The Press, September 2008

For a company to move from noun to verb is a mark of success on the Internet. Most of us ‘google’ these days when searching, and increasingly “I’ll Wikipedia it” is used to describe finding reference information online.

In many ways Wikipedia reaches the marketing ideal of achieving a balance between company success and customer satisfaction. They have done this by overcoming the natural fear of giving more control to customers. Could more businesses take a Wikipedia approach to your customers?

Wikipedia’s story is fascinating one. When I was growing up, my homework relied on the honoured volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica. My parents bought the full set from the classic hard-sell, door- to-door encyclopaedia salesman. We had a special cabinet for them in the corner of our lounge.

I didn’t actually use them that much, which was okay as Britannica weren’t really selling books, they were selling my parents something much more valuable - the confidence they had invested in our education.

The venerable volumes were produced by a single, 200 year old company with over 100 full-time editors and 4,000 expert contributors. Only the Bible ranked higher in authority.

It would have been hard to imagine a more difficult market to enter. Mainly competitors had tried and failed to challenge Brittanica. Until the Internet and Wikipedia.

The people at Brittannica must have laughed when it started. A pool of everyday people writing and editing entries for free trying to compete against their famous brand, army of expert writers and widespread sales channel. Surely it would be a disaster.

But Wikipedia has exploded. According to the Infotoday blog, the English language version of Wikipedia has over 800,000 articles and is larger than the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Microsoft’s electronic version Encarta combined.

It is one of the top 40 most visited sites in the world. With about 2.4 billion page views a month, Wikipedia reaches more people than the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,, Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune.

The Lockergnome website estimates that 7% of all web surfers read articles on Wikipedia every time they surf the internet. And it has spurned a whole category of ‘Wiki’ projects, from the Wikible (Bible) to Wookiepedia (Star Wars).

While there have been numerous debates about the accuracy of Wikipedia vs Brittannica, the former’s accuracy has been borne out in several studies. A remarkable achievement by thousands of individual writers spread around the world, unknown to each other. And it will just get better as more and more people become involved and can add their knowledge and check others entries.

Although a non-profit organisation, the rapid success of Wikipedia has some real lessons for any business. It says that you can hand some control to customers and still get a good result, that there is some wisdom in the collective.

“It is the customer who determines what a business is. For it is the customer, and he alone, who through being willing to pay for a good or service, converts economic resources into wealth, things into goods,” said the late business thinker Peter Drucker.

Intuitively we know how important the customer is to any business, but too often we take the opposite approach. We tend to make crucial decisions with little information from our customers – the features of the next product, the pricing approach and how it will be supported. Decisions are based on assumptions of what the customer wants.

What if you took a Wikipedia approach to your business – would it be as scary as we think? Given some sort of framework what would happen if customers had 90% of the say in product features, delivery model, pricing, support fees and so on? Would they just demand the impossible for $0?

That might sound like nightmare for many businesses, but what if you just took a little more of that approach? Trusted customers just a little more than you do now?

Wikipedia shows that if you put power in the customers’ hands you can get a good result. For many businesses giving the customers more control can be a sensible business decision, one that increases customer satisfaction and loyalty, impacting the bottom line.

American blogger Jason Kottke offers an excellent example. Kottke tells the story of a Manhattan donut vendor he saw letting customers make their own change when paying. While he lost a little revenue through dishonesty and poor mathematics, Kottke says the donut man’s output was double that of other vendors he watched.

As Kottke observes, “when an environment of trust is created, good things start happening. He can serve twice as many customers. People get their coffee in half the time. Due to this time saving, people become regulars. Regulars provide his business with stability, a good reputation, and with customers who have an interest in making correct change (to keep the line moving and keep him in business). Lots of customers who make correct change increase Ralph's profit margin.”

To some extent the donut man, and to a much greater extent Wikipedia, have achieved success by opening up to customers, giving them control and trusting them. A bit of ‘Wikiness’ could help any business improve.

Owen Scott is from consulting company Concentrate. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry.

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