WebShare weekend: Britannica initiative gets boost from TechCrunch2008-04-21
What a weekend.
It started quietly enough. I’ve been working with my client, Encyclopaedia Britannica, to prepare for the hard launch of its WebShare program, set for next Monday with the distribution of the official press release (to be accompanied, of course, by a social media version).
Tom Panelas, the director of Corporate Communications at Britannica, brought me in to help promote WebShare, which has two distinct purposes:
- Give free Britannica accounts to bloggers and other web publishers so they can use the site in their research, cite Britannica articles and provide selective access to Britannica through links in their posts to Britannica articles and widgets.
- Provide readers of these articles with access to Britannica articles without needing an account at all.
The program includes a variety of elements that strengthen the venerable encyclopedia’s first significant foray into the social media space. In addition to the linking program, there’s a blog, a Twitter account (to include a link of the day), widgets and “topic clusters,” collections of links to Britannica articles that relate to a current news story. For example, we put together a list of links that would be useful to anybody covering the Delta-Northwest airline merger the day that story broke.
Leading up to the launch, we’ve been quietly alerting people to the availability of the WebShare website and giving out some free accounts. Anybody visiting the site could register for a free account, as well. The primary targets of our outreach effort (Neville Hobson is helping me out with this) have been (and will continue to be) education-focused bloggers, library bloggers, and journalists. Many who live and work in these disciplines are restricted, right or wrong, from citing Wikipedia articles in their work, which led us to believe they would constitute a very interested group.
Some popular bloggers were also on my list, and on Friday evening, I went ahead and sent off a note to the first of these to Mike Arrington at TechCrunch. Mike reported on WebShare almost immediately, including some criticisms, and attracting over 100 comments (as of this writing). But positive or negative, Mike’s post opened the floodgates. Stories suddenly appeared in Mashable, C|Net, and some other top-flight blogs, as well as blogs written by librarians we had not yet contacted and scads of others. So far, 156 posts have been written about WebShare that link to the site; Technorati has assigned the site an authority of 80 and a rank of 110,846. Not bad for a site that had no links to it at all on Friday afternoon.
I’ve been archiving significant articles addressing the program on del.icio.us.
Tom and the folks at Britannica were prepared. They have received well over 1,000 registrations so far, and have been handling them all quickly. It’s a manual process, since each registration needs to be approved. We also put in work upfront to identify the inevitable criticisms Britannica would face:
- Britannica, with its 56,000 articles, can’t compete with Wikipedia, with over 100 million.
- Britannica’s business model is obsolete. The company must ultimately move to a wiki-based, open-source model.
- Despite the entry into social media, Britannica is still a one-way resource, not engaged in the conversation.
- WebShare is really just about getting lots of link love to boost Britannica’s visibility on Google.
The folks at Britannica are ready for these, and will be using the blog on the WebShare site to address these issues. The company’s president, Jorge Cauz, will be doing interviews with some bloggers, as well. It’s also nice that some comments—and some posts—take issue with these arguments and applaud Britannica’s efforts. (I was delighted to see my friend Brian Solis lauding the program, even though he had no idea I was working on it). And Tom has been jumping in as well, participating in some of the comment threads. (Tom, I’m sure, is exercising some restraint to avoid correcting people who are just wrong, like the one blogger who said that the company uses the old spelling of encyclopaedia in order to “sound more authoritative.” In fact, that’s been the spelling of the company’s name since it was founded in 1768.)
Meanwhile, I’ve spent much of my weekend identifying new posts and making recommendations about which ones should be addressed by a comment and which by a follow-up post on the Britannica site. A few follow-up posts will appear over the next few days.
A couple of key observations come out of the weekend experience:
- The A-listers count. Regardless of how much people say they trust friends, family members, and participants in their networks, people like Mike Arrington can still create a huge amount of awareness and generate a lot of buzz.
- It makes sense for companies to start small with initiatives in mind, but it pays to get the first bits right before moving on to others.
- If you’re going to do social media, do it. Rather than simply roll out the linking program, Britannica was very agreeable to adding dimensions of participation to the mix, including the blog and the Twitter account. This provides a platform for listening to feedback and participating in a conversation about the initiative, and maybe even tweaking it where it makes sense.
I’ll be back with more on the WebShare program as it rolls along.