From wikis to blogs and beyond, here are 10 tips culled from the experts to help you get started building a more dynamic Web site and jumping into Web 2.0.
With all the hype over Web 2.0, it's hard to figure out a solid initial strategy to make a corporate Web site more dynamic. Here are our top 10 tips, taken from leading experts and IT managers who already have paved the way. These will help you get your Web 2.0 feet wet and understand the productivity, power, and problems with the genre.
Start a blog with WordPress or TypePad
Both sites offer free hosting and simple tools that can take just a few minutes to learn. Both also sell a corporate version of their blogging software (TypePad's is called Movable Type) that can be run from inside a corporate firewall, should that be of concern.
All blogging software allows for simple creation of Really Simple Syndication data feeds that can be used to keep track of new content and used by collaborative teams to keep each other current with new postings to the site.
David Meerman Scott, whose latest book is called The New Rules of Marketing And PR (Wiley, 2007), talks about why RSS is so important: "RSS is my preferred method in my work tracking markets, companies, and ideas," he says. "Having the information come to me in my browser as an RSS feed is just so much easier than in the days when I had to go looking for it myself. And it also bypasses the increasingly crowded and annoying e-mail channel, too."
Start a wiki as your intranet or extranet
Wikis are Web sites that are easily editable by users, who can change pages and upload their own content. There are free hosting sites such as WetPaint.com, and Jive Software's Clearspace has a hosted version that is free for up to five users and $29 per user per year for larger-scale implementations, with an option to install the software on your own servers.
"Blogs and wikis are pretty good points of entrance because they are community driven and lightweight," says Eric Raarup, the VP of IT strategy and planning for developer Inetium. "Today's users are creating their own content, responding to content they see on discussion boards, uploading their own documents; that is all part of being in communities of interest." And Scott says "a wiki works well for many organizations as a way to show potential customers that there is a vibrant community of people using their products or services."
A great example of this is what is happening with Regence, the largest health insurer in the Pacific Northwest/Mountain State region with Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans in four states. Regence established last year a series of moderated discussion forums covering topics such as parenting, nutrition, and grief issues.
"We have tapped into Jive technology to involve our members in being active in their own care," says Will McKinney, who is VP of consumer directed health Systems for Regence in Portland, Ore. The company also uses its Interwoven content management system to maintain a series of "live journals" or stories written by real people, using their own names and talking about issues like weight loss, for example. The company also has a team of in-house content editors who travel throughout the region and videotape members' stories to post on the member Web site.
"We want our members to be engaged and talking among themselves," says McKinney. "Our theme is to reach out to the entire community, involve people beyond chronic diagnoses. It helps to ask the doctor a few questions and make sure they understand your needs. The interest, response, and speed of acceptance happened more quickly that I had thought. Our customers are very anxious to talk and post their thoughts."
"Wikis can aggregate things for internal consumption very nicely," says David O'Berry, the director of IT for the South Carolina Department of Probation. "They can be used to raise awareness within an organization and help synthesize business knowledge for our subject matter experts."
"Clearspace can be deployed both inside and outside a corporate firewall," says David Hersh, the CEO of Jive. "It can be used to share ideas and show best corporate practices, and establish communities. We provide a mechanism for organizations who want to have its employees and its customers collaborate. We also have a single architecture and a unified way to start blogs, wikis, and podcasts all at once."
Pick a Web-friendly database server
Most of the Web 2.0 technologies involve getting better access, reports, and front-end query interfaces from existing corporate databases. So the best place to start is to choose lightweight projects that can quickly take this information and put it online. "Dabble DB is very Web 2.0 friendly," says Bob Matsuoka, the founder of RunTime Technologies in New York City. "It's a generic object database that works with simple data types, and is very easy to use." You can upload your data in a spreadsheet in a matter of minutes and build a simple application that can cost a few dollars a month to host on their servers, or create a public application for free, according to information on the site.
You don't need to webify every client/server database, but consider what kinds of databases would benefit if your user had the tools to search the data and create his or her own ad hoc reports. Also consider a mix of public and proprietary data that would benefit your business operations, and how users currently use this data to do their jobs. "One of the things we are dealing with is lowering the barrier of entry -- there is still a lot of custom database and Web programming involved," says Matsuoka. "We act as the glue to connect internal and external data. We also do a lot of development for output to XML, iCal, and other output streams that can be manipulated from our content."
"You need to consider platforms that will support content that doesn't require IT to be involved in every single part of the site," says Raarup. "As you move to more dynamic content, people are looking for a more personalized experience. Then people feel there is a reason to go to your Web site."
"The point is all large software companies are moving too slowly," says Matusoka. "The smaller companies, such as ourselves, are doing database integration at the SQL level and creating better front ends for applications and providing links to the back-end databases." He mentions one project where they created Web pages that have an attractive display of a publication's database for one academic client, and they also create the RSS feeds so staffers can more easily keep track of who wrote which papers.
Learn some Web programming interfaces
It makes sense to study the leading Web vendors programming tools, such as those freely available from Amazon, Google, and Yahoo, just to name the obvious candidates. These and other places make it easy to start building applications quickly and with minimal cost and effort. They also can be used to combine public data with your private data for what are called mashups.
"Google Apps are so much easier to use than the equivalent desktop Office products from Microsoft," says Matsuoka. "And once you start using them, you begin to think how you can integrate Google Docs into your corporate workflow. That's their real power: taking private information, using freely available technologies, and providing a repository for this data. For example, a lot of users want to integrate information that they maintain on their desktop calendars or PDAs. So we use iCal feeds to integrate different sets of data."
Build widgets and components
Writing to Web 2.0 means not building big applications but starting with smaller projects that can be easily done. Services such as Pageflakes.com or Apatar.com offer various means of connecting different data sources and Web programming interfaces to quickly assemble lightweight applications that can be run inside a Web browser. "You have to starting thinking in the spirit of being an iterative process and not treat your development as one big bundle or a single project," says Raarup.
Matsuoka suggests that IT developers spend time building widgets that support emerging standards and can be integrated into workspaces attractive to users, such as Apple's Dashboard or Windows Vista's Sidebar, or the public portals such as Yahoo and Google. "Use the public frameworks and APIs and build on top of that. If you don't support how your users work, they'll just find ways to go around you."
You also should think about reusable components. "Some things you don't have to spend lots of time reinventing, like how someone logs into an application or a database," says O'Berry. "Take what you can in the code and commoditize it -- that gives you the chance to add operational efficiency and cut the costs for future development." O'Berry makes a distinction between these operational efficiencies and making something easy for IT by talking about multifunction printers. Last year he bought 500 desktop printers to make things easier for his users. "I don't want people standing in line to print, scan, or copy something. While it may be easier for the IT organization to have centralized, larger-scale copier/printers, it doesn't make sense for my business. Operational efficiency for IT doesn't always translate into operational efficiency for the business."
Install interactive Q&A products
One way to get more traffic and attention to your site and build community is to make use of products that can keep track of questions and answers by visitors. Products such as RightNow Technologies or Wondir.com do a great job of answering your customers' questions, improving customer loyalty, and increasing your company's branding. RightNow is available as a hosted service, while you can add Wondir's service to your site with a few simple lines of code and join its affiliate program to actually make money using its service.
Exploit social networks
Social networking sites such as LinkedIn.com, MySpace.com, and Flickr.com have been mostly populated by individual consumers. Businesses, for the most part, have steered clear of them. But a better strategy is to exploit the reputation management that these sites can offer and make use of the viral nature to build brand awareness and track competitors.
Companies can use these sites when they're recruiting new hires, for example. But less obvious would be to use blogs and social networking sites to talk up new products and to research what the competition is saying about them online.
"Enterprises are looking to solve problems that start out serving an individual need and then grow and spread virally," says Chuck Neath, general partner at Adams Capital Management. "This new breed of applications require little setup and configuration, deliver immediate value, use social networks, and have minimal impact, if any, on the overall IT organization." BuzzLogic's approach of attaching value to content and participants in social networks is one example, he says. Its on-demand software lets companies manage their brands, products, competitors, and customers within the social media market by measuring influence and identifying key influencers.
Install better analytics on your site
Once you know where your visitors are going on your site, you can then concentrate on improving your most-trafficked pages. "Many of the corporate portals that I have seen are pretty sad and built using Web 1.0 technologies with static pages," says Matsuoka. "So most users are going to circumvent them and go to Google or Pageflakes some other public site to organize the information that they want."
Don't forget about better search techniques
"You can never spend enough time on improving the search portion of your site," says Raarup. "Search is a powerful way of navigating a site. And given that most people use Google or some other external search tool to find content, your internal site search tools can always stand for some improvement."
Embrace open source
Even Microsoft has begun a variety of open source projects, such as its open source project hosting site, CodePlex. And the number of projects that are freely available at such places as IBM's Eclipse, Sourceforge.com, and literally hundreds of other sites continues to grow. The point is that there already is a lot of code out there, free for the asking, even for commercial applications.
"CodePlex was started by Microsoft for the open source community and is a great source for all sorts of things," says Raarup. "We have posted our own templates for SharePoint user group hosting to the site."
"The broadest decision you have to make is whether to use Java 2 Enterprise Edition or Microsoft's .Net," says O'Berry. "You have to pick one technology based on your skill set and where your coders could best contribute quickly. But if you chose .Net, as we did, then consider using all open source and free projects and make sure to stay away from choosing anything that requires you to license a large amount of expensive technology. You don't want to get locked in down the road, and you also want to be able to share what you have developed with others, too." O'Berry mentions that his new applications and all of the frameworks will be available for use by departments in other government agencies. "You don't have to be in the same business we're in to benefit from what we have developed. You just have to think about things in a modular and cooperative environment. That goes directly back to commoditized reusable components."
Taking Smaller Bites
The wonders of Web 2.0 mean breaking monolithic projects into smaller, more digestible components, and not investing a lot of money or training time in learning and developing. The idea is to build incrementally, learn by doing, and make simple modifications to existing code rather than writing something from start to finish from scratch.
"What can I do to increase personal productivity savings, while at the same time quantifying the value for my organization?" asks O'Berry. "I want to expand knowledge management for the organization and do it in a way that I can deliver digestible, bite-sized pieces that are relatively quick to code. Ideally, a person should be able to figure out a new application that we build within a minute or two of looking at it."
Building A Mobile Business MindsetAmong 688 respondents, 46% have deployed mobile apps, with an additional 24% planning to in the next year. Soon all apps will look like mobile apps – and it's past time for those with no plans to get cracking.