We’ve all been reading about wikis for a few years now. A wiki is a collaborative web site that allows people to make changes to a common document. The most famous and successful wiki is Wikipedia [www.wikipedia.org], which is a global encyclopedia on almost every imaginable topic – more than three million articles in English alone.
In 2006, the CIA and fifteen other agencies in the intelligence and security community launched Intellipedia, an internal wiki to share information. Similarly, the State Department, as part of its public diplomacy efforts, created Diplopedia.
There are lots of uses of wikis in government, which I’ll explore another time. But I want to focus on an unusual use – marketing.
While we don’t often admit it, many governments engage in what looks like marketing efforts. Tourism promotion bureaus and, more generally, economic development offices do a lot of marketing to encourage people to come to their location. Health departments engage in a form of marketing when they encourage residents to exercise and follow other patterns for good health. Parks departments try to encourage the public to take advantage of the public recreational opportunities they provide, which also looks like marketing.
What all these efforts usually have in common is that they approach the development of their marketing messages in a traditional way. They sit down together, come up with what they think is the best message and then blast that message out in a variety of ways, hoping for the best.
They may conduct a survey to find out what people want to hear, but usually they can’t afford to do so. Surveys, though, too start out with the view of the people who design them – much like the way the marketing materials are started. It’s very much an internal effort.
There have been a small number of attempts to do things differently. For example, the major developer of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, encourages people to tell them why they love the place. See http://www.welovesteamboat.com/. You can send videos, pictures and stories for a chance to win up to $10,000. This helps the developer to identify the right message.
The theory behind this approach is that your residents, your customers – anyone whom you are aiming your marketing message at – are the people who can best tell you what makes a difference to themselves. And this is where wikis come into the picture.
Instead of just going from the marketing message straight to its delivery on a large scale, why not try to use a public wiki to refine and modify that message so it says what they want to hear. This is as simple as posting the marketing materials you’ve developed and letting the public change them.
If opening a wiki to anyone seems too adventurous, then maybe send invitations to a particular part of the public. For example, in economic development, ask the businesses that came to your area to go to the wiki. Ask people who actually came to your area as tourists to write what they would tell others to encourage them to come. Get people who have gone hiking on your trails to add to the description of how wonderful your parks are.
In case you’re worried that a public wiki could be defaced, it’s worth noting that most wiki software provides for various controls. Even Wikipedia has its editors and controls to prevent things from getting out of hand. But they seldom do. Most people are pretty responsible and other users will help police the website.
And the cost of doing this? Very little. There are several good wiki software packages available on the Internet that are free, including the one that Wikipedia uses. Give it a try – you may be both surprised and pleased by what people tell you are the reasons they use your public services.
Norm Jacknis firstname.lastname@example.org November 16, 2009
PS. For more information about Diplopedia, see http://www.state.gov/m/irm/ediplomacy/115847.htm