Technology

Tapping Wikis for Web Community-Building


Forget reader comments and message boards. Media outfits are warming to wikis to build a solid meeting ground for their Internet audiences

Anyone seeking the inside scoop on Bangkok ought to ask Sherry Ott. The 37-year-old former IT executive quit her job about six months ago and is using savings to travel around the world for a year.

Besides posting personal reflections on a blog, Ott shares observations on Asia, Africa, and other far-flung destinations on a site run by Executive Travel magazine. In a recent article, Ott recommended hotels, restaurants, and nightlife in the Thai capital.

American Express Publishing (AEP), owner of Executive Travel, put together the site in December to capture the expertise of its 133,983 readers. "These executive travelers are road warriors—they take 48 flights per year, on average," says Mark Stanich, chief marketing officer of AEP, a subsidiary of the American Express Company (AXP). "When they fly Singapore Air, they know exactly what seat to sit in, and they know in which cities you should stay in the boutique hotels and not the chains."

The magazine could have used any number of methods to tap that valuable knowledge base. Blogs, comment boxes, and other social networking tools let individual readers insert reviews, commentary, and even append photos and videos to a site.

Some outlets also offer discussion boards where readers can talk about specific topics. But Executive Travel opted for wikis, sites that let readers interact with each other—amending and adding to other people's work as though constructing a digital mosaic that in theory is more authoritative, comprehensive, and useful than a compilation of individual, discordant remarks—some of which can be hard to navigate, especially on discussion boards.

Community Service

The real selling point of a wiki for a conventional print magazine is that it lets readers build community. "This is the first time they have a way to talk to each other," says Stanich. AEP plans to create other wikis, possibly on topics including wine and golf that would complement other titles such as Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure Golf.

AEP's wiki is powered by Wetpaint, a service launched in June, 2006, with the aim of letting anyone create a free Web site where content can be easily added and modified. It's like the idea behind online encyclopedia Wikipedia, except that with Wetpaint, just about any person or group can wade into wikis. Wetpaint is more intuitive to use, designed expressly for consumers with little technical knowledge.

Wetpaint Chief Executive Ben Elowitz says the idea for the business came from a friend of the company who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. "There are lots of Web sites with clinical information out there, but not ones that address the human decisions, like should you extend treatment or spend time with family," Elowitz says. "We began to wonder, what would it take for ordinary people to participate in those conversations?"

The Best Pizza

Elowitz, who had been a co-founder of Blue Nile, an online retailer of fine jewelry, raised $5.25 million in October, 2005, from Trinity Ventures and Frazier Technology Ventures. By March, 2006, Wetpaint launched a handful of early test wikis before letting the public create their own three months later. In January, 2007, the company raised $9.5 million in additional funding from Accel Partners.

Since the June, 2006, launch, users have created more than 250,000 wikis on a range of topics, from dogs to the best pizza in New York City. Aside from AEP, other media companies have begun to partner with Wetpaint as well to create fan sites for specific television shows. Disney's (DIS) ABC network has created a wiki for its popular series Lost, while CBS (CBS) has launched wikis for Amazing Race, Jericho, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Similarly, magazine publisher Meredith (MDP) has introduced three wikis for its special interest titles, Scrapbooks, etc., Kitchen & Bath Ideas, and American Patchwork & Quilting. In quilting, particularly, readers are looking for a venue to share events.

The quilting magazine has fielded requests in the past from readers looking to list events on the Web site. "That would be a wonderful service, but a nightmare to update if something changes," says Jeff Myers, general manager for special interest media at Meredith. "We don't have the time or capacity to do that." But with Meredith's All People Quilt Wiki, readers can post their own events and make any necessary changes as they arise.

Brand Management

Although AEP and Meredith won't reveal the precise terms of the deals, the idea is to sell ads on the sites and then share the revenue with Wetpaint. Both publishers say advertisers have been receptive to the idea, especially since it lets them target advertising, such as city-specific restaurant ads on Executive Travel.

Wikis for readers can create pitfalls, of course. For one, they involve giving up some measure of control over content and can leave a brand's reputation at risk. "User-generated content is appealing and a little bit terrifying to traditional brand managers," says Wetpaint's Elowitz. "They have to learn how to give up control in order to take advantage of it."

But if Sherry Ott's polished and well-informed articles are any indication of the value of user-generated wiki content, the Executive Travel brand is in good hands. Ott has moved on to Vietnam, but if you're ever in Bangkok, she highly recommends the Peninsula hotel.

Rachael King is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in San Francisco.

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