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SAN FRANCISCO -- Web 2.0 is hitting puberty.

It's an awkward stage for all involved. The changes online are happening so fast that nearly everyone is off-balance.

Hundreds of people gathered in San Francisco on Wednesday at the Web 2.0 Expo to talk about the future of the Internet -- in hopes of establishing long-term balance in the online world.

Many of the 45 symposiums focused on how companies should handle the rapid developments of online communities. For while many of the technologies behind Web 2.0 were born nearly a decade ago -- such as user-generated content, hosted applications and social platforms -- most have only recently moved into the mainstream.

"It's all part of a powerful phenomenon in which people are all getting together online," said Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research, which tracks Internet behavior.

The three-day conference co-produced by Sebastopol-based O'Reilly Media attracted 8,500 people last year. This year the buzz is even bigger, despite the tepid economy.

"We're in the middle of enormous change," Tim O'Reilly, president of O'Reilly Media, said during his keynote speech. "We have a long way to go and a lot to discover."

O'Reilly Media coined the term Web 2.0 in 2003 to describe how the Internet was moving away from sites that display static pages and progressing toward Web sites that allow people to share comments, photos, videos and even run applications online -- a much more interactive environment.

Web 2.0 is rapidly transforming as it hurdles toward adulthood. Even the most entrenched Internet gurus have questions: Where are the cool and effective places to advertise now? Will current online behavior such as social networking lead to lifelong habits for the younger Internet generation? What should corporate executives write on their blogs? And how should marketers handle their online communities that let people both praise and defame their products?

Intel, for example, launched an online community last August to get feedback on its products and stay connected to users and clients. The company harvests feedback from the community on topics ranging from bugs and problems to ideas on what people want.

"You need to listen to the people," said Bob Duffy, Intel's online community strategist. "There is a constant feed of what is going on in the community that is being pushed up to management."

But some Fortune 500 companies are still leery of the online world. Many executives and lawyers aren't comfortable deploying these new communication tools, said Bernoff, co-author of "Groundswell," a bestselling book that helps companies determine what Web 2.0 strategies are right for them.

An important first step is to understand the cost and benefit of harnessing these new technologies.

For instance, the first-year cost of starting an executive blog for a Fortune 500 company is about $285,000, Bernoff said. Executives must be trained how to blog, and it must be vetted by lawyers and Web designers, and that costs money.

But the cash benefit is equivalent to about $353,000 a year due to the publicity and loyalty it can build with customers and the media, he said.

Before companies decide how to approach online technologies, they must first understand who they are targeting. Don't try to start an online community if your clients are wealthy, middle-aged women, because not enough of them join online communities, Bernoff said.

An example of getting it done right is the Web site www.beinggirl.com, Bernoff said.

The site was launched by Procter & Gamble to get information from a squeamish market base -- young girls who are just beginning to menstruate.

The Web site provides girls information on difficult-to-ask questions such as why do they get breast pain, or how often should they have their period.

The site also asks the girls to answer questions anonymously, which lets the company gather information for marketing its products such as Tampax and Always.

Perhaps most importantly, it provides Procter & Gamble a place to establish brand recognition with a group of customers who are in the midst of establishing preferences that might last a lifetime.

"Beinggirl.com is four times as effective as advertising on a dollar by dollar basis," Bernoff said.

But with all these communities online -- from Facebook.com to the movie review site rottentomatoes.com -- advertisers are finding their jobs more difficult. The days of reaching younger audiences by purchasing a 30-second spot during a hit TV show are waning.

In fact, more people are online than watching TV from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., according to comScore, the nation's largest provider of digital market research. And unlike TV, where there are only a couple of hundred channels, the Internet has millions of Web sites.

"Social media has made life difficult for advertisers," said Murtaza Hussain, CEO of Peanut Labs, which provides online market research. "Because where they used to advertise on the show 'Friends,' now for the same price they can advertise on 200 Web sites."

You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 521-5494 or nathan.halverson@pressdemocrat

.com.