A couple of days ago I spent some time talking with the good people at Fenton Communication who were selected to help the Wikimedia Foundation in the Credibility Campaign. The purpose of this campaign relates somewhat to a post I made in July when I pointed out that very few people actually know that Wikipedia doesn’t have ads, is a non-profit, etc. We, the Wikimedia community, have not really done a good job so far of telling people who we are and what we stand for. That’s where people like Fenton come in.
The phrase for this in marketing speak is apparently “storytelling”.
We need to learn the right way to explain ourselves succinctly and effectively in order to attract new editors to the projects, improve our public image and increase the likelihood of donations. So, I thought I’d repeat here a couple of things that I thought were important enough to tell them.
One of the most interesting questions they asked was “What would you do if Wikipedia wasn’t there?” I took this to mean if WP suddenly disappeared overnight and no one had any backup copies. I believe that we would scream at the gods in anguish that our work had gone but then we would all sit down and *do it all again*. And we would do it better, learning from mistakes we’d made before. Moreover, money would come flooding in from people and organisations that had grown rely on Wikipedia and accepted that it was the natural order of things that anyone in the world could and should be able to satisfy their insatiable desire to know how many words contain a ‘q’ not followed by a ‘u’.
I bet that if Wikipedia went offline tomorrow due to some catastrophe there would be a $50 million cheque on the WMF’s doorstep within a fortnight. So, assuming now that Wikipedia is not going to disappear tomorrow the task is to take that idea and turn a disaster story it into a positive fundraising strategy.
Another interesting thing that came up was about people. Individual people. All of the measures we have used in discussing the successes of the Wikimedia movement have been largely quantitative – x number of articles, y number of images, z number of languages and a top-5 website. All very impressive but, well, not very likely to make me want to give money. The Wikimedia community needs to be able to tell the stories of the individuals who we’ve helped and to tell our own stories of why we contribute. There needs to be a face to the abstract concept of “sum of all human knowledge” and for “for free” and definitely for “in your own language”. One of the best (only?) forms of this kind of story I’ve seen to do with Wikipedia was the 5 poster series by Mike Perez for a school assignment.
[“the Art Historian” – I edit Wikipedia campaign, 2008]
Put it another way, when you see advertisements on TV for famine relief projects they might mention a statistic or two but they always ALWAYS focus in on an individual – they personalise the story. That way, when you donate, you’re not donating to a statistic you’re donating to that particular person. That’s how “child sponsorship” works to keep people giving each month – you feel like your owe that particular child a regular payment.
Finally, here are a four quotable quotes that, whenever I do any media interviews about Wikipedia, I try and get in (and then elaborate if the interviewer wishes). These four “here’s some I prepared earlier” phrases go well because it’s hard to get complex ideas across quickly in an interview when there is a need to balance “being entertaining” with “being factual” in a very limited timeframe.
I first tried that out at the Berlin Chapters meeting and it went well then, I’ve since re-used it many times. It gets across two things that are usually very difficult to summarise: that there is more to Wikimedia than just Wikipedia (just like that there is more to the Red Cross than just blood donation); and that there is a global network of chapters that perform local services and fundraising in aid of a greater cause. 
2) “People who like sausages and the law shouldn’t see either being made – the same is true for encyclopedias. It’s a messy process but the end result is good.”
This is of course a bastardisation of the famous quote misattributed to Otto von Bismark. I’ve actually been quoted in the newspaper (Sydney Morning Herald here or Melbourne Age here) with this one too. It is a quick answer to the common media question along the lines of “but don’t you have editorial fights about things? Is it authoritative?” I like to point out that you can bet your bottom dollar that Britannica and any other encyclopedia has lengthy and heated editorial debates too. We just have ours in public and we think that’s an important thing to do, to encourage people to think of ideas as contested and contestable.
3) “Knowledge wants to be free. Knowledge also wants to be expensive.”
This is a well known quote in the free culture movement and with good reason. It succinctly sums up the tension between cost and liberty and is a good lead-in to describe that by “free culture” we mean “free” in two ways – gratis and libre. It is also a good way to raise the point that any donations are welcome.
4) “Wikipedia works in practice, not in theory”.
This is another well know wiki-quote that comes from the famous essay “Raul’s Laws” (although it is edited down from the original) and is known as the “Zeroth law of Wikipedia”. I actually used it as the closing sentence to my thesis – ironic really since I had just spent the preceding 100 pages trying to explain the theory. This quote is a good one in interviews because it’s both whimsical and also profound. It breaks through attempts to pigeonhole Wikipedia and asks you to accept it for what it is – something that has never happened before, refuses categorisation and doesn’t need anyone’s permission or theoretical model to exist.
And that gets to the real heart of it for me – permission. This, I think, is why I love Wikipedia. Because it showed me how I don’t need to seek permission to learn nor seek permission to create: Wikipedia gave me agency in my own culture.
 Whereas instead your money is actually going into a common fund for the whole project. What, you didn’t think that the child that you sponsor and get letters from is getting your money directly did you? If that were the case then what would happen to the children whos sponsor has stopped (as must happen now and then) – does the aid organisation throw them out? No. The letters are personal but the money is not. This is not disingenuous, it’s just good marketing.
 If you do use this quote yourself be careful NOT to say “Wikipedia is the Red Cross of knowledge” – that could be considered as trading off the reputation of another organisation rather than simply making a comparison. Apparently Rolls Royce, Rolex, etc. spend quite a lot of money chasing down small companies to stop them marketing themselves as “the Rolls Royce of plumbers” or “The Rolex of electricians”!