Jimmy Wales: Make Your Brands Authentic

NEW YORK Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is a big believer in authenticity, so much so that he mentioned it over a dozen times during an on-stage interview as part of Advertising Week. In the view of Wales, brands need to get beyond blasting messages at people and start providing tools for their supporters to convey real views of products.

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“You have to be sincere about allowing for community control,” Wales said in an interview with Liz Ross, Tribal DDB’s president of the Americas and global CMO. “The best way to approach it is to create a product that doesn’t suck,” he added.
 
Wikipedia has been a runaway success. It attracted almost 87 million visitors in August, according to comScore Media Metrix, ranking it as the No. 8 global Internet brand.
 
In 2004, Wales started Wikia to apply the lessons of Wikipedia to a for-profit business. Wikia lets users create fan sites about nearly any topic. Wales touted the site built by fans for the DreamWorks movie Transformers. It now has 6,000 pages of content and has generated the equivalent of 20 million free impressions for the toy and movie franchise.
 
“They’re actually going out and selling the brand,” he said. “It’s very different from the top-down broadcast-style marketing.”
 
Prior to his appearance, Wales sat down with Adweek to discuss the secret of Wikipedia’s success, the threat of Google’s power and how advertising needs to change.
 
What is responsible for Wikipedia’s success?
Everyone always knew the Web is … an interactive participatory medium. But it took a long time for the medium to mature and for people to figure out social models that work in terms of people love to talk, discuss and debate. The question becomes, how can people come together to build something rather than a message board where people endlessly argue and debate? People love building things with their friends and people they share an interest with. The success is driven by the fact that the resulting product is something people like to read. It’s a cycle. As it began to get popular, it drew more authors and more content, which drew more readers, and so on. It’s a shift from top-down media to bottom-up media.
 
How much do you owe the participation Wikipedia has attracted to its non-commercial status?
I think it’s important in certain ways, but not in the ways most people think. Most people who work on Wikipedia do it because they enjoy it. It’s not something you do because it’s a charity. I believe people will do things from a charitable impulse only to a certain point. If people volunteer, they have to enjoy the work itself. If it’s enjoyable and inherently rewarding, people will continue to do it. Everybody who is participating has to have a reason to participate. Those reasons can be quite diverse. [Wikipedia] being a charity and a social utility is part of it, but it’s not everything.
 
Why didn’t you have advertising on Wikipedia?
In the early days, we wouldn’t have been able to support the site through ad revenue. It would have been so tiny it wouldn’t be worth it. We were born in the dot-com-crash era. We didn’t have that as a viable option. It was really a hobby, a group of people who had come together to write an encyclopedia. We thought of it as a community project. People didn’t want to have advertising on it and donations worked fine.

 
What’s your advice to advertisers wanting to tap into social media?
There are a lot of lessons coming out of Wikia. It’s where we’re seeing communities being built around brands that are very intense. In my presentation, I’m going to talk about the Transformers community. It was created in anticipation of the movie. The community went completely bonkers over this. They built some 6,000 pages of content about the movie, the toys, every aspect of the franchise. What you’re seeing is, the traffic continues to grow even though the movie has come and gone. The franchise is benefiting from this kind of community engagement. For brands it takes authenticity that you can’t fake. What you have to recognize is that if you’re creating something that’s good — a good product or user experience — you’re going to have people who really get into it. There are communities out there and they don’t mind dealing with the companies creating that product. What they don’t want is to be pushed around. They don’t want a top-down approach. They don’t want you directly controlling your activity. They want to be heard and actively engaged.
 
Who’s doing a good job of this?
J.J. Abrams and Lost. They’ve been really good with seriously engaging their audience of hard-core fans, and turning them into evangelists who build things for the ordinary fans. Outside of the entertainment industry, I don’t know who is doing really innovative work yet.
 
Why is Wikia working on search?
We’ve seen a real concentration in search. Something like the top three firms handle 90 percent of search queries. It’s proprietary; it’s a black box. The search engines have taught us that it’s a mathematical formula and it’s neutral because it’s an algorithm. There’s a distancing from this being editorial commentary, but it is. If you search for Thomas Jefferson, Google will tell you these are the 10 most important things. That’s a completely non-transparent process. We have no idea how they’re compiling that. In fact, they go to great lengths to disguise how it is done. In contrast, if you go to Wikipedia and you want to know why it is the way it is, you can go to the history page and the discussion pages. You can contact the authors and ask them questions. It’s all done in public. My idea is to do that and make search as transparent and community controlled.
 
Does advertising need to change?
There are things in advertising that need to change. People need to think about more complicated and involved user engagement. We’re moving from an era of broadcast media to participatory media. It’s the same in advertising. Word of mouth is far more important than ever before. Influencing the passionate consumers is more important than before. In this environment, it’s getting harder to convince people with a mass blast of your brand image all the time. What’s powerful is to engage the early adopters and influencers who will go out in a peer-to-peer way to sell your brand. It’s easier to get called on your BS now. There’s a cute art project using the Wikipedia “citation needed” notation. There are some people in New York who are going around on billboards putting on “citation needed” stickers. Consumers can talk back now. You have to think twice about making some outrageous hyperbolic claim. Maybe it never worked, but it really doesn’t work now.