How to Do Crowd-Sourcing Right

8 years ago

Last week I attended the Annual Meeting of the IAB -- the trade organization for online publishers and advertisers. I was particularly inspired by the opening keynote, provided by PepsiCo's Chief Engagement Officer, Frank Cooper. Just his title alone made me think that the company (a BlogHer sponsor and advertiser) has been rethinking media from the inside out. But I'd never heard of a corporate marketing strategy explained via an example like Snoop Dog before.

Cheering Crowd
Let me explain.

Cooper, whose job includes the occasional perk of meeting celebrities, shared a conversation he'd had with the recording artist Snoop Dog. Cooper admired how Snoop had still remained relevant as a performer after many years, longer than so many younger artists.

"How do you do it?" He asked Snoop.

And Snoop said, "Coop," (Cooper shared that he doubted Snoop Dog even knew his first name), "some stars want to be on the stage with people looking up at them. I pull people on stage with me. People don't want their stars in the sky, but looking them in the eye."

This was a whole new way for me to think of engaging communities and crowdsourcing, a practice that involves acting on the public input. It can often be abused when companies reach out to the public for ideas in an attempt to gain attention and not really to build on the pulse of their customers.

Cooper's speech made me think: In which ways can smaller organizations leverage their customers and communities? When does crowdsourcing fail?

Successful bloggers are naturals at engaging their audiences and crowdsourcing. Their content is infused with the preferences of their readers; they often reach out as much as they post. Sometimes, though, people and brands get it wrong. Some things to remember:

1. Crowdsourcing works with some help from you. BlogHer developed this way. Our conferences wouldn't be possible without the input of various groups in our community and asking what content you all want in our events. The Publishing Network was actually a direct outcome of responding to bloggers' requests for options to monetize. Most recently, we put our new tagline up for vote.

Pulling ideas from the community guarantees buy-in. But sometimes brands err on the side of too much control and oversight of a crowdsourced project, and participants don't really feel they've helped with co-creation. Smaller businesses may feel less constrained because they may not be as exposed to legal issues and online abuse, but they may also err on too little oversight. If you are reaching out to your community or customers publicly for their opinion, help guide the process. Provide guidelines to get the most relevant results. For instance, if you are crowdsourcing a new blog name, provide direction (e.g.: maximum number of words, what you hope to capture in the new name, that it be logo-friendly). This will make the flow of submitted ideas more targeted and relevant.

Also consider legal guidelines and a content policy that make clear which sorts of submissions are acceptable and what won't be allowed to run on your site. And follow your guidelines!

2. Be prepared to act on what you receive. Nothing tells a community "we don't really care about you," more than when you ask for input, get it and then do not act on it. Provided you offered sufficient parameters for crowdsourcing (as prescribed above), you should have sufficient input to go on. Several years ago, I recall an effective promotion run by Dove and AOL (BlogHer advertised it) that solicited consumer-generated video submissions for a new television commercial that would run during the Oscars. An outcome like this requires a lot of preparation and lead time. If the television media buy had not been confirmed with the network, or if the brand had decided, "none of these commercials pass muster, let's drop it," think of the negative brand association these decisions would have engendered. Fortunately, it all went off without a hitch.

This campaign ran twice in two years, and in the second year Dove offered creative elements to the public they could use in their videos -- logos, music, taglines -- which helped them steer the outcome toward more relevant submissions. Think about what you can offer up to inspire the most relevant outcomes and will guarantee the outcome you promise, without delay.

3. Always give credit: More than money or free stuff, credit is a huge incentive for your community. If you crowdsource, say, a recipe, post entries on your site -- heck, on your packaging! Giving credit is not just the right thing to do, it incents people to provide ideas, and it shows your community is engaged.

4. Don't make it all about you:
Think about what your community wants -- Credit? A credential? Entry to an event? -- and structure your request accordingly. I recall working with a new brand that wanted to engage a community with a challenge that required far more knowledge of the product than was realistic. Since the audience had yet to try the product, it was hard to get feedback on it. Fortunately, the brand was flexible and open to backing away from requiring readers to talk about the product and instead talk about their own experiences that related to the brand. This opened up much more opportunity for the community to engage.

Asking for feedback on, say, your business strategy or favorite moment with your product without having the requisite brand equity will result in lame engagement. Some brands and causes can pull this off. For instance, last year we ran a sponsored conversation for Barbie, for which the community was asked to provide memories of the iconic doll. The brand had enough of a nostalgic stronghold in the community that it resulted in successful engagement. For another product, a pasta sauce, we asked the community to offer up ways they saved money at the grocery store -- a much more removed tie-in, but an appropriate ask that still allowed readers to associate the product with value at the supermarket.

Be really honest with yourself. If you are a brand-spanking-new business brand with not much equity in a community, how can you leverage already hot conversations to introduce yourself to new advocates/readers/clients?

Bloggers are personal brand-builders by nature, but it can't help to learn from corporate brands that are crowdsourcing well to give you some thoughts on how to better engage your own community.


Jory Des Jardins writes on business and career topics at BlogHer, and on her personal blog From Here to Autonomy

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