Wikipedia Turns 10 -- Can Business Volunteerism Work?

Last Updated Jan 12, 2011 5:12 PM EST

Wikipedia has its tenth anniversary on Saturday. The organization gets by on about $20 million a year -- possible, in part, because there are only 50 employees. A few thousand volunteers do most of the writing and editing.

The concept of having unpaid users actual do work that a company would otherwise pay for has caught the imagination of businesses. Content mill and Internet registrar Demand Media just got SEC clearance for its initial public offering. One concern about Demand has been its reliance on Google to refer traffic to Demand's web sites. But there's another issue: getting and keeping enough of the free (or nearly so) help. Whether the subject is Demand or AOL, or even companies that expect to engage people through social networks by asking them to create commercials or other content, getting and keeping the volunteers could be difficult. Wikipedia's experience shows how challenging the task can be.

According to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia.org gets about 400 million visitors a month, which agrees with a November 2010 estimate by comScore:


Compete.com estimates the number at currently around 78 million a day.


Of that number, a tiny portion are active in editing and writing. According to the site WikiStats, which keeps statistics on Wikipedia, more than 8,000 new articles go up globally on Wikipedia every day.


There are 10 million to 12 million edits a month:


Between 18,000 and 20,000 new editors register each month. The number making 5 or more edits a month is around 90,000. Those making 100 or more edits a month is about 12,000:


With the number of edits and new articles a month, there's a huge amount of work but a relatively tiny percentage of the users willing to do it. Any company that wants to leverage unpaid help has to consider how to achieve the following:

  • Attract users willing to contribute.
  • Have the users perceive the experience as valuable to them.
  • Prevent contributing users from burning out.
  • Recruit enough contributing users to more than overcome the ones that leave.
  • Recognize which contributing users are most likely to become more active and entice them to do so.
Not easy, but necessary. However, businesses have a harder time, because consumers rarely identify with them as they might with some cause.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.