Marketing via Wikipedia

    March 6, 2006

I’m sitting in an airline lounge at Dulles, having just finished a talk on new media to the annual gathering of US Army Public Affairs officers.

During the talk, I showed the Wikipedia entry for the US Army and for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, pointing out that the Army had an opportunity to ensure the content posted there was accurate. I also suggested that Army information not included on Wikipedia could be added.

Here at the airport, checking my feeds, I came upon an article by a PR blogger of whom I’d been unaware, Rohit Bhargava, who writes the “Influential Interactive Marketing” blog, “Reflections on creating compelling marketing, advertising & public relations online.” In the article, Bhargava reflects on a session he attended at the Search Engine Strategies conference at which one of the speakers told of introducing a Wikipedia entry dedicated to a proprietary platform and development environment for a visual programming language from National Instruments. The initial entry was 40 characters long.

Within 20 minutes, the post had been edited, and now has several pages of dense content on Wikipedia and appears highly on search results on Google for Labview. It is a great example of how marketers can jump start the creation of third party content that ends up being a wonderful selling and marketing tool – assuming you are able to release control and let the greater community take over.

True enough, and I applaud Jeff Watts from National Semiconductor for the effort. It also raised a red flag, though. First, the powers that be at Wikipedia could identify such an entry as a blatant attempt at marketing and remove it. (The term “podfading”) was removed after someone tried to enter it, even though it has entered the podcasting lexicon.) It’s also easy to trace the IP address of somebody adding or entering an item. That’s what happened to “podfather” Adam Curry when he tried to revise the podcasting entry, making him the target of some unkind publicity.

While I have no doubt some smart PR people will use the idea of new entries in Wikipedia as a guerrilla marketing tactic, I also have no doubt that some clumsy, unprofessional, brainless dolts will apply the same techniques more brutishly, resulting in a backlash and (as so often happens in our business) wind up having the rest of us painted with their brush.

It’s a good idea, but tread carefully if you try it. Make sure your entry adds value to Wikipedia readers, not just to your client.

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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.