Revisiting Crowdsourcing

As an industry, marketing has always been in love with the bright, shiny object. From new channels (radio, TV, online, mobile…) to new strategies (celebrity endorsements, couponing, line extensions…) to new job titles (planners, interactive media buyer, creative culturalists…), the search for the new, for an edge, has always been around. Of course, another time honored industry tradition is to watch from the sidelines and provide withering commentary on the latest innovation. Industry thought leaders love to rubberneck the Gartner Hype Cycle as the latest trend makes its way from the Peak of Inflated Expectations to the Trough of Disillusionment. At that point most move on to the next trend and the process begins anew, with little thought given to the final stages: The Slope of Enlightenment and the Plateau of Productivity. And yet that’s where the real learnings can usually be found. So today I ask you to travel back with me to a time before 2nd Screen, Big Data and Gamification roamed the Earth. Yes, all the way back to 2009 when Crowdsourcing was the hottest GMOOT (Give Me One Of Those) on the block.

Back then it seemed everyone was dying to leverage the wisdom of the crowds. Super Bowl spots, new ice cream flavors, brand logos, you name it and companies were looking to the amateurs to solve the problem. Some understood how to harness this power, most did not, and as a result a lot of the output was forgettable at best, embarrassing and harmful to the brand at worst.  I catalogued much of this with my e-book, Everyone is Illuminated, in early 2010. It includes several of my essays on the topic along with insights and POVs from a whole host of very smart industry pros. Give it a quick read if you have a minute and want to catch up on what was happening back then.


But the question today is, where is crowdsourcing now? Was it a gimmick that was fun for a while, but ultimately discarded in favor of A) the old reliables and/or B) even shinier, newer objects? The short answer is yes, crowdsourcing is worth your time. Why? Because consumers want to hav a deeper involvement with the brands they love and development in analytics and other marketing strategies such as gamification make crowdsourcing even more attractive… if you take the time to do it right.

I won’t speak to the wisdom of crowds, but it’s clear that there is economic power in crowds. Crowdfunding, a subspecies of crowdsourcing, has exploded in the last few years, with sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo playing significant roles in the launch of Generation Start-Up. Others, such as MutopoVictors & Spoils and Zooppa have taken on the roles of harnessing the crowds in the service of brands, acting as consultants/agencies/wranglers.

But I think brands, before they enter into this territory, need to understand a key aspect: the difference between a crowd and a tribe. More than mere semantics, this is a fundamental distinction. A crowd gawks at a car accident, congregates behind the woodshop to watch two 8th graders fight, or tunes in to watch a handful of desperate ‘contestants’ sell their dignity for a chance at 15 minutes of fame on a TV game show… and then they disappear as quickly as the came. A tribe, on the other hand, is a group of people with a common cause. They are there for each other. If you are doing things right, your brand will create a tribe of followers who you can activate in support of a variety of executions. That’s the type of crowd you want to cultivate, and cultivating a tribe is no easy thing for most brands. This is where an agency can play a critical role, for in addition to a superior product and visionary mission, brands that tell a compelling story are the ones that develop tribes. And so successful crowdsourcing isn’t achieved by circumventing the traditional ad agency, but rather, it happens with the help of an engaged agency partner.

David Bratvold, founder of The Daily Crowdsource echoes my sentiments: “The world’s largest brands are adopting crowdsourcing. It’s not a tactic where they’re relinquishing their traditional agency model, but rather looking for agencies that can handle both methods.”

And what is the compelling reason why brands (and agencies) should be embracing crowdsourcing? According to Bratvold, Consumers have long been clamoring for more bi-directional engagement with their favorite brands & crowdsourcing is the perfect way for them to get it.”

I tend to agree with him here. All marketing trends point away from a messaging push and towards a more collaborative, two-way engagement with consumers. And again, to be clear, these messages, this new way of communicating with brands, will still be lead by agencies. More from Bratvold:  “Agencies have no reason to fear crowdsourcing as long as they find a way to add it to their set of tools. The brands that embrace crowdsourcing properly will succeed in the next decade. The brands that don’t will fall behind. Microsoft knows this. So do Doritos, GE, Kimberly-Clark, Pepsi, & Coca-Cola  – they all know how powerful crowdsourcing is, and it’s slowly becoming more widely used within these organizations.”

I think crowdsourcing can also be enhanced when you look at something like gamification. Smart game design accounts for how all members of a tribe will react to behavioral incentives and keeps all members of the tribe engaged. In some ways, all gamification is crowdsourcing, but not all crowdsourcing uses gamification. Both tactics can be powerful, especially when used in conjunction, but can easily be misused as well. Again, this is where a trusted agency partner plays a key role.

On February 27 & 28, Bratvold and The Daily Crowdsource will be hosting Crowdopolis, a conference showcasing Fortune 500 Corporations using crowdsourcing to out-innovate, out-process, & out-engage their competition. Companies like GEMicrosoft, WalmarteBay, SAP, NASA & many others are scheduled to be on-hand to lead the discussion. As a special offer to Ignition readers, Bratvold is offering us a 2-for-1 discount for the event. You can register here, be sure to use the promotional code: AgencyYR to receive your discount.  The 2-for-1 promotion ends Jan 28 so book now. The event will be held at:
Metropolitan Pavilion Center
125 W 18th St
New York, NY 10011

I’m going to be in attendance and I hope I see you there.

HP’s Rebrand Efforts: An Inside Look

A New Look For HP

Rebranding is tough. Ask Tropicana, Pepsi or The Gap. It’s usually a no-win situation in which you alienate the fans who didn’t want a change, and you rarely please anyone with the new offering.  Yet, there are times and situations where a new brand identity is called for.

Hewlett-Packard finds itself in a position where they need a new brand positioning. As Amazon, Google, Apple and others lead the conversations on the future of technology, HP is seen as an old brand. Back in 2008 they enlisted Moving Brands to do the rebranding and recently the agency revealed the behind-the-scenes work, which TechCrunch points out is unlikely to be used. It’s laid out brilliantly here on the Moving Brands site. You can find additional commentary here, on the Brand New blog.

The post provides tons of images and videos showing Moving Brand’s ideas and process. There is clearly an incredible amount of thinking, legwork, artistry and strategic vision infused in the effort. Check out this video entitled HP Magnetic North [UPDATE: The video has been removed from video, sorry.]


Of course things like this are always subjective, and you can argue the merits of the final results if you like, but that’s not the point here.  The real issue here is the thinking and how this contrasts with what happens in those $500 ‘design my logo’ crowdsourcing efforts. From Moving Brands:

We wanted to ensure that HP maximized its opportunities to connect with people, to tell great stories and inspire great stories, to listen and respond, and to adapt to its environment. A multi-sensorial Identity and Design System was created to allow the brand to spring to life in print and in pixels, on screen and across all devices.

The Identity and Design System was structured to deliver familiarity and recognition through the use of a tight set of core brand assets — logo, colour and typeface. The contextual brand assets, such as identifiers and photography, add flexibility and relevance for specific target audiences. Expression Principles guide the creation of ownable HP signature experiences across spoken and written language, static layouts, information graphics, motion, sound, interaction, form factors and materials and physical spaces.

The defining signature of the system is the 13º angle. 13° represents HP’s spirit as a company, driven forward by ingenuity and optimism about the future and a belief in human progress. It also refers to the world of computing by recalling the forward slash used in programming. 13° exists within the brand identity, in the graphic language, product design and UI.

Yes, HP has plenty of money to spend on this sort of thing, most companies don’t. I understand that, and small businesses don’t have to take it to this level. But you can hire one designer and work with that person directly. Let them understand the culture of the company, the trends in the industry and the behaviors of your customers.

Crowdsourcing: Everything old is new again

Remember when crowdsourcing was all the rage, way back in…


At my in-laws house this week, we looked at a copy of Photoplay magazine from 1931 that featured a story on my wife’s grandmother.  The magazine had run a contest in conjunction with Warner Bros., asking readers to write an original screenplay for a motion picture, “Beauty and the Boss.” Jane Considine of Philadelphia (grandma) was the winner from a field of more than 10,000!

That’s right, crowdsourcing was being used by various content producers (magazines, motion picture studios) 80 years ago, and they were apparently doing it quite successfully. The copy from the story on the winner is priceless, including such gems as:

The name? The writer of the mysterious yarn? “Jane E. Considine, Philadelphia, PA,” was written in the upper right hand corner of page one.

She is twenty-one years old.

She is medium height, with dark hair and eyes and an olive skin. She loves sports, is a great movie fan and does not believe in diet.

She is a typical young American girl – modern, up-to-date but not a flapper. Thoughtful, but not solemn. She has stamina and courage. She is the highest type of American young womanhood.



Gamification is the new Crowdsourcing

If you’ve been following my blog for the last couple of years you know I’ve written a lot about crowdsourcing (Ed. Note – You can find all my crowdsourcing-related posts here). Even wrote a little ebook on the topic with the help of many friends. The same sorts of conversations and buzz I heard with crowdsourcing I’m now hearing with game mechanics, or ‘gamification’ as it is often called. A term greatly disliked by many people who take this stuff seriously. And that in part is the crux of this post. Terms quickly get thrown about (like ‘viral’) by people who aren’t really sure what they are speaking about.  I’ve already started writing on this a bit, and hope to continue to do so.  I’ll be looking to tap into a wide variety of practitioners and skeptics with the goal of providing an objective and balanced perspective on the subject. Here are two people that I recently had the chance to exchange correspondence with and I thought they both had worthwhile views on the issue. First, a brief note from Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group. Brian’s also a driving force behind the Pivot Conference taking place in New York this October (sign up here to attend). I asked Brian about the future of game mechanics and questioned if 2011 was the year this practice went from insider knowledge to over-exposed and misused (jumping the shark as it were):

Brian Solis: Before I can answer, I can’t believe that Happy Days culture is still alive. When will jumping the shark finally jump the shark? I believe that in social media as anything jumps the shark it means it’s starting to take a strong foothold within the mainstream. This is good because that means we, as everyday people, have a say in the direction of new media and how we discover, share and learn. Game theory and gamification hold promise in engagement, personalization, and rewards. It will make for better website experiences, for more enriching exchanges in social and mobile networks, and I believe it will also help reinvent our education system.

So, a very positive spin on things from Brian and I agree with him for the most part. I think there are some lessons from crowdsourcing that we can take though. Not every website or brand is ideal for game mechanics, and it’s important to understand the science as well as the art to getting it right. On that note, I spoke with Laurent Courtines who has worked with online communities for over ten years, first managing and establishing the fantasy sports community and for the last five years leading community and social initiatives at AOL’s He is the  founder of the The Blog at and can be found musing on the Internet at He was kind enough to answer several of my questions and I thought his responses were worth sharing in full:

Rick Liebling: Two years ago Crowdsourcing was the buzz word every marketer was spouting, now it’s ‘gamification.’ What should marketers know before jumping into this area, whether it’s branded social games or social rewards in a community?

Laurent Courtines: I’ll sum it up in a list form:

1. It’s not easy.
Think it through. Always think to yourself,  will this be fun?  If it’s not fun to you,  it won’t be fun for your audience.

2. You can’t just slap badges on your content and expect people to become more engaged.
Affinity items and badges systems are ongoing.  Once your audience gets a taste for the rewards, they will want more.  Be prepared to support your campaign for a long time.

3. Study!
Play games,  think about what makes a game fun.  Go back to your childhood and think about games you played. What made Monopoly, Shoots and Ladders or Q-Bert fun? Make a list and find the fun.

4. Don’t over-complicate things.
You don’t have to have ALL the game mechanics all at once.  It could just be a leader board for your site calling out the most active participants, or a simple progression bar to show you how far you have to go to complete an order. (LinkedIn is a good example of how great a little progress bar can be. You always want to fill in your profile)
It’s little features that can help a lot!

5. Trust the experts.
As a marketer, trust the game designers and producers.  Usually, they are the real game lovers and understand the game audience much more than you do.  If you have an idea for a branded game, trust the game makers when they say no one wants to play a game with Clorox all over it.  Do simple things like sponsor the game to be ad free for a while (most online games have a pre-roll ad). Give something to the player that they can appreciate.

Overall, I think the game mechanics being added to non-game events are good. We just have to realize that there is work involved.  It’s not a magic bullet and has to have focus.


I think you’re going to hear and see a lot on this topic in the second half of this year. I’m looking forward to following the developments.

Crowdsourcing: Has The Quality of Contributions Improved?

One of the concerns I’ve had regarding crowdsourcing is that the quality of contributions from “the crowd” isn’t very good. Now, some of that is going to be a matter of opinion. I’ve never liked the the crowdsourced Super Bowl ads, but apparently many people do. The Pepsi Max “Pug Attack” ad from this year seemed to be a hit. So what the hell do I know? Also, the quality of contributions may be skewed by the top 5% that are done by real pros, so the winning entries are often every bit as good as what you might see from a traditional ad shop.  But rather than speculate on my own anecdotal research, I thought I’d ask the pros in my latest crowdsourcing conversation. So, have the quality of contributions improved?

Wil Merritt of Zooppa has seen improvements, and crucially they are coming from all aspects of the process, which I’m sure contributes to greater end product: “Yes – we are seeing more accomplished creators, better creative briefs,  support from ad agencies toward the process and greater incentives all contributing for better work.”

Claudia Batten of Victors & Spoils echoes the key sentiment – the work is improving, thanks to hard work from all parties: “When we started Victors & Spoils, we were the first to talk about curation as a key tenant of crowdsourcing. By this we mean that the crowd needs guidance and the ideas need filtration to ensure the work is of quality, and on-brief and on-strategy.  Our aim is to continually improve the quality of work from the crowd. So yes, we are definitely seeing improvements, but it is not without a lot of hard work and careful attention to process on our part.”

The key take-away here seems to be, good crowdsourcing is a lot more than simply putting out a call to the community. For quality work you’re going to need a lot of the same people and skills as with a traditional agency (planners, account people, even creative directors).  I think the once-held notion that crowdsourcing was going to replace ad agencies is a misnomer, rather crowdsourcing is simply an alternative creative tactic that can be employed by ad agencies.  Then the question to ask is: How long before agencies like Victors and Spoils or Napkin Labs start removing the wheat from the chaff and only work with the cream of the crop (to mix metaphors)?

What do we mean by crowd at that point? When does it cease to be a crowd and become a loose knit cooperative of highly trained, highly skilled ad people who are essentially working freelance?

Crowdsourcing: The Next Step in the Evolution of Crowdsourcing

What's next for crowdsourcing?

In my last post in the crowdsourcing series several experts remarked on the continued growth of crowdsourcing. So, for this round the question is:

What’s the next step in the evolution of crowdsourcing?

I think what makes any burgeoning concept interesting is where it goes once some of the basics have been covered. Whether platforms like YouTube or Twitter or concepts like product integration, no idea can stick around long without evolving. So, where are the places that crowdsourcing will go in the future?

Aaron Bateman: “My guess is there’ll be a thinning out as some of the initial frontrunners either fade from view or carve out ever wider spheres of influence. Much like the regular agency rat-race I guess. One interesting possibility might see larger outfits taking over the networks of smaller competitors. Consolidation in other words.” This is an interesting, and logical, extrapolation. But I don’t know if, say Victors & Spoils, would be interested in owning Guided or Napkins Labs (read why Napkins Labs Will Find Crowdsourcing Success For Creatives And Clients). I think each of the different crowdsourcing agencies has enough of a different approach that a direct acquisition may not make sense.

Hank Leber: “Curation has got to get more efficient and effective. The onus is not only on those running the crowdsourcing businesses, but also on the crowd itself – to get motivated, learn how to be most effective in this new space, and to make the system work for them.  The problem is part awareness, and part confidence.  People need to see more projects working, which will make them more amenable to playing a hand or two in the system. More individuals get involved and more people talk about the projects – awareness goes up.  It´s a standard advertising/branding problem and it´ll work itself out.”

As always, I think it’s important to showcase a variety of viewpoints and Nate Sullivan falls firmly in the anti-crowdsource camp: “Every generation has had its marketing scams, from MLMs of the 80s and 90s to crowdsourcing today. One topic that the recession recently exposed and provided a brief news flash in 2010, was the unpaid internship. The unpaid internship is the closest thing to crowdsourced design that existed prior to Web 2.0. Inc reported in April 2010 that the Labor Department was cracking down on unpaid internships. There are guidelines and court decisions that guide the definition of unpaid labor. Crowdsourcing skirts this by having the appearance of a contest, but in reality, it’s contracted labor. If crowdsourcing as a labor substituting practice continues, it faces the same possibility of legal scrutiny and for good reason. You can’t operate a business on the backs of uncompensated labor and get away with it for long. It’s sort of like running a lottery and advertising it as an investment vehicle.” I often find myself thinking Nate’s got it wrong, but I also have a sneaking suspicion that in the long run he’s going to be proven right on a lot of this.

Sam Ford: I think that we are increasingly seeing the crowdsourcing mentality applied not so much to the creation of content but to the circulation of content. If companies are ultimately producing media texts, marketing, and other media for audiences to spread in a social space, it makes sense that we should be remodeling how those companies foster dialogue and put those messages in motion with communities in a meaningful way. At the heart of such work is a core commitment to listening, both in understanding what audiences want in creating content but in developing relationships that invite audiences to use media content for their own purposes in innovative ways that may or may not bring value back to the content creator but in a way that respects the labor and interests of the audience member.” An interesting interpretation, and one that also puts a premium on brands making sure ‘the crowd’ feels their efforts are valued. If people feel they are doing the work for the brand and not receiving anything in return they will eventually abandon the brand.

We’ll end the discussion with Tracy Shea: “We will see pockets of communities crop up and begin to operate much like a newsroom, with “silos” of information, curated somewhat collectively, but functioning as a whole.” This is an interesting idea. A newsroom of crowdsourced content from like-minded people around a certain topic would be powerful, especially if harnessed (supported?) by a brand.