Say what you will about the candidates' performances at the recent CNN/YouTube debate, but one thing was obvious: Web 2.0 has gone mainstream.
It is now officially recognized as a major media channel. And judging by the near-unanimous opinion that the questions were far more interesting and insightful than the responses, it's safe to say that the rise of Web 2.0 marks a new era of public discourse. Conversation, not content, is now king. And with that comes an opportunity for the PR industry.
PRWeek recently ran a survey that showed PR ahead of advertising and marketing as the ideal industry to leverage Web 2.0. Why? Because at its core, Web 2.0 is about relationships. It is about using online technologies to create and maintain a connection between a company and its audience. That speaks to the heart of PR and is the reason why Web 2.0 will benefit PR more than it does any other communications industry.
Of course, our colleagues in advertising might contest. Judging by the restructuring and realignment of many major ad agencies over the past few years, they're already making overt attempts to claim Web 2.0 as their own. But those attempts are likely to prove futile.
Sure, online ad spending continues to skyrocket, but the average click rate of online ad banners (a primary measure of an online ad campaign's success) is at its lowest level in years. Contextual advertising - a primary driver of total online ad activity - seldom involves an actual ad agency. Advertising will always exist on the Web, but pure "push strategies" will no longer be the dominant form of commercial speech on the Web.
What takes its place will incorporate both "push" and "pull" - a back-and-forth dialogue between a manufacturer and its audience that behaves like, well, a relationship. Advertising is not used to audience talking beyond the occasional brand study. But the forging and maintaining of relationships is a core offering that PR is built on.
This is a huge opportunity for the PR industry. Conversation - the push and pull - is becoming the dominant form of online speech. The dialogue inherent in blogs, message boards, online product reviews, and, yes, YouTube videos attests to this. The net effect will be a kind of "collective intelligence" where the public uses technology to express its sentiments regarding a product or service.
In the equation where market forces purely determine the development of an economy, Web 2.0 has allowed the variable known as "consumer feedback" to suddenly have exponentially more significance and power. This presents both an amazing opportunity and a significant threat to companies - and thus their PR agencies alike.
Web 2.0 can help create lifelong brand champions for a company. It can also create lifelong brand detractors. The determining factor will be how Web 2.0 relationships are forged and managed. Managing publics - their whims, idiosyncrasies, and needs - is something PR pros do every day. In order for PR to rise up and truly claim Web 2.0 as its own, it simply needs to see Web 2.0 as an extension of what it already does. The net effect could be that, driven by PR, business builds a more transparent, authentic, and rewarding relationship with customers. And that's good for everyone.
Brad McCormick is an SVP and director of client services at RF Interactive, the emerging media and Web division of Ruder Finn.