Wikipedia became the number one online encyclopedia and reference point several years ago. Some companies have realized the communication potential of this channel, however not all of them can avoid pitfalls. Launching and managing Wikipedia articles is not easy but worth it. IdeaBank asked acknowledged US Wikipedia expert William Beutler, CEO of digital agency Beutler Ink.
Wikipedia matters because it’s where everyone goes to find the facts about almost anything and everything. It’s basically an essential service of the internet, and has been for a long time. Also, it has a very close, symbiotic relationship with Google. Most of us use Google for search because we’ve had a good experience with it, and we’ve come to expect that it gives us good results. The same is true for Wikipedia: after you’ve done that search, you have to decide which link to click on. Wikipedia’s brand is trustworthy information, so we’re more likely to click on it than a website we haven’t heard of. This means if you’re thinking about a brand’s reputation or have some reason to care what the public knows about a subject, Wikipedia can be a very efficient place to disseminate information.
Wikipedia’s volunteer community is fairly cautious about which companies, organizations, or people it allows to have dedicated articles. This can be frustrating if you’re told “sorry, you don’t make the cut” but they’re right to be careful. If just anyone or anything could have an article, then it wouldn’t be as trustworthy—or prestigious—as it is. What’s more, Wikipedia editors don’t really want to decide what matters themselves, so they outsource this evaluation to professional media outlets: newspapers, magazines, even scholarly journals. So if there is not a Wikipedia article about your brand, but there are a lot of news articles written about you, then you should consider it. But if you’re just starting out and you don’t have a high profile, you won’t get very far on Wikipedia. It might seem like having an encyclopedia article is a good way to self-promote, but that’s putting the cart before the horse. Build your reputation through media coverage first, and then Wikipedia can be a place to make sure those stories are all in one place.
If there already is an article about your organization, you’ll have to decide whether it’s good enough as it is, or whether it’s missing critical information, or gets the facts wrong. If you think there’s enough room for improvement, it can’t hurt to post a request on the discussion page and ask volunteer editors to make changes—so long as you have quality sources to back it up.
A really useful answer here will be longer than I can give you in this answer—but this is still going to be a really long answer. Also, my knowledge is specific to the English Wikipedia, because that’s the one I’m most familiar with. Other languages may be more relaxed, where the English Wikipedia tends to be fairly strict in accordance with its high profile, but it’s really best to look at the guidelines for each language’s Wikipedia edition. I’m going to include links for the English version, and when you follow them, look to the sidebar on the left hand side to see if your language has an equivalent. (If it doesn’t? Then I would recommend asking a Wikipedia editor who is active with the project.)
Anyway the basics are this: you’ll need to find out if you qualify for one in the first place, you’ll want to educate yourself about how “conflict of interest” works on Wikipedia—and it can be different for different languages—and then you’ll need to learn how to write a decent article. Finally, you’ll want to learn about Wikipedia’s process for submitting a new article for review.
Taking each of these steps in order, the first thing you’ll want to do is closely examine the “Notability” guideline, which is a list of requirements that a topic must meet in order to be certain Wikipedia editors will allow an article to be created, or stay once one has been created. It’s a high bar, and in most cases it’s based on news coverage, as I mentioned earlier. You really want to have an overwhelming amount of coverage about your history, activities, and accomplishments. If you’re hoping to just barely make it over the bar, there’s a pretty good chance editors who haven’t heard of you will not extend the benefit of the doubt. And this is because they don’t like Wikipedia being used for promotional purposes. They really want Wikipedia to have only the articles that its guidelines suggest it needs.
Next, look up the guideline called “Conflict of interest” to understand the rules of engagement. On the English Wikipedia, they really discourage you from editing the public encyclopedia yourself, and editors much prefer you propose changes using discussion pages. While the rules don’t absolutely require you to avoid editing live articles, they do require you to say if you have a financial connection with the topic. If you try and evade this, and volunteer editors figure this out, both your account and your page may face consequences.
Writing a decent article is probably the most difficult part of all. Good Wikipedia articles are written in an even-handed, dispassionate voice. Wikipedia is no place for boasting, and if you try to list too many awards or get detailed, editors might deem your draft “promotional”—a big no-no. To get a sense of what you should include, start by looking at articles on similar topics around Wikipedia. But be careful, because even articles that seem well-developed might have issues only a Wikipedia editor would notice. Use it as a guide, but don’t be surprised if at some point a Wikipedia editor tells you that something you thought was perfectly OK doesn’t follow Wikipedia’s rules. (Some editions have an essay called “The perfect article” which can help you understand how Wikipedians think about what to put in an article.) The same goes for the sources you want to use. Look up the “Reliable sources” guideline and learn about how Wikipedians decide which publications they trust. You’ll also want to look up the “Manual of Style” for your language edition to make sure you’re using the right formatting. And finally, before you actually begin writing it, learn about Wikipedia’s markup code, which they call “Wikitext” or “Wikicode”. It’s similar to HTML and easier, too, but also does some things differently than you might expect.
If you’ve made it this far, now you get to put your judgment calls and effort to the test. If your language edition has an “Articles for creation” project, follow the instructions there. If yours does not, the safest thing to do is ask an active Wikipedia editor for assistance. Alternatively, you actually might go ahead and post the article yourself, and then when you go to create the discussion page, explain who you are and why you did what you did. As I said before, it’s best to avoid editing directly if it’s your own brand, but not every Wikipedia language edition thinks about that the same way. However, making sure editors understand if you have a financial connection is a universal rule across Wikipedia.
As you might expect, all of this is much easier said than done—and it took awhile for me to say it! It’s obviously quite challenging, and this is why there are specialists in the field, like my company, Beutler Ink. The content guidelines, the rules of engagement, and understanding how to work with Wikipedia editors is something that really takes a lot of experience to do well. That’s not to say you can’t be successful if you really throw yourself into the project and spend a lot of time getting up to speed before you try creating an article, or proposing changes to an existing one, but for most organizations it’s a lot more cost effective to find someone who’s done it before.
Well, I’ll tell you about my favorite project, and it’s one from a few years ago. In the U.S. there is a cable channel called C-SPAN which shows American audiences what is happening on the floor of Congress, in committee hearings, and other government or public affairs activities. It can be dreadfully boring, but it’s also a unique window into how the legislative branch operates, and is often parodied on Saturday Night Live. I’m proud to say I was once featured as an interview guest on an evening show—”Q&A with William Beutler“—where I was of course interviewed about Wikipedia. Around the same time, C-SPAN hired us to improve several articles about their programs and hosts, including the main article, “C-SPAN“. I really went all-out, and went through years of news reports to compile a definitive history of the network, and produced what I think is one of Wikipedia’s best articles. And other editors agreed: after a lengthy review process, it was judged a “Good Article” which is one of the highest designations any article can attain. Not every subject has enough history and sourcing to write an article with quite so much detail, but it’s very satisfying when we can help tell a story like that.
is the founder of Beutler Ink. As a volunteer Wikipedia editor of more than a decade, Mr. Beutler has played a leading role in fostering dialogue between the Wikipedia community and the PR industry, and is the author of a blog focusing on Wikimedia topics, The Wikipedian. He is also the creator of The Infinite Atlas Project, a multimedia work mapping the locations of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”, and a co-host of podcasts about Stanley Kubrick as well as other unconventional filmmakers. He is based in Washington, D.C.
Beutler Ink is a digital marketing agency specializing in Wikipedia engagement, digital and social listening, plus visual and web design. Current and past clients include Google, National Geographic, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Amazon Web Services. A fully remote company since its founding in 2013, Beutler Ink has more than 20 full-team members across 10 U.S. states.