MediaPost Weekend: Wikipedia plays a significant role in generating awareness and providing information for many brands -- particularly media and entertainment brands -- and yet at this point in time, there is very little brands can do to influence that directly. How should Madison Avenue think about the role of Wikipedia?
Jimmy Wales: There are a few things. No. 1, we do strongly recommend that they not try to directly edit the pages. They can come and talk to the community -- treat the community with respect. But another thing that is useful is when they offer various assets under a free public license that we can use. For certain kinds of brands, under fair use, we can use a picture of “Darth Vader,” or what have you. That's easy enough for entertainment brands that are in a broader context, so fair use applies. But take a more conventional product -- we don't feel comfortable just taking a photo off of your Web site and using it, because it's probably not fair use. Take a car manufacturer, for example. Why wouldn't they put all their product photos under a free public license? It's that kind of thing -- in which you think, what does this community need to improve the entries, and can we supply that? And then leave it to their judgement. Just trust that the community will do the right thing with it.
MediaPost: What should brands not be thinking of doing with Wikipedia?
Wales: One of the problems is when brands have ethical lapses. They can get themselves into real trouble with the community. And they can get into real trouble with the press, if they are trying underhanded things for questionable PR purposes. It's much better to just be open and honest with us. For example, the history of a certain product -- just make it available and easier for us to use and we will.
Every example is going to be different, but for many brands, the hard truth is that your company or your product just isn't encyclopedic. That may be depressing to you, but not everything belongs in Wikipedia. We're not here as a product placement service, or to generate brand awareness. That is not our objective. On the other hand, many, many brands are relevant. We are very comprehensive and we are interested in covering the world.
MediaPost: Wikipedia Zero seems to be an interesting model for making brands relevant on Wikipedia, because you have brands -- telecommunications carriers -- sponsoring the cost of access for the community. And there is lots of goodwill in that. Are there other ways to leverage that? If you think about it, brands have historically underwritten the cost of accessing media content, and in some cases, bandwidth. Why wouldn't you do that in a bigger way?
Wales: We're open to ideas. But the key is that we don't want to have advertising driving it. You're not going to get Wikipedia on your mobile phone with banner ads on it. That's just not going to be our approach. On the other hand, finding ways where we can make it commercially viable for people, partly as good PR, partly as a sales tool, but that really works with the carriers, because they bring the data access to people. They are at that particular point. I'm not sure that works with any other category.
MediaPost: There was a great thesis championed by David Kenny, a former Madison Avenue guy who now runs The Weather Channel, that advertising could be a “service model.” And in some cases, service could be information. The carrier example is a good one, but couldn't there be other ways of doing it?
Wales: We're always interested in looking at new ideas.
MediaPost: You probably don't think about brands as much as our readers do, but what do you think is the one thing they just don't get about Wikipedia?
Wales: I actually do think about brands a fair amount. But you have to pull back and look at social media as a whole. I think that people are starting to get that, for some brands, having a million Facebook followers is a good thing. Or having a million Twitter followers. But for many brands, frankly, it's pointless, because your brand itself isn't something people want to talk about even though they may love the brand. I mean, I love Coca-Cola. I drink Coca-Cola. I would recommend it to someone if they have never tried it before -- although I think that's unlikely. But I don't want to talk about Coca-Cola. I have no interest in having a dialogue with my friends about Coca-Cola. In fact, if I do talk about Coca-Cola, it might not be about how delicious it is. It might be about how I'm concerned about obesity and nutrition. It's brands like this that I think are starting to reflect on what's the point of this.
So we've got millions of followers on Facebook -- so what? What are we going to do with that? The answer is not nothing, but it’s different than for other brands that are information dense and there's a lot to say about them. For example, “Game of Thrones” as a brand. Millions of people are talking about it. It's not a one-size-fits-all model. Some people should be content with the fact that the right thing for them to do is to advertise on social media. And they're not going to generate a conversation about their product, because nobody wants to talk about it.
MediaPost: On that note, what do you think the best way is for brands to think about the role of Wikia vs. Wikipedia, because Wikia represents more of an opportunity for them to influence the community directly?
Wales: Wikipedia and Wikia are two separate organizations. Wikipedia is a non-profit. For Wikia, what's interesting is that it does represent an opportunity for brands to speak directly to their most influential fans and to shape content on the wiki. And that’s proving very effective. But even then, if you go back to the example of Coca-Cola, nobody wants to hear a tweet from Coca-Cola, but some people are interested in Coca-Cola collectibles and lore and the history and all that -- so in a deeper, richer sense, there is a place for Coca-Cola. And that's true of a lot of other brands.