Nov 182010

I am a Wikipedia admin and an email response volunteer for the Wikimedia Foundation. As a result, I regularly come across people who have, wittingly or unwittingly, fallen foul of our rules around promotion. Companies with intelligent social media strategies have been aware of Wikipedia from the outset; some have played a straight bat, others have gamed the system with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the degree of success has been well into the Fail quadrant.

This is about what happens when you create and edit articles on your own products. There are other errors which I will talk about another time.

The consequences of an ill-judged attempt to use Wikipedia for brand management can vary between not great and very, very bad.

This is not a how-to

If you want me to tell you how to promote your brand on Wikipedia, you’re in the wrong place.

There exist a fair number of companies who will charge you significant sums to manage your presence on Wikipedia, and to use Wikipedia to sharpen your marketing message. If I ever run across the representatives of these companies I block them. Wikipedia is a collaborative project to create neutral content, Wikipedia:Neutral point of view has been policy since day 1 and is not changing any time soon, but it’s not about neutrality it’s about abusing a collaborative project supported by charity for your own personal gain. The Wikimedia Foundation raises the money it needs from donations large and (mainly) small from people all round the world. I have seen the emails from people all round the world thanking the foundation for creating Wikipedia and apologising that they can only give a few dollars (or rupees or whatever). Abusing this for commercial gain is not just against policy, it is evil.

So I am not going to tell you how to use Wikipedia to promote your brand message. I am, however, going to tell you how it can go wrong.

An example

Here’s an example. I’ve decided to start adding Wikipedia links to content in this blog so I installed a simple plugin to help me do that. The first post I made using that was “EMC: Solid progress but work to do“. One of the things I linked was Avamar, and this was the result I got when I clicked on that link:

Now let me start by saying that I am pretty confident it was not EMC that created that page. Where large corporations are involved the culprit is usually (but not always) a staffer doing something without checking first. I can see who created the deleted content. Normally before sharing this I would redact the username but there’s no need as the user only has two edits, both creating this article, and has not been seen since:

So what did this user write?

So, this went wrong for the user (and for EMC). Not badly, horribly wrong because nobody really picked up on it but for some people – including AstroTurf, who were found Astroturfing – it has backfired quite badly. And once an article is deleted that deletion log message will be there until something replaces it, which is not going to happen any time soon if you have tried to promote your product and have angered the admins in doing so.If any innocent party does try to create an article this is what they will see:

We really do not like spammers. We have been known to spam-blacklist links to companies which have tried to use Wikipedia for promotion, and if you are persistent enough you will get on the Wikimedia Foundation’s spam blacklist which is used by literally tens of thousands of sites worldwide. And if that happens to you then I am really going to struggle to care.

This is a how-to

So, suitably warned, you are not going to use Wikipedia to promote your business or product, right? But you still want the world to know about you. Here’s my proposed approach.

  1. Do not try to do it yourself and save yourself the cost of paying external consultants because if they do it and are found out the impact could be even worse. Don’t offer rewards. The first and most fundamental truth is that anybody who is going to successfully write about your company and your products on Wikipedia needs to do it for love. Wikipedia goes in the box called social media or social marketing, not in the box called advertising. This is the most important fact that big forms fail to grasp about Wikipedia. It’s not about Google page rank, Wikipedia policy wonks or Jimmy Wales, it’s about the Wikipedia community.
  2. Single purpose accounts are rapidly sniffed out and jumped on. You need to find people in your wider social community who are already active Wikipedians and help them to write about you. I could almost certainly write an article about Avamar without any problems because I am a long-term member of the Wikipedia community.
  3. Provide Wikipedia-friendly collateral. There are two big things Wikipedia content needs: sources and images. Please please create a small library of high quality professional photographs of your product and key people and release them under a creative commons license: CC-by-SA is probably the best of these. Pictures of living individuals are an especial problem, we cannot use any old image off the web for legal and practical reasons, the very best way to make sure your CEO’s photo is a good one and not one taken at 3am by some random Wikipedia geek who saw him emerging from a nightclub is to release a good, unretouched professional image.
  4. For sources, see Wikipedia:Reliable sources. So, for each product make sure your social media collateral contains links to analyst articles which objectively discuss your product. If your product sucks and everyone says so then there is absolutely no point linking to the analyst you paid to say it does not suck. Make sure that any relevant Gartner references are provided. Magic quadrant position is important. Please don’t try to fact-wash PR by citing trade magazines that reprint your press releases.
  5. Do not be tempted to try to micromanage the content. You do not and will not have editorial control, so please learn to live with that. Problems with your product and your people will appear on Wikipedia, but we will do our level best not to allow people to use Wikipedia to pursue a mission against you. You can manage problems most effectively by working with Wikipedia and not assuming that Wikipedia is itself trying to damage you. Wikipedia itself doesn’t care but some people in the Wikipedia community really do care and will work with you.
  6. Know what you can and cannot get away with. You can fix trivial vandalism (page blanking, “MegaCo is teh suck!” and the like) but wait a couple of minutes first because it’s likely the vandalism patrollers will be on it pretty fast. On the other hand, if you have something you want added it’s much better to use the Talk page and leave a note with the requested change and some good sources from which any changes can be drawn.
  7. WikiProjects are groups of Wikipedians with a common interest. Wikipedia:WikiProject discusses this. Now Wikipedia integrates with Facebook you may also be able to use your Facebook presence to recruit interested people. But don’t try for fanboys, that is very tedious. You want intelligent well-informed people who are interested in you but also know how you compare.

And please don’t think that Wikipedia is naive. The community assumes good faith but it only goes so far. We have hardblocked the Church of Scientology’s address range, we can do the same to yours.

Recommended reading

These are the Wikipedia project pages I think are likely to be useful when considering this issue:

I hope this helps you and persuades you that the best people to write about you are your customers and your competitors’ customers, not your marketing folks or your PR agency. The result might not look so shiny but it will be much more credible and is greatly less likely to blow up in your face.

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