The internet has moved into an interactive phase, known as Web 2.0, where gossip is global and its weight constantly monitored. So it pays to keep tabs on what is being said about your business. Ross Bentley explains
Among his many famous quips, Oscar Wilde wrote: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."
And although the scholar and bon viveur lived 100 years before the internet hit the masses, his understanding of life could be applied to today's businesses that are looking to break into the Web 2.0 arena.
With more and more of the web being given over to blogs, chatrooms such as hotel review site Tripadvisor and social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace, an increasing number of companies are looking into how they can get people to talk about them in this new part of cyberspace.
If you are not quite sure what Web 2.0 means, you should know it refers to a second generation of web-based services that encourage user-generated content, allowing collaboration and sharing between users.
It represents a shift away from the corporate websites and traditional news feeds that initially populated the web. Rather than users going to the web to get the official line on a product or issue, many now use it to publish their own opinions or to broadcast a video, sharing them with others.
In May, for example, Tripadvisor received 6.5 million visitors from the USA alone.
And although the vast majority of the videos posted on YouTube are trivial and banal, serious conversations are also going on, including recommendations and critiques of hotels and restaurants.
Today, word of mouth on a global scale is the way that many consumers make their buying decisions. Research released last year by US market intelligence firm GfK Roper Consulting confirms this. It found that word of mouth is considered by far the most trustworthy source for purchase ideas and information.
According to the survey, 70% of consumers across the globe trust friends, family or other people when searching for information or ideas on products to buy. This compares favourably with advertising, which 55% of global consumers said was a trustworthy source.
For many businesses, this is a scary development, an end to "business as usual", in which they are seeing the traditional forms of interaction with their customers, such as advertising, being eroded before their eyes.
In response, some companies are turning to social media monitoring agencies such as Attentio, which has forged a successful business tracking how brands are perceived by consumers within Web 2.0. Using advanced technologies, it feeds back information on how many people are talking about a company and what kind of things they are saying.
According to chief executive Simon McDermott, the firm works for a number of leading hotel chains which want to keep tabs on how their brands are perceived in relation to others.
McDermott comments: "The web is an instant form of communication and can provide companies with immediate feedback on a product or initiative."
One example of the power of this feedback that McDermott likes to recall comes from the airline industry, and involves a website launched by American Airlines exclusively to target women travellers. Featuring a pink background and pictures of women in cocktail dresses, it was soon criticised in online forums for being patronising. The airline was able to react quickly to the criticism and rethink its design and approach before the website became known by a wider audience.
McDermott says: "I like this example because it shows an established company trying to engage with a web audience, then acting on the feedback."
But how should hospitality companies go about engaging with the Web 2.0 generation?
According to Graeme Sutherland, managing director of web design agency Presence Labs, there are many things you can do. The company specialises in incorporating Web 2.0-style features on websites and has recently designed a website for caterers that allows customers to interact with menu ideas by dragging and dropping dishes on and off a menu.
Sutherland suggests that a business could also set up a page on one of the popular social networking sites and invite people who eat or drink at the establishment to join in. Some venues are already doing this, such as the Park View Tavern in Atlanta, Georgia.
Alternatively, a member of staff could blog about the venue to draw users to the business's site, or publish a video of the chef in action on YouTube.
At online marketing agency Digital Aim, managing director Scott Howard proposes setting up a section on your website where customers can log in and write a review. He suggests: "You could hand out a card at the end their stay, which gives them the website address and a password, so the reviews are controlled to a certain extent."
But while creating interest among the online community could raise your profile, you also run the risk of negative reviews and comments being published to the world. Sutherland warns: "You could hear a few home truths about your business you might not like."
But at least, says social media consultant and author of the Engaging Brand blog Anna Farmery, the new dynamic of Web 2.0 allows you to communicate with your critics and perhaps turn them around. She says: "If people are talking about my hotel or restaurant, I would want to be a part of that conversation, whether the news was good or bad."
But if companies are to start up conversations with the Web 2.0 generation, they must ensure that they are natural, not too pushy and, above all, non-salesy.
US author and commentator Doc Searle summed up the suspicion many consumers have about the messages businesses have traditionally pushed out in his book Cluetrain Manifesto.
He wrote: "Most corporations only know how to talk in the soothing, humourless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked people have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do."
But, says Lewis Lenssen, managing director of new media design agency Netizen Digital, Web 2.0 does not have to be a corporate-free zone. People who occupy these online social spaces don't inherently hate brands, they are simply not looking for one-way communications.
Lenssen believes that it is not appropriate for a company to plant itself in a social space with thinly veiled self-promotion, because the community will see through it immediately and it will undoubtedly harm the business's reputation.
"What companies need to recognise," he says, "is the fact that these communities are gathered in areas of common interest. This represents a significant opportunity for companies to engage with a particular community by bringing something to the table that is of real value to them - for example, exclusive news, or the opportunity to write a review and test new services."
Companies that are willing and transparent enough to engage with communities openly and honestly not only have the opportunity to build customer advocacy, but also to ward off negative publicity before it reaches a critical mass.
"By actively engaging with these conversations early on," Lenssen adds, "companies have a chance to protect themselves."
A beginner's guide to Web 2.0
There are myriad blogs and chatrooms out there, but a few websites can serve to illustrate the concepts behind Web 2.0.
Regarded as the granddaddy of Web 2.0, Google has rewritten the web rulebook with its search algorithms and innovative advertising models based on social networking and links to other websites. And it keeps adding new, often free, services.
Also, Google Analytics helps website owners find out what keywords attract the best prospects, what advertising copy drew the most responses, and what landing pages and content are the most popular.
There are tens of millions of blogs, and these online journals/diaries are at the heart of Web 2.0, as anyone can publish content and link to others.
The UK hospitality industry boasts its fair share, most notably Caterer's own Kitchen Rat. Other popular food and drink blogs include Intrepidgourmet and Spittoon.
There are also dozens of different blogging software packages available, including free hosted services such as WordPress and Google's Blogger.com.
The upsurge in digital photography, be it by camera or mobile phone, means that photo sharing has never been easier, and Flickr is leading the way.
Millions of people post their snaps on this site, which allows users to organise their pictures then publish them to the whole world or just a select group.
The site's mission statement is: "We want to help people make their photos available to the people who matter to them."
Social bookmarking and tagging
Sites such as Del.icio.us allow users to set up an account and list all their favourite links to blogs, music, reviews and recipes in one place. What's more, they allow you to see what other people are linking to, and for you to recommend links to them.
Del.icio.us uses tags, which are like keywords, to help organise favourites.
Another popular site in this area is Technorati, which claims to track 93.8 million blogs and more than 250 million pieces of tagged social media.
Sites such as MySpace and Facebook allow subscribers to form an online community in which people are introduced to their friends' friends and can share photos, journals and interests. At last count, Facebook had more than 30 million subscribers worldwide.
Broadband has brought online video to the masses and YouTube is cleaning up. On good days, more than 35 million videos are viewed at YouTube, which allows anyone to shoot a video and broadcast themselves. Now, everyone can have their 15 minutes of fame.
This is the biggest multilingual free-content encyclopaedia on the internet, and has more than seven million articles in over 200 languages. In an amazing show of self-regulation and community, Wikipedia has been built by people contributing their knowledge and others correcting or adding to it.
By the way, "wiki" is the Hawaiian word for "quick".