Monday, January 18, 2016

Happy Birthday to a Value Creator

Happy birthday Wikipedia!  January 15 marked the 15th birthday of Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that is created by its users. 

I don’t know about you, but I often use Wikipedia for a quick background on a subject and to identify the in-depth references that I need for further research.  The site is easy to use and often very helpful.  Is it a peer-reviewed authoritative source with thoroughly vetted information? No.  But when I want a quick insight to a topic or issue, it is a great place to start.

Wikipedia has only been around for 15 years, but it is the 7th most visited site on the web.  It beats out social media giants Twitter and LinkedIn.  And it beats out the online sales giant, ebay.  What makes it so popular?  I believe it is because it is because Wikipedia understands its customers and has created a platform that brings value to them.


The concept of an encyclopedia has been around as long as there have been books and reference libraries.  The purpose of the encyclopedia was to combine the information from multiple references into one place.  Before computers, this was done through books.  I can remember using our family’s copy of the World Book Encyclopaedia while doing homework as a teenager.  But these multi-volume sets of books were cumbersome and expensive.  When Then computers came along the encyclopedias were turned into programs, the most notable being Microsoft’s Encarta.  Today most, if not all, encyclopedia companies no longer offer a print version.

The internet changed the way many people assimilate information.  They wanted immediate access to short summaries of current information on every topic under the sun.  And then if they are interested, they would dig deeper into a topic.  This sounds like an opportunity for encyclopedias, yet Microsoft shut Encarta, down several years ago.  Just taking the old encyclopedia model and putting it online did not create a lot of value for potential customers.

The Customer Value of Information

When considering the value of information, I want to segment the consumers of information into three groups.  The first group is the academic, researcher or professional who needs authoritative information about specific topics to do their work effectively.  The second group is the student who needs authoritative information on many topics to complete their assignments. The third group is the consumer or hobbyist who wants to quickly get the background on a topic in order to answer a question. 

The first group were the people who wrote the print versions of encyclopedias, but seldom used them.  They were already experts with far more knowledge and information in their fields of interest than could be summarized in an encyclopedia article.  Their interest in encyclopedias was the prestige or pay of writing content.

The second group used the encyclopedia when they had to get their information for their assignments.   Rather than hours in a library, they could get what they needed in a few minutes from the encyclopedia. They had no intrinsic love for encyclopedias; they were just an easy source of information.  As books and information because available online, the search engine browser replaced the encyclopedia for many students.

Which brings us to the third group.  Most people are curious.  Sit down with neighbors and friends for a few hours and you will likely hear dozens of topics discussed.  The ability to quickly find out about a topic is very enticing to many people.  But the key is “quick.” With our short attention spans and busy schedules, most people do not want to go to the library a buy a book for every question they have ever had.  They just want an overview.   

Here was the opening for Wikipedia.  While encyclopedias have always been able to provide overview information, most of us didn’t want to carry the 24 volume set around everywhere we went.  The search engine on the internet at first seemed like the answer, but we soon found that it often was taking us to sites that were trying to sell their products or philosophy and we had to sign up to get the information.  We didn’t want a sales pitch; we just wanted an answer to the question.
The value of Wikipedia to these people is that it is a free and easy source of basic information.  Wikipedia further added to the value by letting the readers enhance or contribute to a topic.  They have not taken an elitist attitude that restricts contribution to only an enlightened few.  This allows everyone to share what they know and keep the information current.  The user not only can get the information they need, they can help others learn. 

Lessons from Wikipedia

There are some lessons in the Wikipedia story about creating customer value that may be helpful for your products and services:
  • Segment your customer base – different users have very different needs. The academics don’t use Wikipedia for research because they have different needs, and that is OK.  Wikipedia is not trying to be all things to all people.

  • Easy access to information – when people have a question, they want the answer or at least a high level perspective on the answer quickly and concisely.  If you make it hard to get the information, they will go somewhere else where it is easier.  If you turn the information into a sales pitch they will suspect your motives and your information.

  • Keep your message simple – you are an expert in your field or industry and you want to share that expertise, but most people don’t have the same interest or passion.  Make it easy for the casual user to get what they want.  Then if they are interested, lead them into a “deeper dive.”

So Happy Birthday Wikipedia.  Thanks for the information and thanks for the example of value creation.

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