Wikipedia 101 for Marketing

Lately we’ve received a spate of client inquiries about Wikipedia

“Can we create our own entry?  Can we edit our entry?  How do you find the line between promotion and fact?  Why is Wikipedia so important in the first place?” 

Wikipedia-logoHere are some answers.

When you think about your old Britannica, the encyclopedias of yesteryear only included “major” subjects, those that would be of wide interest to the majority of people.  Wikipedia, however, has a stunning breadth that matches the interests of a diverse, global population.  It is an encyclopedia by the people, for the people. 

And Wikipedia’s influence has skyrocketed in recent years.  It is constantly linked to by bloggers, and is constantly being updated: as a result, Wikipedia entries rank quite high in Google search results – which only adds to the site’s power.

There’s a “dark side” to Wikipedia’s popularity, influence and openness. 

Marketers have been known to try to take advantage, by adding or editing entries about their companies, competitors or industries: they know that Wikipedia is viewed as an authoritative resource, so if they can “sneak” some salutary edits into the system, it could benefit their reputation.

Having been burned numerous times on this front, Wikipedia now has strict guidelines to block organizations from writing their own profiles.  From the site: “Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a forum for advertising or self-promotion, or a vanity press.” 

Wikipedia has “Conflict of Interest” rules, to discourage self-promotion.  One of the ways they test if an organization is “worthy” of its own entry is to see how many reliable, independent, secondary sources are already talking about the topic and/or organization. 

This is definitely a frustration for many people, who complain that Wikipedia has an established culture and format and that its top editors can seem (arbitrarily) fastidious. And it is particularly tough for marketers to swallow.  “Why is Wikipedia is open to all … except to business people?”  (Because they tend to abuse the privilege, that’s why.)

Rgn_wikipedia_wideweb__470x458,2So, should you try to create a Wikipedia entry about your company or product, or for that new Three-Letter-Acronym you just created?

The answer is, “Maybe.”  You need to understand the “rules of the road” – and even then (to extend the car analogy), “your mileage may vary.”

If you do decide to create or edit an entry in Wikipedia, you need to strip your content of all marketing language or plaudits.  Just the facts. 

Ask yourself whether you already have enough PR clout to warrant a Wikipedia listing.  If you’re a start-up or a local pizzeria, it’s not likely you need (or deserve) a Wikipedia entry. 

Ask yourself if Wikipedia is going to offer more content to people than what you’d offer on your own website.  If the answer is, “No, but Wikipedia has better Google juice,” then sheathe your keyboard.  

Wikipedia is a place for official data points that could add context about your industry, as well as to catalog significant events (good and bad).  Wikipedia is not a place for promotion or tomfoolery.  Keep in mind that even if your edits slip past the official wiki cops, some troublemaker (or competitor!) could use WikiScanner to call you out for manipulation.

And what if your company already has a Wikipedia entry – and you don’t like it?

According to Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales, speaking at a Direct Marketing Association event, the course is clear:

  • Don’t just change the page. You will look like you are trying to manipulate it unethically (even if you aren’t).
  • Every Wikipedia page has a “Discussion” tab.  Enter your questions, additions, and complaints here. 
  • The editors will read them and address them. 
  • Most important: It demonstrates that you, the business, understand correct Wikipedia etiquette.

Over time, you may also want to encourage third-party resources (happy customers?) to work on the entry, if possible.  But, again, they’d need to keep their assistance neutral, transparent, and factual.

Whatever you do, don’t ask your PR firm to get involved directly in the editing.  The agency can help gut-check the content’s quality and tone, but PR types are not welcome on Wikipedia.  (We can’t even edit the entry on Public Relations! – But that’s another post.)

Hope this helps.  If it did, maybe you could share it with your pals?  And subscribe to PR-Squared?  Thanks!



Posted on: November 12, 2008 at 11:33 am By Todd Defren
18 Responses to “Wikipedia 101 for Marketing”

 

Comments
  • Meredith Watts says:

    I agree with what you say Todd that Wikipedia needs to stay with the facts. I was doing some research for a project and glanced at a Wikipedia site for NIKE I thought that it was very promotional. I am a journalism student, we’re taught to write the facts and leave out the jargon. I think it is very important to realize that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia for people to find out needed information and it does not need to be abused by marketers to promote their company. Let Wikipedia deliver the facts and let the readers decide their stance on the companies.

  • Gregory Kohs says:

    Clearly, with a 100% success rate on the paid articles that I published pseudonymously, without disclosure, on Wikipedia, I must have a certain talent for knowing where to draw the lines at “promo copy” and “lacking sources”.

    As an example, you may want to check out an article of mine that (while not paid for) is fairly typical of my work:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Fuel_Gas

    Does it read too much like a brochure? I don’t think so. Do you learn anything new within the article? I certainly did. Is it properly sourced? Better than most Wikipedia pages.

  • Todd,
    I think you’ve said it “Whatever you do, don’t ask your PR firm to get involved directly in the editing.” The last time I tried to create an article about the company I worked for, I tried to make it as neutral as possible. The article still got deleted… because of the lack of sources.

    @Gregory – I understand the people you are talking about have certain connections within Wikipedia. For the rest of us the rules still remain the same – if you are writing a promo copy or don’t have enough sources to support what you are saying, your article will be questioned and probably deleted. And as a social media user, I kinda like it. When I go to Wikipedia I want to learn something and not read an online version of your brochure.

  • Gregory Kohs says:

    @Todd: Thank you for describing my comment as “fascinating”, but I wonder why you consider my suggestions a “scam”? Take a look at the Wikipedia article about [[Elonka Dunin]], a frequent and popular “in-house” contributor to the project. Then take a look at the Wikipedia article about [[Carolyn Doran]] (the former Wikimedia Foundation COO who was a convicted felon). Do you feel that both articles appropriately address each subject neutrally? Do you feel that each has received attention equal to their real-world notability? Do you feel that the co-founder of Wikipedia using private back-channels to “help out” a lover’s article is an appropriate use of the project’s labor and goodwill?

    You’re recommending to your readers that they tie one arm behind their backs and “play nice”, while their competitors engage Wikipedia in EXACTLY THE SAME WAY the co-founder and his insiders engage the project — to their own self-interested benefit.

    That’s bad advice to your readers, at least in a capitalist economy.

    Final note: don’t fall into the tired old pablum which states that “paid content is not as high quality or of good use to the average reader as voluntarily-written content”. I assure you, Wikipedia readers are much better served by a paid-entity seeding an article about Company XYZ, than relying on the “volunteer community” to launch (perhaps next week, perhaps next month, perhaps never!) an article about Company XYZ, or (even worse) promptly writing a garbage article that contains false information, an undue quantity of criticism, and a complete misunderstanding of the business.

    Right now, the Wikipedia article about [[Comcast]] has a “Category” at the bottom which states:

    Companies based in Mississippi

    Oh, really? Yeah, I guess Comcast is based in Mississippi in the same way it’s based in Illinois, and Georgia, and Massachusetts, and Arizona, but those states aren’t similarly categorized around the Comcast article.

    About seven days ago, I informed the “Wikipedia community volunteers” of how misleading this is (to define Comcast as “based in Mississippi”), but their effort to correct this perplexing information was half-hearted and ultimately not resolved.

    If they fail on something this simple to correct, how do you think they will do on something really important and contentious?

    Yet, you would prefer beating your head against the Wikipedia wall, abiding by their rules that their leaders habitually ignore? Good luck with that.

  • Jeff Donald says:

    Working in the political/government sector, we have a rule of thumb: would we be embarrassed if this showed up on the front page of the Washington Post?

    Seems to me communicators could approach working with Wikipedia in the same way. Would you be embarrassed if the NYTimes did a story about you correcting a false account of your company/client? Likely not, nor would the Times likely even think it was newsworthy.

    Now, if you had a crisis situation going on and you were actively editing Wiki to control the story, I could see that as very embarrassing.

    As always, a little common sense goes a long way.

  • Todd Defren says:

    @Gregory – Your comment is clearly fascinating but I cannot suggest to my readers that they try to scam the system. I know this is akin to a holy quest for you, and I appreciate your views, but simply cannot agree.

    @John – You made my point to Ed Lee better than I did, and I thank you for it!

  • @Ed, @Todd, on the SEO merits of Wikipedia:

    Yes it is correct that Wikipedia nofollows their links but I don’t agree that it doesn’t help corporate (or other) SEO.

    An entry in Wikipedia is often very beneficial because, due to Creative Commons licensing, many other sites will reproduce and/or syndicate Wikipedia content (think Answers.com). Many of those republishers will retain the nofollow, but not always…

    Also, not all search engines strictly adhere to nofollow. Even Google’s treatment of the tag is a subject for long debate. IMO it’s just not as black and white as they’d have you believe.

    Finally, the referral traffic and enhanced reputation can have a real (though indirect) impact on SEO efforts, as it can accelerate the accumulation of back-links and references to your site, which I think every SEO can agree is a good thing!

    Todd, great post and thanks for the update on Wikipedia etiquette. Sphunn it.

  • Gregory Kohs says:

    Todd Defren makes a nice college try with this article, but it falls short of reality on a few counts. At least we’re getting a bit closer to realizing that things are not always as they appear in the Gentle Loving WikipediaLand.

    First, let me introduce myself as the founder of MyWikiBiz.com, the gentleman who prompted Wikipedia to even generate a “Conflicts of Interest” policy in mid-2006. You may have read about me in January 2007 in the Washington Post or the USA Today, or seen me on the G4 Network with Molly Wood, talking about the failures of Wikipedia to address reality.

    Here is the first thing you must know about Wikipedia, if you care to embrace reality: Everyone who edits Wikipedia has a conflict of interest.

    Let me repeat that.

    Everyone who edits Wikipedia has a conflict of interest.

    If you are able to accept that fact, you may be ready for Lesson #2: Open disclosure on Wikipedia results in the transparent party being punished or damaged; secretive or anonymous activity results in the clandestine party being protected or rewarded.

    Now, I could go on with Lessons #3 through #10, but I think I’m going to save it for a blog post of my own in the future. But, let me leave you with this…

    Todd references above some guidance that Jimmy Wales gave in late 2007 about how to change content on Wikipedia that “you don’t like”. Good reader, do yourself a bit of due diligence and learn how Jimmy Wales changed content about Rachel Marsden’s article in Wikipedia, a few days before he met her for a weekend romp in a Washington Doubletree hotel. (No, this isn’t libel or a personal attack — it was plastered all over the mainstream news.) Did Jimbo “enter his questions, additions, and complaints” on the article’s Discussion tab? No, he did not. He used back-channel dialogue with a few privileged administrators, directing them to alter the article to Marsden’s liking, which they happily abided (namely, see the edits by “User:JzG” that sanitized Marsden’s history with other romantic partners). Ironic that Jimbo fell into the very same trap of being “caught”, against which he so fastidiously cautioned the Marketing industry only a few months earlier.

    One final note. MyWikiBiz engaged with paying clients to author about 10 Wikipedia articles in late 2006. Two of them were disclosed in the disinfecting sunlight of transparency; while the other eight were published clandestinely, without fanfare.

    The two that were disclosed, the Wikipedia “community” found reason to delete those articles. The eight that were not, however, are still thriving and whistling a happy tune within the pages of Wikipedia.

    Meanwhile, in the past month (October 2008 — two full years after MyWikiBiz’s ban from Wikipedia), I have authored three new articles suitable for Wikipedia in exchange for payment. Have I disclosed which three articles? Well, let me simply state that all three have “survived” publication in Wikipedia, and you take a guess whether anyone other than MyWikiBiz and our clients know the true provenance of these articles.

    I offered to work in the disinfecting sunlight of full disclosure in 2006. Jimmy Wales fought tooth and nail against that, and his minions followed suit. They refused to embrace reality. Continued, secret publication under their noses is the result; and believe me, MyWikiBiz is just the tip of the paid editing iceberg.

    Andy Sernovitz (blog linked to above) says, “Important: If you try to manipulate Wikipedia for marketing purposes, you will definitely get busted. Don’t even try it.”

    My work is ample testimony disproving that empty threat.

  • Scott says:

    Question: If someone edits the Wikipedia entry for a company or brand with negative information (i.e. a scandal, crisis, recall, etc.) and the information is true but potentially damaging to the brand; is the company justified in removing that information? With something so public, this scenario rides the fine line between manipulation and protection.

  • Todd Defren says:

    @Kerry – thanks for the good point that it’s not just PR folks who are disallowed, and thx too for the link.

    @Parker – a good point about the RSS feed for changes! thx for reminding us all.

    @Ed – Yea, true on the no-follow, BUT, my point was that a Wikipedia entry in and of itself is considered a worthwhile “placement,” i.e., it does not aid corporate SEO but does aid corp reputation … and, a Wikipedia link to the external source would drive more traffic, even if not thru true SEO. Does that make sense?

    @Paull – thx for the kind words and the info on the source of that cartoon; I had no idea on the latter.

  • Paull Young says:

    I’m amazed how many PR people there are out there who don’t know the first thing about Wikipedia but still work with it. Good on you for the post Todd, there’s a big understanding gap in the industry to be addressed here.

    Piece of trivia – the image in your post is a cartoonist’s representation of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

  • Ed Lee says:

    this is always a very prescient issue for communications professionals – how to join a community that we have every right to join, but that we are not welcome in.

    personally, speaking from someone who is not an active part of the wikipedia community, the best road forward would be to get involved. make changes to articles you have a personal, not professional, interest in and go from there. if your first edit is to something you have a conflict of interest around, your credibility is shot from the outset.

    i also wanted to address the google juice wikipedia myth: wikipedia, i believe, uses the rel=”nofollow” tag for formatting its links. this tag means that search engines do not “follow” the links to their destination and that no google juice is passed on from wikipedia to whichever sites are being linked to.

    ed

  • Parker says:

    Another tip that your readers might find interesting is that you can subscribe to changes made to Wikipedia pages via RSS – it is a great way to learn if anyone has changed the entry on your product/organization/etc.

    Sometimes the change is for the better, sometimes it is totally neutral and sometimes it is a change that looks terrible.

    If you feel that you’ve been snubbed by a particularly slanderous change to the article, you can always clearly mention that you represent the org/product/etc in the discussion section.

  • Very useful post, although while we PR types are not welcome on Wikipedia, we can certainly be involved in requesting article creation or amendments. I work as part of the WW digital team for Porter Novelli and we have done just that for clients before now.

    Anyone interested in how can check out our how-to here, http://porternovelli.typepad.com/pneo/2008/09/how-to-create-1.html.

    It’s also worth pointing out that it’s not just PR ppl who are discourage from wiki-editing, it is anyone with a perceived conflict of interest, be they agency or in-house.



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