When it comes to companies concerned with managing their brand image online, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has some advice: “Make stuff that doesn’t suck.”
“More than ever before, people like to talk about stuff that sucks,” Wales told Fast Company following a recent talk at the Digital Hollywood conference in New York City. “There’s nothing to be done about it, except making a better product.”
Wales attended the conference to introduce his own better product: Wiki 2.0, the latest set of collaborative publishing tools for his for-profit venture Wikia. The site, essentially Wikipedia-without-limits, receives roughly 36 million monthly visitors, and now offers a slew of new and improved social features, from polls and top 10 lists to video content and achievement badges.
Wikia has also evolved into a unique online platform for brands, much different than traditional social media outlets. On company Facebook and Twitter pages, the brands control the content; on Wikia, that control is ceded to the public.
“It’s become this interesting opportunity where fans manage the brand,” Wales told audiences at Digital Hollywood. “They become hardcore super evangelists.”
He cites huge successes on the platform in the entertainment and gaming industries: Lost‘s Wikia (Lostpedia) boasts more than 6,000 articles and 150 million page views, and the Twilight and Halo: Reach pages are also incredibly popular. Major corporate brands such as Apple and Microsoft feature hundreds of articles, too.
Of course, Wikia’s platform isn’t universally applicable. It’s doubtful that Staples, say, will become a popular page. But Wales’ advice is relevant for any brand concerned with their online perception: Focus more on making good products and content, and less on trying to “manage” your brand image online. The latter will come with the former.
It’s a rule Wales has adopted when considering Wikipedia and its competitors.
“One of the questions I often get is: Who are your competitors?” he says. And the reply? “I haven’t the slightest idea. Are you competing with Facebook? Well, that never occurred to me. I want us to build stuff that I think is cool–that our fans think is cool. Maybe that makes me a better businessman in some ways, and worse in others, but I just don’t care.”
So how do you “make stuff that doesn’t suck?” With the same mindset as Steve Jobs, who told Nike CEO Mark Parker to “get rid of the crappy stuff.” Wales may not be quite as sharp-edged as the Apple CEO, but he does have the same lack of tolerance for corporate blather. “At Wikipedia, the usability group has done focus studies,” Wales says. “Most of what they came up with, I thought, was blindingly obvious.”
Wales’ two companies have grown tremendously: a new Wikia is now created every six minutes, and Wikipedia has grown to 398 million unique monthly visitors, up more than 30% on the previous year. That huge success certainly warrants this knock at one of Wikipedia’s biggest critics.
“When I go to speak at a university or high school, it’s completely insane how excited the kids are about Wikipedia,” Wales said. “I remember when I was in school, if they told us that the editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica was coming, we would’ve probably just killed ourselves.”