Do You Understand Why People Use Your Services?

The Wikimedia Foundation recently conducted its first-ever wide-scale multilanguage survey of its users. The foundation’s approach to analyzing the ways people use Wikipedia might yield a few insights for associations looking to boost their own tech offerings.

The Wikimedia Foundation has been in the news quite heavily over the past few days about something that was basically out of their control.

Without even a shoutout in the foundation’s general direction, YouTube’s CEO announced on one of the most prominent stages in the world, South by Southwest, that the Alphabet-owned company would start putting Wikipedia results next to YouTube videos espousing conspiracy theories.

Wikimedia had a heckuva response to this whole state of affairs, putting up a series of comments on Twitter contextualizing the issues raised, along with Wikipedia’s stance on verifying information. It’s a master class in how to respond to something on social media—one that put the nonprofit in a fresh light in terms of its role as a truth-teller in the internet age.

While that story is fascinating, it perhaps obscures another story about the foundation that association pros might find more interesting: Last week, Wikimedia released an in-depth study into why, exactly, people around the world use its service. The nonprofit revealed that it took them 16 years to build the capacity to properly ask the question to most of its users, hampered by Wikipedia’s sheer scale. While the service had previously polled only its English users in 2016 (even going so far as to get the survey peer reviewed), it expanded the survey to 14 languages last year, the first time it’s ever done that.

Per the foundation’s blog post, published on Friday:

Starting in 2015, the Wikimedia Analytics team made the storage and analysis of webrequest logs possible. These logs, which are stored for 90 days, provide an opportunity for performing deeper analyses of reader behavior. However, analyzing actions can be difficult on a site at Wikipedia’s scale. Every second, we can easily receive 150,000 requests performed by readers when loading a webpage. Without knowing what kind of questions we want to answer or what reader characteristics we are interested in, the analysis of webrequest logs resembles the search for a needle in the haystack.

Eventually, the foundation was able to properly poll its readers about their habits by using a tool called QuickSurveys, which allowed them to conduct polls of its readers at scale and then use those polls to better understand the audience it had coming in.

So what did Wikimedia find? While motivations sometimes varied among the 14 languages the survey covered (the Hindi-language service was a notable outlier in many cases), the findings highlighted a desire for intrinsic learning or understanding a phenomenon in the media, an existing familiarity with the topics that were being read, and a slightly lower interest in current events and school assignments driving Wikipedia use than one might expect.

“Wikipedia is a unique place on the internet where people can dive into content and read and learn, just for the purpose of learning and without interruption,” study authors Florian Lemmerich, Bob West, and Leila Zia write in the blog post. “It is important for further content and product development to cherish this motivator and acknowledge the needs of the users to learn for the sake of learning.”

The survey—covering such widely used languages as Chinese, German, and Spanish, along with English—highlights just how important Wikipedia is in shaping our viewpoints and opinions of the world.

This data will come in handy for Wikimedia as a flood of new users watching conspiracy videos get confronted with a stoic, fact-based take on a complicated issue.

Fortunately, most associations have an easier job, due to working on a smaller scale than Wikipedia and because they’re not stuck with the wide array of stakeholders that Wikimedia is, one that makes even a modest redesign a challenge.

But there is something important to be taken from this research for associations, and that’s the importance of data. Wikipedia, which was basically a massive success right out of the gate, now has something it can react to in different markets and can use to promote certain kinds of content on its various sites. It can also encourage its best editors to put their effort into some parts of the encyclopedia over others.

And all these things go beyond the mere question of how much traffic it can drum up. The foundation can target their offerings geographically. They get closer to an ROI question—it can drive donations with this information. ROI on an encyclopedia edited by the masses? Yep, totally possible.

Associations, likewise, are looking for data points like these to drive forth their own digital offerings so they can get to the root of offering a great experience to their members—and potentially, of course, more revenue.

Maybe your questions won’t be the same as the ones asked of Wikipedia readers. But you won’t know the answers to those questions unless you ask.

(photo by Michael Mandiberg/via Wikimedia Foundation)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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