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Using Wikipedia to Your Firm’s Advantage

Establishing a profile on Wikipedia can be a boon for companies, but managers must forge ties with the site’s contributors rather than relying on typical marketing strategies.

Bottom LineEstablishing a profile on Wikipedia can be a boon for companies, but managers must forge ties with the site’s contributors rather than relying on typical marketing strategies. 

Since its inception in 2001, Wikipedia has come to represent much more than just a “free encyclopedia.” Consistently ranked as one of the globe’s 10 most popular websites, the nonprofit, crowdsourced Wikipedia both provides readers with information about its subjects and gives those subjects a sense of legitimacy. Boasting close to 5 million articles in English alone, edited by a community of almost 100,000 highly active contributors, the site gets nearly 500 million unique visitors per month. Despite concerns about inaccuracies or hoaxes in its entries, Wikipedia has secured a reputation as an easily navigable hub for generally accurate news, history, and background information on a vast array of topics.

For companies, collaborative projects like Wikipedia have a lot of upside: They allow consumers to independently research product information and a firm’s history, potentially reducing customer service and marketing costs. On the other hand, thousands of editors unaffiliated with companies or their official channels of communication can create and revise entries. And that raises the question of how a firm should best manage its presence on Wikipedia—especially if it has been in the news for the wrong reasons.

After reviewing recent research and company case studies, the authors of a new paper provide useful guidelines for how emerging firms can make a splash on Wikipedia, and give advice to established companies looking to safeguard their reputation and cultivate an online presence. Because Wikipedia is effectively collaborative, companies don’t have the same control over their own image on the site as they have on other social media platforms. Instead, they must rely on a holistic approach that requires a blend of offline and online strategies.

Emerging firms can make a splash on Wikipedia.

For new firms, that means first establishing a strong online presence apart from Wikipedia, the authors write. Media coverage from independent sources and mentions on social media can be turned into important links and increase mentions of the company in other Wikipedia articles, raising the odds that the firm will get a permanent entry of its own. It’s also important for companies to work with respected contributors, who are more likely to create articles that remain on the site and attract attention. Companies should look to employees of their own who may be active and experienced Wikipedia editors, the authors note. But an even better option is to send PR specialists to court Wikipedians at one of their many offline gatherings.

In fact, because of concerns over conflicts of interest, Wikipedia discourages firms from editing their own profiles; if they do so, however, their additions should be easily verifiable via secondary sources and appear as neutral as possible. Above all, firms should avoid advertising or inserting links to online stores—the European Union has even legislated against this type of covert marketing. Companies that are unsure about making changes can consult with editors through the site’s discussion boards, as these contributors will likely remove any inappropriate content that might appear. And because people can modify Wikipedia entries at any time, it’s important to regularly monitor the company profile.

Despite a firm’s best efforts, however, undesirable information is bound to crop up at some point. As a result, crisis management is a necessary aspect of having a Wikipedia presence, especially for established firms. According to one recent study, Wikipedia articles about Fortune 500 companies tend to turn more negative as firms advance in age, including more information about legal disputes and scandals. The first option in responding to negative posts is to work with editors to correct false information or add necessary context. Company representatives should never try to hide their identity if they do make alterations of their own; programs like WikiScanner allow people to easily pinpoint who made ostensibly anonymous edits. Hiding behind PR firms to manage a Wikipedia page rather than being transparent has also backfired on some high-profile firms, the authors note, including Coca-Cola, EA Games, and the New York Times Company.

And not all negative statements can be disputed. Sometimes companies lose money, sometimes their products fail, and sometimes they lose market share. In such cases, companies can try to offset bad news by advocating for the inclusion of more positive content. If possible, this information should appear before the contentious section of a Wikipedia profile; readers don’t always make it to the bottom of the page, and search engines are more likely to highlight text near the top of an entry.

On a micro level, companies can also try to sandwich positive content around downbeat material, as studies have shown people are more likely to concentrate on the start and end of paragraphs. They’re also less likely to process numbers when they’re spelled out as words, so it makes more sense to state a loss as “ninety-nine million dollars” rather than “$99 million.”

These are, of course, only temporary fixes. The best ways to avoid negative content on Wikipedia are to avoid bad press in the first place and to develop an online following that’s willing to stick up for the company without being instructed to do so. For this reason, the authors suggest, it’s vital to craft a Wikipedia presence that ties into the firm’s wider social media strategy; connecting with Facebook fans, Twitter followers, or YouTube subscribers who are unaffiliated with the company but on the watch for unflattering online activity can help the firm itself stay above the fray.

If all else fails, companies can appeal to one of Wikipedia’s monitoring committees—such as the Conflict of Interest board or Administrators board—or have their page protected, which cuts down on the number of editors who can edit the entry. But the authors advise firms to avoid engaging in any legal action, which will likely create more negative buzz than positive outcomes.

Source: “Collaborative Projects (Social Media Application): About Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia,” by Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein (both of ESCP Europe), Business Horizons, Sept.–Oct. 2014, vol. 57, no. 5

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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