There's more behind Web 2.0 than hype

PR pros are counteracting overuse of "Web 2.0" by adapting outreach to its core element: bloggers

PR pros are counteracting overuse of "Web 2.0" by adapting outreach to its core element: bloggers

Say "Web 2.0" in front of Voce president Rich Cline, and what you may witness is exasperation.

"The Web 2.0 phrase itself has been abused to the point where it has no meaning," Cline says. "It smacks of 'dot-com;' it has that flavor to it. It misrepresents companies behind it that have a real business methodology and trips the cynicism wire in everyone's head."

"We're always prone to hyperbole because we're PR people," says Jeremy Pepper, director and social media strategist at Weber Shandwick. "The term [for Web 2.0] is 'frothy.' You hear, 'Frothiness is back,' a lot."

"Web 2.0" is the new black. Those outside of technology may think this is an easy way to describe the second generation of Internet businesses, but within tech PR circles, it conveys applications and companies that are revolutionizing how people communicate and organize their lives.

However, because of the circus- and gold rush-like atmosphere of the dot-com era, the Web 2.0 environment makes its claim on a ground littered with the empty shells of previous companies that rode hype into insolvency. These new companies must have better business plans and more credible exit strategies than their predecessors, so a rational PR plan is paramount.

"Sure, it is reminiscent of '98 and '99," says Steve Rubel, SVP of Edelman's Me2Revolution practice, of the current Silicon Valley startup business scene. "But now, to start a Web 2.0 company costs a fraction what it cost in the late '90s. Yet with any company, [every client] wants big-game coverage. You temper [client] enthusiasm by saying, 'You have to build up with that.'"

"What happens is marcomms [pros] overuse a term, but it doesn't change the fact that these companies are doing something more than the first iteration of the Web," Pepper says. "You're seeing more of 'business for business' sake' and a smarter spend on PR. Companies [are also] more focused on consumers."

Indeed, some of the major media players in today's environment are even held accountable for such hype. When BusinessWeek ran a cover story on Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, with the headline, "How This Kid Made $60 Million in 18 Months," blog pundits - who weren't around in force the first time- and the tech-focused media eviscerated the magazine for building up Digg's hype. Rose joked, in the aftermath, that he couldn't even afford a couch. Rafat Ali, publisher and editor of the influential media site PaidContent.org, wrote, "It is riddled with so many inanities, without any sense or logic, or journalistic norms, it sounds like a parody of a parody."

Rather than a laser-focused push for the almighty cover story, smart tech PR pros are trying to steer clear of the hype backlash by working with the truly unique element of Web 2.0: the engaged citizen journalist.

"Building stories with bloggers to use the product is how a lot of these companies break out from small niche sites to big properties in a short amount of time," Rubel says. "It's a matter of education."

"With the whole Web 2.0, it started with blogging, and [PR people] are smarter about outreach," Pepper says, adding that new developments in the Web 2.0 environment have even changed how PR is practiced.

Liz Gannes, a staff writer at GigaOm, a VC-backed media company started by former Business 2.0 senior writer Om Malik, says that PR people have to lighten their proclamations because of an interconnected environment where the public produces, as well as consumes, content.

"Anyone can try out a product for themselves, and anyone can write a review," Gannes says. "It's not about how great [you say] your product is, it's about who signs up and tells their friends about it."

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