Marketers still have a lot to learn about Internet communities


In this piece, our co-Founder and Global CEO, Nathan McDonald looks at the recent controversy around The North Face and Wikipedia and what marketers can learn from it about engaging communities online.

Those who love the outdoors tend to be community minded. They care about the environment and understand the natural world is a shared resource that we all need to take care of. With this audience in mind, it’s surprising that The North Face have tried to ‘hack’ Wikipedia, which is both a community and a shared resource, for the benefit of its own SEO. What’s not a surprise to anyone familiar with the internet is the strong reaction against this.

Here’s a recap: The North Face aimed to gain greater exposure on Google Image Search by updating Wikipedia images in various destination-related articles with their own pictures. The aim was for the brand’s images to appear at the top of Google Image Search results when consumers researched any of those locations. And it worked.

Ah, the dark arts of SEO, I hear you say. Those naughty black hat types will do anything to get a boost. But in this case, it was a well-known and respected global advertising agency, who were proud enough of the “hack” to make a case study video about it and share it with industry titles. Those watching the PR-puff might consider it a success at first glance, but upon interrogation, it really doesn’t stand up.

Wikipedia, and its sister site Wikimedia, are not niche communities. Wikipedia is the fifth most popular site in the world. This popularity and its huge global influence rests on the work of over 100,000 volunteer editors. People who give up their time in order to keep the rest of us informed and educated. Not only did this campaign disrupt their work, it made it harder. In the words of one outraged volunteer, the brand used Wikipedia’s openness against it.

All communities – whether online or not – have their own values, behavioural norms and in some cases, explicit rules. Marketers who don’t respect these rules and values can, rightly, expect to be treated harshly. We’ve seen this happen before. Sometimes it’s unintentional, where the rules of a particular culture, subculture or group are unwritten or at least not widely understood. For example, brands trying to use Reddit often come undone by diving into something they don’t understand, from hijacked brand AMAs (ask me anything) to attacks from former employees. But even platforms as ‘mainstream’ as Instagram can cause brands issues when they misread their audience, as Calvin Klein learned this week when it was accused of ‘queer baiting’.

The fact is, the internet has changed the rules of advertising. When TV ads were king, backlash was usually kept to conversations between friends, families and colleagues – very infrequently it would hit mass media like newspapers. Now every piece of marketing can be publicly held to account by millions of would-be consumers, in real time. And manipulating communities with a sole beneficiary – your brand – is hardly the way to win them over.

In this case, the rules of the community were very clear and The North Face knew it was violating Wikipedia’s policies. It’s been reported that the agency claimed one of the biggest obstacles of the campaign was updating the photos without attracting the attention of Wikipedia moderators. While some might argue all publicity is good publicity, The North Face could have made a genuine effort to provide value to the community, rather than trying to “hack” passionate volunteers.

Perhaps the brand could have supported Wikipedia’s mission to “empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content” by creating images of the destinations and donate them to the platform – along with some cash or volunteer time.

The North Face, to its credit, has apologized and pulled the campaign quickly – not all brands would have done the same. For marketers watching this unfold, the lessons are clear. Don’t use communities to boast, lie or manipulate, or make people’s lives more difficult for your own commercial gain. Don’t try and turn a community resource into a brand brochure.