MySpace for grown-ups

Web 2.0 has potential for businesses, educational institution and even NBA teams

Portland Trailblazers fans are using a new social networking Web site set up last week by the team to join together and lobby the National Basketball Association to add Trailblazers power forward Zach Randolph to the lineup for Sunday's NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas.

The Portland team is considering whether to use the new site to encourage fans to join forces to promote the team's Brandon Roy to be the professional basketball league's rookie of the year, said Art Sasse, Trailblazers' vice president of communications.

The NBA team joins a growing number of businesses that are embracing Web 2.0 tools like blogs, wikis and podcasts to create social networks where customers, partners and others can add content and create virtual communities of interest.

While such social networks first gained popularity among users of sites like MySpace and YouTube, businesses are now turning to the technology to boost their brand appeal and sales while gathering feedback that can be used in new product development efforts. In addition to the Trailblazers, companies like General Motors and Procter & Gamble have launched new social networks in the last two weeks for the Pontiac automobile line and Old Spice products, respectively.

The Trailblazers site, which signed up 2,500 registered users in its first three business days, was launched as a vehicle to help management communicate with the team's fans, Sasse said. He noted that its earlier strategy of reaching fans by e-mail has faltered recently as messages are left unopened.

Using Web 2.0 technology to link fans in specific parts of the city, the site "drives the drum beat of awareness, and [users] start coming to more games," he added. "It is a chance for us to see where the fans are headed rather than try to move them there," Sasse said. "It is a good, old-fashioned, grass-roots organization. The more authentic the connection, the more powerful that connection is."

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) last month launched a new partnership with Squidoo, which allows pet lovers to quickly build personal Web pages on the ASPCA site that can point to blogs, RSS feeds, Flickr photos, Google maps and other destinations, said Jo Sullivan, ASPCA's senior vice president of development and communications.

Each Web site earns a royalty from the page's advertisements from Google and others; users can opt to keep the money or donate it to the ASPCA. While the organization has not seen any financial gains yet, more than 500 of these sites have been created, Sullivan said. The organization, which already has blogs on its page, plans this year to add daily text messages for its users and podcasts, she noted.

"It is a great opportunity for donors who may not be expressing their love of animals on MySpace or YouTube to be expressive," she said. "It is a great elevation of brand."

However, she noted, the move has not been without its challenges for the organization. Embracing the Web 2.0 tools has required that the ASPCA restructure portions of its organization to create a development deal with technology and branding expertise, she said. Within the past six months, the organization married the technology team responsible for updating content and identifying emerging Web 2.0 tools with a communications team that focuses on using the Web as a marketing tool, Sullivan said.

Travelocity.com this year launched a new site called Experience Finder geared toward providing users more information to help them choose a travel destination, said Troy Whitsett, vice president of design at Texas-based Travelocity. In addition to adding rich media content like videos to the site, Travelocity plans to integrate content from its subsidiary Igougo.com, a social networking site that allow travellers to post travel stories and tips to blogs, share photos from trips, and provide recommendations for hotels and activities, Whitsett added.

"Having others who are unbiased providing their feedback is very important," he said. "The customer wants to hear from other people like themselves."

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