NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The writer's room for the hit ABC show "Lost" was stumped. They were working on the final season (the last show airs May 23) and looking to make a reference to Canada -- except no one was exactly sure how they had done it in the past. After five seasons, countless characters and Gordian plotlines, minute details were largely, well, lost, and watching every episode wasn't a feasible solution. So what did they do?
"We looked it up on Lostpedia," explained Carlton Cuse, one of the show's creators. "We use Lostpedia a lot."
Lostpedia is one of the most active and vibrant sites on Wikia.com, Jimmy Wales' for-profit venture that is separate from his more well-known nonprofit crusade, Wikipedia. Wikia makes money by selling advertising and sponsorships and has already turned a profit, according to the company. Wikia aims to capitalize on the vast stores of so-called crowd-knowledge that animate much of the web these days. Much like the online encyclopedia, Wikia is entirely community-driven, with content contributed from any registered user on almost any topic, and it's monitored by the community as well. But unlike Wikipedia, the areas that sprout up on Wikia tend to focus on entertainment, such as "Lost" or "Harry Potter" or the video game "Halo," as well as lifestyle subjects like recipes and health. In a sense, it is a social network tailor-made for advertising and is seen by some marketers as a cleaner, more relevant alternative to other community gathering spots such as Facebook.
Mike Benson, exec VP-marketing at ABC, cited the difficulty in managing a brand when it is introduced into the ever-expanding and unpredictable social sphere. "At some point you have to let go, and at other points you have to reel it in, and it's easier to do that on Wikia than on Facebook," Mr. Benson said. "Wikia is a more self-regulating community."
That kind of self-regulation, where any member can add or edit articles to a specific community, is a hallmark of the wiki franchise. "As Wikipedia was becoming successful, I was thinking, this is really cool, and there's this whole participatory culture that's emerging that's more than people yelling at each other," Mr. Wales said in a recent interview. "So I thought, 'Let's see what we can do to build the rest of the library.'"
That "library" has become a unique resource for marketers. In the case of ABC, Lostpedia became a fan incubator for another network show, "Flash Forward," which also trades on the long-form narrative with complicated storylines. In many ways, the show appears to have been designed to be the heir apparent to "Lost."
"We helped out ABC by recruiting people from Lostpedia, as well as other fan communities for shows like 'House' and '24,' to start building out content around 'Flash Forward,'" said Bob Huseby, senior VP and publisher of Wikia.
Though some may see that as fan manipulation, Mr. Huseby said they are careful to not upset the existing fan base. "We seek out people who might be interested in contributing to a new community," he said. "And it's largely the new community that recruits new members. We don't build these communities -- we incubate them. It's wiki-spawning."
Other brands have found Wikia to be a great research tool when revising or reinventing existing franchises. Halopedia, which is focused on Microsoft's highly popular first-person shooter game "Halo," is perhaps Wikia's most intense and fanatical community, making it fertile ground for market research.
"Microsoft wanted to find out what it is about 'Halo' that fans really like," Mr. Huseby said of the gaming publisher's relationship with Wikia; Universal McCann managed the campaign. "Halo has branched off in a number of different directions from its original incarnation, and they were trying to update and evolve the franchise, but they wanted to keep certain core aspects of the game true to what the original fans liked about it." With that in mind, Wikia worked with Universal McCann to talk to the Halopedia community and unearth data on which features were essential to the franchise, such as what kind of weaponry was popular, which characters were important, even which battles and expansion packs were imperative.
"The Halo fans out there are the hardest of the hardcore, and they are the ones that are ravenous about details and characters and lore," said Russell Quinan, senior VP at Universal McCann. "It was a unique opportunity to allow the fans to manage the brand for you."
Mr. Quinan said the online media strategy for Halo involves both Facebook and Wikia. "On the Facebook side, it's about creating awareness, and on the Wikia side it's about evangelism -- you need both. And what's great about the evangelists is you're getting a lot of free media. It looks very promising so far."
Indeed, as marketers discover the beauty of a self-organizing and self-motivated evangelizing customer base, Wikia itself has become profitable, though the company declined to offer specific financial figures. "We eked out a profit last quarter, and we'll probably do the same this quarter," Mr. Wales said.
With $14 million in venture-capital funding (Amazon is an investor), 40 full-time employees, 600 million monthly page views, 25 million monthly visitors and 300,000 active users all contributing articles free, profitability is a likely bet.
The company has been expanding its offerings by building out its Answers wiki, which is a growing activity online, as well as its music wiki. It recently acquired Lyric Wiki, a site that indexes reliable music lyrics on almost any song, for an undisclosed sum late last year.