Crowdsourcing is Great -- Except When It Fails

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crowdsourcing.jpgThere's been a lot of excitement about the marketing technique of crowdsourcing--getting fans and customers to create your marketing content free. But the crowd can easily turn into an angry mob--just ask Toyota, which had a recent crowdsourcing disaster.

If crowdsourcing can backfire even in the hands of experienced, major-company marketers, should small businesses go anywhere near it? Review the evidence and you make the call.

Let's begin by looking at a mess-up that occurred in Australia this fall, when crowdsourcing was piled upon crowdsourcing in the search for a Yaris ad campaign.

Toyota pitted five agencies against each other, giving them each $15,000 budgets to craft an Aussie-market ad for the sporty little Yaris. One contestant, Saatchi & Saatchi, in turn crowdsourced its entry, creating a Clever Film Competition offering a first prize of $7000 for the winning video. Unfortunately, few videographers entered their contest, leaving Saatchi not much to choose between.

Each agency then posted its clip online and tried to drum up the biggest social-media following for it. Toyota marketing heads reviewed the results and picked Saatchi's crowdsourced entry, by Play TV, as the winner. Then their troubles began.

The winning video, now infamous as the "she can take a good pounding" clip, was widely slammed by the public as being degrading to women and having incestuous overtones. The ad campaign ended up being yanked off YouTube.

Perhaps the moral is to keep it simple in crowdsourcing. For instance, Kraft used crowdsourcing to fix a product-naming disaster, also in Australia, after hoots greeted its iSnack 2.0, a reformulation of Aussie snack-fave Vegemite. Australian media site mUmBRELLA described local reaction to the name as "disastrous."

Kraft caved to the pressure and let the public vote on the company's website to pick a new name. Winner: Vegemite Cheesybite. Discussion among media wags was whether Kraft planned the whole thing to get more media ink than it would have had it picked a sane, Vegemite-related name in the first place, following that golden marketing rule: publicity is publicity, good, bad or otherwise not important. A simple online contest turned the negative buzz around.

Other recent successes: natural supplement company Nature Made attracted a lot of attention by making a crowdsourced blogger hire to promote its SAM-e mood-enhancing supplement. Rather than doing its screening process behind closed doors, Nature Made ran its "Good Mood Gig" Talent Search publicly on its web site, letting visitors vote on who had written the best application. Applicants promoted the contest heavily on Twitter and in other social media, begging their tweeps to vote for them in the contest and driving traffic to the Nature Made site. 

The winner, Brigitte Dale, was announced Dec. 18. Possibly a way to not only grow customer interest in the product, but to save human-resource professionals the time required to read resumes and interview candidates.

Another creative crowdsourcing effort that's still in progress: Public Record, a site that lets rock music fans help their favorite stars write their albums. Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee is a recent participant. Let's hope he doesn't pick crowdsourced add-ons to his tracks that his fans end up hating.

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