This week I heard anecdotally of a manager who asked his team to create a Wikipedia page about their business. His plan was to use the page to announce special offers, while, he hoped, also benefiting from the strong inbound links that such a high-ranking site would provide.

Fortunately, the plan went no further than his team, and he suffered nothing more than their ridicule. Those who have ever contributed to Wikipedia will know that its basic guidelines forbid its use for promotional purposes – which is how it retains its integrity. Another fundamental rule prohibits people from writing about themselves (or indeed those who have interest in a company from writing about it), for fear that the required level of objectivity is impossible to achieve under such circumstances.

As for those inbound links, well, it’s not that easy, I’m afraid. Since January 2007, Wikipedia has used ‘no follow’ link code, meaning that sites linked to from a Wikipedia page will not gain any benefit to their search engine rankings. Again, this is clearly a move to protect Wikipedia’s integrity: if every business-owner tried to boost his ratings by linking from relevant – or worse, irrelevant – Wikipedia pages, the user would lose the benefit of the carefully-curated and highly targeted links which accompany articles.

This particular manager was saved from himself to some degree: those who ignore Wikipedia’s basic precepts may find that their contributions do them more harm than good. A page found to have broken the site’s clearly-stated rules will soon have a banner placed across the top of it announcing that it appears to be a piece of self-promotion; Wikipedia’s ‘discussion’ page also leaves a permanent record of any perceived wrongdoings. Transgress enough, and your mistakes may make their way into the blogosphere, or, worse, the mainstream press, where ridiculing companies who got social media ‘wrong’ seems to have become a whole new strand of journalism.

As with all online marketing, my advice for those hoping to leverage the big sites for the good of their business is very simple: become an active participant before you even think about marketing. Dive into the world of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging; contribute a few articles to Wikipedia on your favorite hobby, if you like. That way you will understand which platforms encourage business use (and yes, that would be Facebook and Twitter, and a good many of the blog software providers) and which emphatically don’t (that would be Wikipedia). While you’re at it, you’ll pick up the ‘local’ etiquette. If ‘poking’, ‘tweeting’, ‘retweeting’ and ‘hashtags’ mean nothing to you now, they soon will – and they need to if you are hoping to leverage these platforms for your own use.

Finally, crucially, be a consumer before you become a provider. There’s no better way to understand how your strategy is going to go down than to have been on the receiving end of something similar. Once you’ve seen twenty emails in your inbox from a Facebook page you joined in a moment of madness or opened your Twitter page to see nothing but the same message repeated fifty times from a single business you are following, you’ll never make those mistakes yourself. In fact, you’ll understand the power of the ‘unfollow’ button better than most – and that is a very valuable lesson.