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How to shore up a common and yet costly gap in your brand story

New book Upstream highlights how to ensure success metrics are in line with your mission
Upstream Book Cover
A brand executive is responsible for the overall image and reputation of a company. That includes ensuring brand message continuity across all company-owned digital properties as well as the corporate Wikipedia article, an often overlooked and yet very influential Web site.

When people google a company, not only is the company’s Wikipedia article among the top search results, digital assistants, like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, rely on the Wikipedia articles to verbally answer the user’s questions.

And yet, some brand managers do not incorporate monitoring Wikipedia’s accuracy as part of their brand management strategy, failing to realize errors and inaccuracies on a Wikipedia article can have an impact on a brand’s perception.

“Wikipedia is perceived as a nuisance,” says Stella Yu, founder and CEO of StellaResults, a reputation management firm specializing in Wikipedia consulting. “They tend to put more of a focus on monitoring social media channels, and responding to negative sentiment through corporate Twitter or Facebook accounts. Ignoring misinformation on their Wikipedia article can be just as damaging to a brand’s reputation.”

This is an example of what author Dan Heath calls problem blindness in his new book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen. While perhaps seeing Wikipedia errors as a nuisance, executives often don’t see the direct correlation to a loss to their bottom line. That may be because the potential revenue decline may be gradual. Meanwhile, work to fix the errors would be a preventative, or upstream measure, compared to a reactive measure, like tackling an emergency head-on.

“What’s odd about upstream work is that, despite the enormous stakes, it’s often optional,” Heath writes. “With downstream activity - the rescues and responses - the work is demanded of us. A doctor can’t opt out of a heart surgery.”

Upstream provides a blueprint to measure the impact when hard analytics tied to ROI are hard to find. Here are three Upstream strategies for applying preventative measures to protect your brand.

1. Dealing with lack of ownership and uniting the right people

“To succeed in upstream thinking, you need to surround the problem. Meaning you need to attract all the right people who can address all the key dimensions of the issue,” Heath writes in Upstream.

That resonated with a Wikipedia challenge Yu faced when consulting for a Fortune 500 insurance company. Consumer confidence and employee retention were low following the 2008 Great Recession. Brand transformation was one of many priorities in the company’s turnaround strategy. The decades-old company’s Wikipedia story was skewed, heavily weighted on the 2008 economic crisis, with little mention of the previous decades of service. The brand management team needed a sustainable solution with combined low reputational risk with Wikipedia policy compliance.

The global insurance company surrounded the problem by rallying members from its branding, communications, media relations, advertising and archives teams to craft a more comprehensive historical story, Yu says.

“The team determined that proactively engaging with the Wikipedia community of volunteer editors and disclosing its intention to balance the company’s brand story, it would be a demonstration of the company’s change in business practices,” Yu says. “Over the course of a year, their upstream work paid off, culminating with a Wikipedia article that included 3,000 revised words.”

2. Assigning success metrics to the corporate mission

It’s not uncommon for the chief branding officer to be challenged on key performance indicators or ROI. What counts as success in upstream efforts is not always easy. And for that reason, Heath says in Upstream that people run the risk of celebrating “ghost victories,” a superficial success that cloaks mission failure.

“With downstream work, success can be wonderfully tangible, and that’s partly because it involves restoration,” Heath writes. “Downstream efforts restore the previous state. My ankle hurts. Can you make it stop?”

But with upstream efforts, Heath notes, we are forced to rely on approximations - quicker, simpler measures that we hope will correlate with long term success.

In the search for ways to measure the impact of a long-term project, you may establish short-term goals that in theory could lead to the success of the ultimate goal. But what’s really important in doing so is making sure the metrics are in line with the ultimate mission, like for brand managers maintaining continuity of a brand story across all digital properties, earned media, as well as the Wikipedia article.

Yu says there was reluctance by the insurance company initially to invest in efforts to monitor its Wikipedia article, because it was difficult to assign Wikipedia KPI’s related to improved brand perception.

“Since the insurance company kickstarted this brand strategy of establishing a rapport with the Wikipedia community 10 years ago, the Wikipedia editors have continued to monitor and respond to edits that are inaccurate or downright false without any prodding from the company,” Yu says. “That’s a mark of success.”

3. How to get early warning of a problem

In Upstream, Heath describes a story of the customer success group for Linkedin’s flagship product for recruiters back in 2010. That team’s mission was to keep customers happy with the product they’d bought. The subscription-based product sold very well, but the churn rate was high - 30%. Three out of 10 customers stopped using the product each year.

Eventually, the sales team stopped focusing on “saving accounts” at the end of a contract and started monitoring tool usage early on. If a customer wasn’t logging into the tool, the sales retention team recognized this as an early warning sign that the client wouldn’t renew.

“When you can foresee a problem, we have more maneuvering room to fix it,” Heath writes. “That’s why a key question bearing on upstream efforts is: How can you get early warning of the problem you’re trying to solve? Imagine a smoke detector that’s custom-tailored to your work.”

That’s what Wikipedia monitoring is all about, Yu says, noting if a section of your Wikipedia article starts to flare up with links from negative press, or worse - misinformation - you can take action. If they’re errors that can be proven, you can alert Wikipedia editors to correct the mistakes.

“A hands-off Wikipedia policy is an actual policy, but it’s also an irresponsible approach,” says Yu. “Because it leaves a gap in continuity between company-owned polished brand story and crowd-sourced inaccurate brand story on Wikipedia.”

About the Kevin Ferguson

Kevin is a brand and data storyteller, whose passion has grown out of two careers: as a journalist/video editor (creative side) and a digital marketer (analytical side). He is passionate about helping companies craft a compelling narrative with their data that explains what happened, why it was important and how it can be used to turn it into action.

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