In today’s age, product leaders need to navigate the delicate task of creating and managing user perception. In the summer of 2021, my team and I set out to build a modern, open, permissionless, and free knowledge platform for internal use at a large, multi-national real estate organization. We essentially deployed a company-wide version of Wikipedia built on open-source technologies that freed us from legacy tools (like SharePoint) and supported user contributions and innovative solutions to meet a wide range of business needs.
The Wiki Standard.
As you probably already know, Wikipedia is a free, open-source online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, making it a collaborative platform for knowledge sharing. It is constantly updated and improved by its community of volunteers, making it a reliable source of information that gets better over time. We wanted to bring this same approach to our organization, recognizing that knowledge sharing is a social endeavor rather than a technical one.
What’s in a name?
When creating a product, it’s essential to have a unique and memorable name. We aimed for a name that was short, sparked curiosity, and had a playful tone. We gathered a group of users and brainstormed different options, eventually settling on a name that was a play on words related to our company mascot, as well as hinting toward the type of culture we were trying to support. An initial search on the internet showed that the name was unlike any existing brand, so we moved forward with our campaign.
The name was quickly adopted and started to permeate into our company’s vernacular. However, it wasn’t long after we did a beta launch that a few early users began to search the term on the internet. As Google and Bing’s search algorithms go, the recent spike in queries produced new search results that weren’t available during the initial brand research conducted by our product team. One of those results was from Urban Dictionary, where one user had defined our product’s name as a lewd, NSFW term. Within a day, Urban Dictionary quickly became the top search item for our new product name and soon caught the concern of several curious employees.
The threat of a potential backlash from an offensive Urban Dictionary definition to an up-and-coming product could easily result in a major showstopper. So, what is a lean and humble product team to do in a situation like this? I’ll give you a hint… A potential full re-brand.
It all sounds simple enough. - Just change the name, create a new logo, and we’re good to go, right? Wrong.
The phrase that was our product’s name existed in far more places than just the masthead of our app. It was noted hundreds of times directly in the content of the wiki pages in the app itself, in databases (both shared and external), in product portfolio tools, DNS records, source code, etc. Simply put, changing the name would call for a re-factor of the entire codebase AND all the associated marketing and communications that went along with the project. We planned out all the work that would be needed to make these changes and estimated them as roughly a 45+ day endeavor, a huge strain on time and resources.
In case you’re not already familiar, Urban Dictionary is a crowdsourced online dictionary of slang words and phrases. It defines various slang terms and colloquial language not found in traditional dictionaries. While Urban Dictionary is not considered a credible source by most academic communities, it may be referenced loosely in popular culture.
Our team considered the Urban Dictionary definition as an existential risk to the successful adoption of our product brand in a company with a deep-rooted, conservative culture. We needed to get ahead of employee rumor mills and negative attention. We evaluated several options from expediting the rebranding efforts to discrediting Urban Dictionary as a reputable source, to ignoring the threat and doing nothing. We realized that the best strategy was to accept that modern search engines and sites like Urban Dictionary are mainstays and therefore we needed to have a strategy to influence external, crowdsourced sites to promote the type of image we wanted for our internal product brand.
Dealing with adversity.
After planning and prioritizing the 45+ days of backlog items needed to start a potential rebranding, I started to think that there had to be a better way. Not only did I view this rebranding as a monumental waste of time, but I was also proud of what we had built and didn’t like the idea of having to make such drastic changes just because some random person on the internet decided to create a NSFW definition for some laughs.
I popped open a browser, navigated to Urban Dictionary, and pulled up the definition for our product’s name. This time, I had noticed something that I had not previously connected the dots on… there were only two “likes” associated with the definition - not very many for a definition that had been created more than two years ago. To be honest, this annoyed me much more than if there would have been thousands of likes associated with the definition - because it meant that all the rebranding we were about to embark on was prompted by a post of such little relevance and visibility.
Frustrated, I decided to do a little research into how Urban Dictionary works. Initially, I tried to contact the site moderators and ask them to remove the offending definition. This didn’t work. I kept thinking about those two pesky likes. Suddenly, while staring at the derogatory definition that plagued us, I noticed a “0” next to the thumbs-down (dislike) button… There were no dislikes. I clicked it and watched the number associated update from zero to one. I then opened an incognito window and disliked it again, moving that number from one to two. I was on to something.
Immediately, I reached out to my team and sent them a link to the definition, along with an ask to spam the newly realized dislike button. Soon, the dislikes outweighed the likes by a factor of 10x, but nothing changed. When going to any popular search engine and searching for our product’s name, the top result would be for the derogatory definition. My paranoia started to tell me that our efforts to snub out this definition were likely making it more popular to search engines, being that we were interacting with the page and searching for it often.
Changing the narrative.
Admittedly, after going through the steps previously mentioned, we had more-or-less given up and accepted that a product re-brand was in our team’s immediate future. It had been more than a week since we shifted the like/dislike ratio of the definition and nothing on the site had changed. The definition we despised still ranked on top of everything else.
We realized that Urban Dictionary was being driven by a very basic ranking algorithm and that no matter how many times we disliked the definition, it would not be pushed to the bottom of the list of results.
Then a lightbulb suddenly appeared above my head… instead of just downvoting the definition that we disagreed with, why not create our own definition for the word? Hell, what if we created dozens of definitions and up-vote all of them? Maybe this would push the original definition towards the bottom of the list, leaving ours at the top of the results in all the major search engines.
So, we tried it. First, I created 2 or 3 definitions, then I asked each member of my team to do the same - nothing happened. I decided to check back after a couple of days, the length of time Urban Dictionary mentions new definitions are processed. Again, nothing.
It ended up taking about a week for all the definitions to be approved and displayed on the client, but it finally worked. Our updated definitions were added to Urban Dictionary and successfully pushed the offending definition down toward the bottom of the results. We finally won. We saved over a month of re-work, and we were able to keep the original name and story that started the product.
A strong, unique name and positive brand image can go a long way in building trust and credibility with users. As product leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure that the names and branding of our products align with our company’s values and mission and do not offend or alienate any potential users.
In conclusion, product leaders must be aware of the potential risks and challenges associated with creating and managing user perception in today’s socially sensitive age, realizing that internal users also rely on external sources to shape their understanding and views. By being proactive and strategic in our approach to managing external threats and influencing them in our favor, we were able to successfully launch our product and gain wide adoption within our organization.
Lastly, here are a few things we learned from this experience:
- Make sure you spend the time and effort needed to truly understand your problem. Learning to ask the right questions will often lead you toward the solution you’re looking for.
- Always stay curious… Instead of just accepting the idea of a refactor, and all the extra work that would come with it, we started to ask questions. - How does Urban Dictionary work? What are their terms? How are definitions sorted? What type of weightings or algorithms are they using? Etc. These questions led to seemingly unrelated answers until the solution we were looking for became glaringly obvious.
- Always run any potential product names through Urban Dictionary for unintended, or unwanted associations. And if you find one, change it. 😉
We realize that not every product manager who faces this challenge may have a straightforward path to socially engineer external sites, especially when it involves more ubiquitous brand names; but we hope our experience might inspire new ideas and approaches. We’d love to hear from you. Please share your experiences and what insights you gained in this topic.