Storytelling

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.[1]

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.

1) “What the Red Cross is to health and emergency preparedness, Wikimedia is to knowledge and education – Global. Neutral. Free.

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]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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”!

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8 Responses to Storytelling

  1. Lars Aronsson says:

    Donations of money are necessary, but not what Wikipedia is about. We’d fool ourselves if we tried to “sell” the content of Wikipedia, like the Red Cross can sell “food and education for one child” in return for a donation. This is the core of our storytelling.

    The first of your four points suggests that if people give money, knowledge will come out. That is easy to believe, but not correct. If people give money (which they should), what comes out is a platform or container where knowledge can be accumulated.

    But somebody also has to give that information and knowledge. Just as much as money, we need buy-in from knowledge institutions such as museums (GLAM), schools, universities, and journalists/media. If they want Wikipedia to contain complete and accurate coverage of bronze age weaponry, they better submit the photos and write the articles. It’s not the wikipedians that will do this in return for money donations. This is very different from the Red Cross, and most people would find this difficult to understand. If they pay, somebody should write those articles, right? That’s how it works for other things they pay for.

    This is what we need to teach the world: If you know something, it’s a moral obligation to share that knowledge, using Wikipedia (and thus, free licenses) as a platform. To just give money is not enough, that will only keep the platform running (bad mix of metaphors: platforms should lay still, trains should run). People who give knowledge stand above those who only give money.

    • Liam Wyatt says:

      oh yes, I completely agree. Could you suggest a phrasing that better expresses this factor?
      I think that as much as anyone I have earned my credibility in terms of encouraging buy-in from museums etc. – so don’t worry, I definitely am conscious of the need for partnerships and access to content just as much as (more than!) money. I suppose this is why I put “increase the likelihood of donations” as the third thing on the list of reasons for undertaking this campaign but maybe I didn’t make this point strongly enough.

      • Lars Aronsson says:

        I did some math and found out that a donation of 1 euro will keep Wikipedia running for 5 seconds. (There are 31.5 million seconds in a year, and the WMF budget for 2009-2010 is $9.4 million = €6.4 million.) In those 5 seconds, 20 articles are edited and 20,000 articles are viewed. It should be clear that 1 euro doesn’t pay any salary for 20 people who edit an article each. Some edits are just fixing a spelling error, but some edits represent hours of background reseearch at the library.

        Translated to Australian dollars: The budget is 10.8 million AUD. A donation of 1 AUD keeps Wikipedia running for 3 seconds, in which time 12 edits and 12,000 page views are done.

        The tough part is this: If a person donates 10 AUD, which enables 120,000 page views (all of Wikipedia for 30 seconds), why should they increase that to 100 AUD and pay for 1.2 million page views (5 minutes)? Can anybody understand what 1.2 million page views are?

      • Sage Ross says:

        You make an excellent point about scale. It’s hard anyone to understand what a million page views is. But 200 or 2000 edits are in the range of tangibility. Better yet, translate edits into articles. There are 18.56 edits per article, on average. Thus, €100 ≈ 100 new articles.

  2. Tgr says:

    “Wikipedia works in theory, not in practice”

    Don’t you mean works in practice, not in theory?

  3. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that the “I [edit] Wikipedia” hit the nail right on the head.

  4. Mike Peel says:

    I also talked to Fenton Communication, and was also asked “What would you do if Wikipedia wasn’t there?” My response was: if Wikipedia is no more (as in, the content’s gone), then a large fraction of the internet must have been wiped out – in which case I’d probably have much bigger problems to worry about…

    That was just focusing on the content: there is also the Wikimedia community, which is something that’s far more fragile. If wikipedia.org stopped working, then you could imagine the content being distributed amongst other sites for further development – which would fragment the community. The same could happen if major forks of the content are made – even if wikipedia.org continues to exist.

    I really like the Wikipedia advert – are these on Wikimedia Commons somewhere?

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