Thursday, January 4, 2007

Wikis in marketing

This piece, first published in Marketing Magazine in Jan 2007, opened a theme I've returned to many times.  One of the biggest (and still most underexploited) sources of value on the internet is the ability it gives us to hear what customers say - if only we can stop talking long enough to listen. 

Anytime I’ve wanted to know anything for the last three or four years, I’ve turned to Wikipedia, the amazing internet encyclopedia.  It’s become a part of my online survival kit, along with Google, Streetmap and Squaremeal.  And working in an interactive media company, I’d be pretty hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard of it.

From the Hawaiian word for “fast”, the first wiki appeared in 1995, developed as a tool to organise software designs shared by programmers over the web.  Wikis have become vital tools in business – allowing groups of people to collaborate on the development of projects in a way that overcomes both the barriers of distance and the complexity of information sharing and organising. 

All the more surprising then that according to a Harris Interactive poll conducted for Wetpaint, a Wiki software company, just 2% of the US public have heard about wikis.

2007 may be the year that all that changes.  Whilst to date the most compelling applications have been within businesses, increasingly the wiki is breaking out into the consumer sphere.  As it does so, it’s becoming a force for change in the relationship between consumer, media and content.

Wikipedia itself has over 1.5 million articles in English alone, and versions in 250 languages.  Anyone can edit or create entries in the encyclopedia, and whilst this makes it vulnerable to vandalism (posting rubbish) and inaccuracy, the self-policing/balancing phenomenon that keeps the blogosphere in check seems to operate here too.  What’s emerged is an extraordinary collaboration between thousands of ‘ordinary’ people, which exploits the collective wisdom of the many.

In previous articles, we’ve looked at how web 2.0 is enabling people to act together in ways that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, and how blogs and social networks have added an entirely new dimension to communication. 

This is revolutionary stuff – in the argot of the new media world it’s “disruptive”.  No longer are the ‘media’ in control of the message – the people have taken control, and connect to each other directly.  But wikis bring something different to web 2.0. 

Social networking is just that – social – its focus is on connecting people.  Blogs are about the sharing of opinions, and about debate.  Wikis however are about collaboration.  

The ABC network’s wiki for “Lost” encourages fans to post their own plotlines, flesh out the backstories of characters and create links between stories – whilst there’s no direct implication that any of this will make it to air, the involvement of viewers in the programme’s development marks a change from the old-media “handing down the tablets” approach to content generation.  It recognises that viewers not only have an interest, they have something to contribute. 

The US government’s 16 intelligence agencies collaborate through the Intellipedia.  Travellers use wikis like World66 to share experiences, fetishists contribute to Wipipedia (really).  There are thousands of wikis on everything from Egyptology to Dyslexia, and in many of them, the power of thousands of people bringing their own expertise makes for a dynamic and creative experience that can’t be replicated through traditional means of media and information sharing.

So why are Wikis important to marketers?

A tool which enables companies to collaborate with their customers?  A place for users to share their experiences of a product or service and help to shape improvements in its delivery?

Although in theory, marketing has always been about the profitable satisfaction of consumer demand, in reality it’s mostly been about telling people what to buy.  Partly, this has been a consequence of the restrictive nature of traditional media channels – namely that they’re one-way.

Wikis could liberate marketing from this constraint, providing the means by which marketers move from talking to listening.  The speed at which this opportunity is taken up (and it will be) isn’t going to be driven by the technology – the key driver is more likely to be us.  Can we stop talking long enough to listen?

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