Online Obviously.

I was recently a panel member at a conference of hoteliers discussing how to attract young people into pubs (no, really!).

This wasn’t exactly rocket science I thought: Alcohol? Check. Doors open? Check. Ok, looks like we’re good to go.

Yet as the only person in the room wearing jeans (or hair product), I felt it only fair to share something other than the obvious.

I explained that there is really no need to go to a hotel. Beer is cheaper at the bottle shop, no one tells you off for smoking inside, and a punt on the dish-lickers is just a phone-tab call away.

The real reason anyone goes to a licensed venue is for the interaction and the sense of community. The punters are the publican’s biggest asset – well, along with those flashing electronic boxes that rob people of their money.

Using social media

The best way of communicating to this community, and keeping track of them in between visits, is by creating a free account with social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace. These sites leverage the existing community of customers and create a cyber meeting place where they can interact, plan their next night out and find out about coming attractions.

For all these apparent advantages, it quickly became apparent that my message wasn’t getting through to the largely older audience. It appeared that few understood the internet, and most were quite content to let the web – and the immense opportunity it offers – pass them by.

Yet this attitude isn’t just confined to pub owners – the same can be said for many investors who were burned in the tech wreck.

Web 1.0

It’s important to differentiate between the geek speak of web 1.0 and 2.0. The madness of the dotcom boom was simply the early, greed-fuelled stage of a long-term boom. At the time most people used a dial-up connection that limited the amount of Paris they could download in any one sitting. This explains why initially the internet was basically a digital version of a newspaper (web 1.0), where you could access content, but couldn’t interact with it.

Web 2.0

Now we are entering web 2.0, where the emphasis is on social networking, and user-generated content. Take the example of tripadvisor.com, which brings together travellers who have contributed more than 10 million reviews, recommendations and opinions of hotels, airlines and holiday destinations.

This is retailing 2.0, and one of the reasons behind the challenges facing former market darling, Flight Centre.

Who these days would prefer to sit across the table from a commission-driven salesperson, and pay a premium for their opinion on a destination?

Instead, many aspiring travellers feel more comfortable trusting the wisdom of the crowds; they are checking in to hotels that 800 people from across the world have checked out – and given a five-star rating. Once you’ve made your decision you’re two clicks away from booking the room at a deep discount because the site cuts out the middleman.

Cutting out the middle man

This is consumer revenge – there’s not a glossy sales brochure or travel agent in sight. In its place sits a community of users sharing their experiences for the good of the wider community. According to the site, more than 18 million travellers from 191 countries planned trips on the site – this week. It’s this sharing of information that underpins the growth of the internet.

Wikinomics

In the book Wikinomics, how mass collaboration changes everything, authors Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams say we are now entering a new age “where people participate in the economy like never before” due largely, to continued innovations in new technology that facilitate collaboration.

The basic premise of Wikinomics is to find ways to leverage the huge stores of knowledge, innovation and ideas that are available online and tailor them to a user’s specific purpose.

A good example of this is open source software. Most web designers don’t have to start building a site from scratch, because in many instances, a community of web developers collectively and continuously builds, refines, tests and improves software that is free for anyone to use and apply.

Collaboration in the real world

Collaboration isn’t just for cyber technology however. Goldcorp Inc was a fledgling Canadian miner when it hit upon the idea of issuing the “Goldcorp challenge” offering a prize of $500,000 for the best solution to getting gold from the mine.

According to the company more than 1400 people from 50 different countries downloaded the geological data and started their virtual hunt for gold.

The winner was a Perth firm that had never set foot on Canadian soil, but played its part in helping Goldcorp (since issuing the challenge) find “an astounding eight million ounces of gold”, sending the company’s share price and profits soaring.

A new future

The Dewy decimal system is dead – “Google it” instead. As the traffic conductor of the information superhighway, Google carried out more than half the 61 billion internet searches for the month of August, handling inquiries in 40 different languages. The $188 billion company grew 400,000 per cent in five years, which according to some analysts makes it the fastest growing company ever. It achieved this because of a simple proposition: the ability to match people seeking products and information with relevant suppliers.

This week, Neilson NetRatings released a report entitled eGeneration that gave an insight into the next generation of consumers (see chart). The report highlighted that some 75 per cent of teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 were online daily for study and chatting with friends (probably while simultaneously texting on their mobile phones). Take-up of broadband grew from half of Aussie households in 2005 to 85 per cent this year, a significant shift that is setting in place another avalanche of net-driven activity.

Regardless of whether you’re a pub, or any other business, if you want to attract the next generation of consumers, you need an online presence.

Yet it’s the forward thinking entrepreneurs (and their investors) who stand to make a fortune over the next decade as the internet starts living up to, and exceeding the hype of the original dotcom boom.

Tread your own path!