The online encyclopedia, produced collaboratively by volunteers, is rewriting the marketing script.
One of the six brand credibility drivers I describe in my upcoming book is affirmation. This refers to the consensus of positive or negative truths about a business or brand.
For example, I'm affirmed by what you see in the results when you search on my name. I might also be affirmed by the consensus of commentary that wraps around something I've posted on a blog or message board or via video.
But Wikipedia is rewriting the marketing script, because it's far and away one of the Web's most potent and powerful affirmation drivers. Once the primary domain of A-list bloggers and Web 2.0 elite, it's now unmistakably penetrated the online masses. Even those who don't use it are impacted by the conversation it shapes, online or off-.
All marketers should think hard about why Wikipedia matters, starting with affirmation. Below, my top 10 list.
Participation. According to a much discussed "Los Angeles Time" article, Wikipedia cranks out 300 million page views a day on a $4.6 million budget. Whether the site goes to an ad model or not (that's an entirely separate column), the output is just remarkable given the dollars invested. The site is built on the power and attentiveness of user passion. Every marketer needs to think long and hard about that untapped opportunity.
Shelf positioning. Search your brand on Google or another search engine, and I'll bet the Wikipedia entry is in one of the top three organic positions. That's like owning prime eye-level shelf space in Wal-Mart. Such a premium shelf position means it's a big part of what's defining or shaping your brand's early perceptions. Wikipedia's definition, therefore, takes on special meaning. Think about the power of such positioning around a new product launch.
Transparency. There's very little you can't learn about brands via Wikipedia, even a 10-year-old controversy. Facts and otherwise fleeting incidents stick, and if a writer has taken the brand to task, it's more than likely to show up in the entry, sometimes prominently. The McDonald's entry, for example, links to the book "Fast Food Nation" and the 2004 documentary film "Super Size Me." Transparency, remember, works both ways -- the good and the bad. If your company's been involved in some not-so-flattering PR (scandal, recall, CEO mess, safety issue, embarrassing ad campaign, political faux pas, whatever), don't pretend it never happened. As long as the information added to Wikipedia is true and can be verified elsewhere through some quick Internet searches, your best bet is to just grow a thick skin and deal with it.
Counter-advertising. I recently led a strategy review for a top brand. To start the process, I juxtaposed Wikipedia's description of the brand's benefits against the advertised benefits, and the two weren't even close to being in sync. Can you say "equity clash"? Couple that with the entry's premium shelf space, and we had major problem. If brands are pushing messages so at odds with the consensus of truth, even my two-year-old daughter can conclude your ROI (define) will take a hit.
Inquiry. Every year, I've asked the text-mining passionistas in my office to run an analysis of the Wikipedia terms bloggers most frequently cite. I treat it as a leading indictor of what consumers want or their unmet needs. What people look for and link to on Wikipedia is powerful and better than a focus group.
Globalization. I just love how Wikipedia is so language agnostic. The site manages to get you to a different language platform easily and seamlessly -- and never at the expense of the initial interface's look and feel. Marketers should pay attention.
The self-promotion reality check. Everyone has a story about how he tried to put something up on Wikipedia, only to have it kicked back because it was too promotional. Nothing's a given on Wikipedia, and credibility must be earned. Marketers, overburdened by short-term ROI imperatives, usually want preferred copy overnight, but it just doesn't work that way. Entries with independent links, for example, are critical. Again, you need credibility from outside sources.
Unlimited, free legal review. Wikipedia reminds a bit my days at Procter & Gamble when the lawyers diligently scoured claims support and positioning to ensure they could stand any level of scrutiny. Wikipedia does the same thing, but publicly. As the Web morphs into multimedia, the documentation, such as a video demonstrating that a product feature really doesn't perform as positioned, takes on a new level of scrutiny.
Fast turnaround. Marketers are still miles away from a real-time sense-and-respond mindset, but Wikipedia acts like a 24/7 vacuum cleaner that constantly iterates brand definitions and news. If a brand experiences a recall or a safety violation, you'll see it weaved into the Wikipedia entry faster than you can call your PR firm. This was a big deal during last year's pet food recall. Wikipedia almost rivaled Google News as a quick, trusted reference point for all that unfolded during the recall.
Trial and error. If you haven't signed up yet to be a Wikipedia contributor and/or editor, do it now and start learning its system for adding, editing, and updating content. You don't have to be an Internet wizard or code head to learn the Wikipedia way of doing things, but it does take some concentration. If everyone else is defining you on Wikipedia, you should be part of the process, too. If you're not monitoring your Wikipedia entry daily, start doing it. You really need to get early experience on the platform to prime yourself for fast turnaround.
That's my top 10. But I'm sure I'll think of others as soon as I tap out this last sentence.
Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."