Marketing to an anti-Web 2.0 world

It is hard to visit a Web site today without being asked to register, comment, social bookmark, upload content or forward to a friend. These feature sets are all examples of what O’Reilly infamously dubbed Web 2.0, where the Web is a platform for services that encourage participation and sharing among the masses. As a result, just about every site has embraced this philosophy, as well as extended their brand to Web 2.0 standard bearers such as Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook and a host of blogging platforms. In the eyes of most marketers, the Web should, and will, only become more open.

Or will it? Firms such as such as, which offers the simple, private exchange of content, suggests that users should be given the option to specify what, with whom and how long content is shared. (Disclosure: the author recently consulted to this firm.) One Web entrepreneur, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, concurs. He uses this analogy: “Web 2.0 is like going to a restaurant where everyone shares everyone else’s food. For awhile, it is fun, but eventually, it gets messy.”

At first, the proliferation of blogs, comments, pictures and video on the Web was great fun. Now it just makes it a little harder to find what one is looking for. Furthermore, sharing was novel until something meant to be private was shared with the world. We agreed that while Web 2.0 feature sets will not cease – they will most likely increase — they grow in sophistication. Most importantly, users will have choices in where and how to share, and more sites will offer privacy options for sharing.

Some might argue that this next wave is already here. While many blogs do allow for anyone to comment or post content, the most widely read blogs have a strong editorial component to filter out content not appropriate for sharing. Even Wikipedians must face editors to help when the masses get out of control. On the social networking front, Facebook might be best known for opening up, but it is still a closed community. Through trial and error, the firm has evolved to offer more privacy controls to its users.

I suspect that the same marketers who initially feared Web 2.0 will also balk at a compartmentalized Web. While privacy choices are always a good thing for users, privacy makes it much harder to market. There is, however, one firm that has learned how to market to that which is private: Google.

Yes, Google. The same Google that aims to index everything from Web sites to books to news to the ocean’s floors, has also mastered the art of marketing to perhaps the most private of all private spaces on the Web: the e-mail inbox. As any Gmail user knows, the ads that appear on the right hand side are directly correlated to the content in a given email thread. Over time, the ads become increasingly more sophisticated and effective, without the marketer needing to know anything about me.

What this all comes down to is a mutual respect. The same technology that allows for Google ads to populate public content has been applied to a private space for exchanging information. The same consumers that praised firms for opening up during the early days of Web 2.0 will place good will on firms that learn to do the same.

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