Sorry, we don’t mean this kind of bacon.

Bacn. If you have an account on any of the most popular websites on the Internet, you’ve probably seen it – it’s the Internet jargon for those periodic emails you receive whenever your activity on a website wanes, reminding you to come back and see what you’ve missed. There’s a Wikipedia article about it, naturally.

Unlike many other major community sites, Wikipedia doesn’t send any unsolicited reminders to its editors… but what if it did? What if a large chunk of the recent decline in editor numbers is simply due to people not being actively encouraged to come back and contribute again, like they are on virtually all other websites where people freely give their time and effort?

Our experiment

To test this hypothesis, we here at the editor engagement experiments team decided to send some bacn to former highly active Wikipedians who had stopped editing. We dubbed this experiment Necromancy. (Hat tip on the name goes to Jeff Atwood of StackExchange fame, who introduced us to Stackoverflow’s necromancy badge for reviving dead topics.)

Though we chose not to go with our data analyst’s literal necromancy-themed email idea of encouraging lapsed users to “fight the dark armies of ignorance once more!”, we did do our best to sound friendly and informal in these messages, and we addressed them from members of our team who have Wikipedia editing experience. While many Wikipedia users may be accustomed to receiving emails from automated mailer systems, we figured that sending from a person who could be directly replied to would increase our chances of not being marked as spam.

Since there is no single metric for when a Wikipedian has finally left the project, we contacted three different types of editors: those who hadn’t edited articles for one year, a second group that had been gone for three months, and a third that stopped editing for just 30 days.

The results

We had some pretty interesting results from our three rounds of email. The percentage of people who opened our emails was about 27-28 percent, slightly higher than the standard figure cited by most non-profits, about 20 percent, and definitely higher than the 5 percent open rate of marketing/sales emails. The number of people who clicked through to the login screen was about half that, and in our most successful round, we generated a return-to-editing rate of 5 percent.

Though the open rates stayed more or less the same among the 1-year, 3-month, and 1-month lapsed editors, rates of return to editing were higher for those who had been gone for less time. Wikipedians who haven’t edited for a year are probably gone for good, but those who were only gone for a month may just need a small reminder to jump back in again.

Conclusions and future work

So, what does this mean for editor retention? Well, we’re probably not going to start sending everyone who has ever made an edit to Wikipedia daily reminders to contribute. But, if we can expect that one email to recently lapsed editors will bring back about 5 percent and get them to edit again, and we can predict from current editor trends that about 5,000 Wikipedians will stop editing over the course of this year, this means that a little bit of bacn will prevent 250 of those Wikipedians from disappearing for good. It may not be the silver bullet that reverses editor decline, but it’s a pretty good start.

Another step toward encouraging editors to return via email has already been enabled. Unrelated to our tests, community members have worked to ensure that an editor on any Wikimedia project can opt in to receiving emails when a page on their watchlist is changed.

If you’d like to know more about our current and planned experiments, check out our documentation on Meta, feel free to comment below, or ping us on our freenode IRC channel – #wikimedia-e3

Maryana Pinchuk and Steven Walling,
on behalf of the Editor Engagement Experiments team at the Wikimedia Foundation

† As reported by the 2012 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study.