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Corporate wikis offer close contact that could improve advertising

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In the last few years, corporate wikis have become an online means for companies to keep track of what's going on internally. But can they help b-to-b companies improve their marketing communications?

A growing number of b-to-b marketers that have launched them think so.

"Wikis will start to affect advertising in a positive way and help us identify constituents we want to touch," said Rod Smith, VP-Internet emerging technology at IBM Corp. Wikis can "help us position a new product and can provide good intelligence as we segment our advertising."

Distinct from sites like Wikipedia—a free, online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute information after creating an account—corporate wikis, which may include additional features such as contact management, can be completely closed to the public.

Opening up IBM's wikis to customers "would be a great way to engage folks in our ecosystem about a new ad campaign before spending a dollar," Smith said. "The hardest part of communications is to explain a new product, and sometimes we get too technical. But wikis allow nontechnical folks to talk about what their expectations are for a new product. You can feed off that from a marketing and advertising perspective."

Smith said people whuse wikis still comprise a relatively small universe, but that limited audience plays into the strength of niche markets.

"As wikis take off, I need to ask people in our markets: How can I engage you [about a new campaign] and how does that translate into product features that can touch those markets?" Smith said.

While stressing that IBM's wikis have not yet had a "huge impact" on its ad budget, Smith said that because the next generation of decision-makers will be increasingly comfortable with Web 2.0 tools, marketers are likely to re-evaluate how wikis fit into their corporate strategies.

Although requiring a password for people to engage with corporate wikis may reduce response rates, it is most likely the best way for marketers to protect themselves against digital vandalism, a risk companies take when opening their wiki to the outside world.

Xerox Corp. is also grappling with how to make a closer connection between wikis and advertising, said Barbara Basney, director of global advertising.

"It's a new tool that can be built into both advertising and marketing communications," she said. "I look at it as being integrated with existing campaigns and not as a standalone."

Although Xerox has just started to talk about using wikis as advertising tools, Basney said they could conceivably be part of the company's "Frugal Color" integrated ad campaign. The campaign, which debuted in April, pokes fun at office life while relaying the message that Xerox provides affordable color copiers.

"It may be asking people to post their own humorous comments about office life, which gives them entertainment value but also a destination," Basney said. "The more time people can spend interacting with your brand the more you can move the needle on perceptions of the brand."

Wiki evangelists say corporate wikis are bound to influence b-to-b marketers' creative and, perhaps most important, their ad budgets.

"The cost of setting up social media to pull buyers in is on an order of magnitude cheaper than the CRM and blast marketing that have been over-invested," said Ross Mayfield, CEO and co-founder of SocialText Inc., an enterprise social software company. "It's no longer about impressions you make but who you impress." B-to-b companies, he added, "have an opportunity to build a 'Wikipedia' about their industry" and invite participants "who are highly engaged in that subject matter, which is different from someone casually browsing around your Web site."

Media sites get wikis

Wikis are also being set up by media companies looking for an additional source of revenue. Forbes.com in late April debuted a beta version of Corporate Org Chart Wiki. The collaborative Web application invites people to contribute what they know about company organizational charts. Since its launch, the wiki has accumulated about 8,500 company charts with employee data.

Corporate Org Chart Wiki includes Forbes.com run-of-site ads from such marketers as Dell Inc., Microsoft Corp., StartupNation and Visa USA. With the site about to complete its beta phase, Forbes.com salespeople have started to approach customers about buying ad space specifically on the Corporate Org Chart Wiki, said Jim Spanfeller, president-CEO of Forbes.com. "We're talking fervently to folks who might sponsor the idea," he said. "Our general attitude is if you create Web 2.0 content, you create something useful for a specific group of individuals, and that makes monetizing things a lot easier."

Once the beta phase ends, Spanfeller added, Forbes.com will require a password for people to contribute to the free Corporate Org Chart Wiki.

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