Blogs, RSS, podcasting, social networks. As the Web has evolved, the time it has taken new technologies—even grass-roots, beneath-the-radar developments—to move from concept to mainstream has become shockingly brief.
And while we've moved beyond the idea that Web 2.0 technologies will replace wholesale what's come before them, marketers more than ever before must remain vigilant about keeping up to date with what's cutting-edge.
Even in the b2b world, where the hype bar is set rather high, marketers can't afford to miss the next big thing in online marketing.
So here are the big five Web/tech trends worth watching right now—and what they mean for b2b marketing:
Widgets are small programs that can be embedded on desktops, Web pages and mobile phones.
The story: Widgets aren't new—Microsoft's Active Desktop included widgets more than a decade ago. But social networks have helped them explode. These mini-applications are most often downloaded and installed on social network (Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, LinkedIn) pages and blog sidebars. They can do things useful (video delivery and photo editing) and not so useful (hot-or-not lists, horoscopes). Widgets need a “container” in which to run, making most widgets site-specific. Google's OpenSocial is aiming to create a standard to help widgets run anywhere.
B2b impact: The ability to deliver fully functioning applications (versus static ads) with seamless branding is a marketer's dream, enabling full user engagement. Consumer companies such as Coca-Cola Co., Toyota Motor Sales USA and Harley-Davidson USA have launched marketing-oriented widgets. As b2b-oriented social networks (beyond just LinkedIn) emerge—and if OpenSocial takes off on the wider Web—widgets could be an important tool for b2b marketers.
Learn more: Beyond the social networks, Google (which has a widget ad program), Yahoo and Microsoft Corp. are all widget-backers. Also check out home-page widget start-ups such as NetVibes and PageFlakes. Widget ad vendors and networks include Clearspring, WidgetBucks and Appsavvy.
Related trends: Social network APIs (application programming interfaces), OpenSocial, Web start pages and mobile content.
Social feeds are aggregated, shared streams of information about individuals and communities.
The story: RSS took content and distributed it. Social feeds take the Web activity of a user or group of users and spread it just as far and wide. It all started with Facebook, which (originally to much customer outcry) created “news feeds” that let users on the service get a feed of what their friends were doing on the site. John posted a photo; Jamie added a new friend, etc. The power of social feeds is in aggregating all a user's friend activity in a single location. While social feeds started in social networks, mashing together activity feeds across the Web is the new hot trend—for instance, combining a user's blog posts, Twitter posts, del.icio.us links, Flickr photo uploads and more. While Facebook pioneered news feeds, it also took the first step toward social feed advertising with its Beacon project, to very mixed results.
B2b impact: There's a real chance that social feeds could become the de facto way people keep up with one another—replacing email and even real-time communications such as phone calls and texting. It's that powerful. But Facebook's Beacon, which injected both brand ads and word-of-mouth-style messages into the personal news feed, demonstrated both the power and danger of introducing marketing into these very personal feeds.
Learn more: If you're not on Facebook, check out Web-based alternatives such as Tumblr, FriendFeed, Plaxo Pulse and MyBlogLog, which all offer friend/activity feed features.
Related trends: RSS, Twitter, microblogging and life-streaming.
Data portability enables users to control how they share (or don't share) information about themselves.
The story: If social feeds let users more easily share information about their activities, data portability lets them have more control over their personal data—including choosing when and how to move data from site to site. Data portability has become a big topic as “social network fatigue”—the need to re-enter data again and again for new social networks—has set in. At the same time, many sites have taken to getting user data by brute force—for instance, emailing a user's friends, which is just as bad. Data portability is a philosophy and a set of would-be standards and formats that aim to let users better control how they share information about themselves and their activities on the Web.
B2b impact: Data portability should sound familiar to marketers; it is really the other side of the coin of opt-in/opt-out. If users are able to create and move rich personal profiles around, that's a great thing for marketers. The key will be to offer a compelling reason for users to give their profile data to you; but then, that's always been the job of marketers. Data portability could help regulate and automate that exchange, making it a crucial trend to follow.
Learn more: Start and end at DataPortability Project (dataportability.org), an umbrella organization that is developing example applications and publishing case studies on how individuals and companies can make use of emerging technologies such as OpenID, Attention Profiling Mark-up Language (APML) and others to manage personal data.
Related trends: Web identity, semantic Web and permission marketing.
Mashups are the pulling together of multiple Web services—via open interfaces—to create something new.
The story: The key to mashups are open APIs on today's Web services. Those open interfaces let developers—and in some cases, using WYSIWYG tools, mainstream users—create new applications that pull together, or mash up, pieces of other applications. The classic example is a map application that combines Google Maps with some other source of data, such as traffic feeds or coffee shop locations.
B2b impact: Marketers can create mashups—imagine adding sales locations to a live map—or they can create APIs into customer data streams that others can use in mashups of their own. The big idea here is most important: On the Web, applications aren't standalone things but combinations of multiple open services.
Learn more: Two tech blogs cover this best: Mashable, which takes a big picture look, and Programmable Web, where you can find comprehensive lists of hundreds of mashup-ready APIs. Yahoo Pipes and Microsoft Popfly let nontechies build mashups.
Related trends: Web services, Web 2.0, AJAX and rich media.
Wireless becomes like the Web as individuals, not carriers, freely mix and match networks, devices and content.
The story: Mobile operators have ruled the wireless world. Carriers offer users a selection of phones, tendering device discounts in exchange for two-year contracts, locking customers in and making it hard to move to another carrier network. Once on the phone, carriers deliver “walled gardens” of content and advertising. Unlike the Web, you get what operators offer on their mobile portals and not much else. That is changing—big time. Mobile operators such as Verizon have announced plans to open up their networks to all devices and apps. Google is trying to buy wireless spectrum. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are pushing “net neutrality.” And mobile browsers, led by Apple's iPhone, have made it possible for users to really surf the whole Web, ending the walled garden approach.
B2b impact: Mobile is the future. But walled-garden mobile is one thing; open mobile, quite another. For starters, content providers, marketers and advertisers will no longer be forced to work through carriers or device makers to make a mobile push (though those types of companies may still be key partners). More likely, the open mobile Web will evolve like the Web itself—the best content and marketing messages will win.
Learn more: This story is blowing up all over, but watch for key tipping points this month as Verizon publishes its network specs; the FCC names the winners of the 700 MHz spectrum auction; and Apple releases the iPhone software developers kit, enabling an explosion of third-party iPhone applications.
Related trends: Net Neutrality, mobile broadband networks (3G), open source and open APIs. M