upcoming conference talking about their presentation in their cars, on the tube, or wherever else they have spare time in their day to listen and learn.

Melcrum started doing our first podcasts this summer on a tiny budget. Buying two microphones and a cable for £80 allowed us to record interviews with editors and researchers. They are typically 3-5 minutes long and the first one we did got a couple of hundred downloads on its first day together with some enthusiastic feedback. Now, every time a new issue of a journal comes out, or we publish some new research, we will upload a podcast as part of our publishing schedule. These are proving very popular. Again, podcasts are a great way to offer free content to enhance your existing offerings and to make your content more portable and reach a wider audience than normally possible.

Customer expectations as a driver for change

The real driver for these changes is not the availability of the technology itself, but the changing expectations of our customer base. It’s not just teenagers who want to upload video and chat with their friends; this same participatory web affects all of us and will require a change in the way we think of customer relationships.

The challenge for online business is clearly articulated in the Social Customer Manifesto on written by Christopher Carfi, which stands on the shoulders of the excellent book The Cluetrain Manifesto. Carfi argues that customers are fed up with being bombarded by marketing messages or lied to and that what they really want is to partner with businesses to develop products and services they really need. The new customer manifesto goes something like this:

* I want to have a say.
* I don't want to do business with idiots.
* I want to know when something is wrong, and what you're going to do to fix it.
* I want to help shape things that I'll find useful.
* I want to connect with others who are working on similar problems.
* I don't want to be called by another salesperson. Ever. (Unless they have something useful. Then I want it yesterday.)
* I want to buy things on my schedule, not yours. I don't care if it's the end of your quarter.
* I want to know your selling process.
* I want to tell you when you're screwing up. Conversely, I'm happy to tell you the things that you are doing well. I may even tell you what your competitors are doing.
* I want to do business with companies that act in a transparent and ethical manner.
* I want to know what's next. We're in partnership … where should we go?

Print this out now and stick it to a wall near you immediately. It will serve as a useful guide as you plan your future.

So, do we see ourselves as publishers anymore?

Our industry has traditionally defined itself by its format. We are publishers first and foremost, right. Before that, some of us were newsletter publishers. And last year, NEPA, the industry association that represents newsletter and electronic publishers took the next step to become the ‘Specialised Information Publishers’ Association’ which signals an ongoing evolution and change of emphasis in our businesses towards multimedia.

But, in the context of Web 2.0, rather than defining ourselves by our formats, I would suggest that we are now niche community builders and operators of social networks for business, underpinned by the content we have in spades. It’s enough to get venture capitalists’ mouths watering! But why not? This is a new slant on what we do. And we are perfectly placed to take advantage. New interactive technologies like blogs, podcasts, social tagging are cheap and easy to deploy and enhance the quality content we already produce.

Our electronic content archive is the pollen that attracts the bees. By involving and engaging customers with interactive features such as discussion forums, personalisation, and multimedia content you will quickly persuade visitors to make the required investment of time, trust and money to make your site their home. If you can partner with customers and give them the chance to rate content and upload their own comments and ideas, then regular visitors will start to feel a sense of ownership. And it’s this partnership and ownership that will build deep roots in your community and defence against would-be competitors.

So, if you’ve already dismissed Web 2.0 as a flash in the pan, then think again. In five years’ time, the students using FaceBook and MySpace will start becoming your future customers and employees. If you’re not adapting to meet these new expectations now, then the likelihood is there’s a dot-com start-up eyeing your market right now and print is not even in their vocabulary. The clock is ticking.