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.

Crowdsourcing: Yes, Crowdsourcing Is Still A Growing Trend

In recent weeks I’ve continued my examination on crowdsourcing by exploring topics such as whether crowdsourcing is still a hot topic, how people’s opinions have, or have not changed regarding crowdsourcing and taken a look at The IdeaLists and their approach to making matches rather than sourcing crowds. In this post I pose the following question:

Have you seen an increase or decrease in participation by people looking to engage in crowdsourcing opportunities?

For this question I turned to several experts who deal directly with this issue, leading agencies that help connect brands with the crowd.

Here’s Wil Merritt from Zooppa: “Significant increase.  Some people are learning how to make a living through crowdsourcing creative, and many others just enjoy the opportunity to participate and engage with the brands they love as a social media activity.”  Wil brings up an interesting point. Often we focus on the professional ad creative or graphic designer and how crowdsourcing is hurting their industries. But many of the participants are merely brand fans with no agenda other than having some fun.

Sam Reid of Guided offered: “It’s been a pretty steady increase in people getting in touch with Guided. We do a project which someone finds interesting and they ask to sign up. However we have a defined criteria / benchmark. We don’t need 1000 copywriters or graphic designers for instance. We need the right type of person with a required skill set who plays nicely but has a clear understanding of cultural stuff beyond advertising. It’s credible mass not critical mass.”  Again, a critical distinction – sourcing the right people rather than just the most people.

Claudia Batten of Victors & Spoils shared what’s happening out in Colorado: “We are seeing an increase in the number of people looking to participate in crowdsourcing opportunities. We are seeing this on the client side and the creative side with incredible growth in our creative participants in our crowd (or creative department as we look at it) alongside increasing interest from brands. When we started Victors & Spoils we quickly climbed to a crowd of 700 creative professionals which has steadily increased to now almost 4,000 members. We see a lot of interest from people who want to expand their current creative duties, stretch their creative legs as it were. We also take great pains to attract interesting clients with interesting work, which really motivates the great creatives who are always inspired to work on interesting briefs. We also see a lot of creatives opt in to self-select the client work they want to do, which really resonates with our clients as they want to hear from people who are passionate about their brand.”  So, more participants but also a level of discernment for some sector of the participants.

A small sampling, but clearly one that shows that crowdsourcing continues to not only grow, but grow in sophistication, not only from agencies like Zooppa, Guided and V&S, but also from the brands and people looking to participate. Those factors all bode well for the continued growth of crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing: Has Your Opinion Of Crowdsourcing Changed In The Last Year?

Over time our feelings about various marketing concepts and tools change. What was innovative and compelling one day can lose it’s appeal in the months and years ahead. Of course, our opinions may change in the other direction as well as we come to accept ideas that we at first rejected as the marketplace adopts these new concepts. In this, the second part of my look at Crowdsourcing One Year Later I’ve asked panelists if their opinion of crowdsourcing has changed:


Sam Ford, Director of Digital Strategy at Peppercom, sees growth in the concept as ‘crowdfunding’ models take shape:

As we have seen the concept of “crowdsourcing” become accepted by a wider range of audiences, it both means great new innovations on what the concept can do but also that the idea is being taken up by people who don’t really know what to do with it. Certainly, the growing prevalence of “crowdfunding” models has presented a great new way for independent media acts to get projects up and running, for great issues of social need to be funded and for companies to find innovative new ways to conduct “corporate social responsibility” (you know, what companies should naturally just want to do as part of the community and culture). We write about a variety of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding models in our forthcoming book Spreadable Media (with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green).

Aaron Bateman of Advance and the Agency Future blog has seen a maturity of crowdsourcing and acceptance by marketers:

I thought it might struggle to throw off its gimmicky mantle but the increasing willingness of marketers to experiment coupled with the constantly evolving way in which the Internet enables remote operations has created a kind of perfect storm for crowdsourcing operations. I’m yet to read or hear many perspectives from any creatives though. Obviously the success of a crowdsourcing company hinges on its output and the fact that so many seem to be thriving would indicate that there are good people doing good work.

Speaking of creatives, Nate Sullivan, Senior Designer at R2C Group, still has major issues with the practice:

I’m still of the opinion that crowdsourcing is an exploitive practice, participated in by uninformed, inexperienced, and unemployed creative talent and encouraged by the unethical proponents of this model. Crowdsourcing shouldn’t be confused with open source. They are completely different. The open-source community as a whole, benefits from the contributions and efforts of those participating. Crowdsourcing is about one thing and one thing only, uncompensated labor.

But Hank Leber, Associate Planner at McKinney and founder of Agency Nil, likes the direction things are heading in:

I´m happy to see less talking and more doing. The buzz + critique that presided over last year has turned into real people trying to make things work, and I love the discoveries that are emerging (i.e. some elements are meant for crowds, and others are not: design, production, ideation, concepting – yes. Strategy, analysis, media, client interaction: no.) There are a million mistakes being made, and it´s causing a lot of fast learning.  I´m as sure of the potential of crowdsourcing as I ever was; I´m thrilled to see many others considering its benefits and trying to make it work.

My colleague, Tracy Shea, also feels the concept still has legs, adding:

I still look at it as a way to engage many individuals, across global boundaries, to solve or participate in issues, games, science and innovation.


While it appears that many are now accepting crowdsourcing and excited by the potential, Nate’s viewpoint is well worth understanding. I highly recommend this blog post from David Airey, design author and graphic designer, entitled The disconcertion of spec. There are many in the creative/design field with major issues on crowdsourcing. This is a real fight for them and one that anyone who works in a creative field should consider thoughtfully.

Crowdsourcing A Discussion on Crowdsourcing: One Year Later

The lone genius or the crowd?

During the latter parts of 2009 I developed a keen interest in what was happening around the concept of crowdsourcing. The notion, which had come to widespread public attention through books such as The Wisdom of Crowds (Surowiecki, 2005) and Crowdsourcing (Howe, 2008), was gaining favor among brands that were eager to engage consumers (and often leverage the power of Social Media). Some brands hit it out of the park, but many others spent good money on programs and campaigns that were instantly forgettable.

In the process, the term “crowdsourcing” started to become a catch-all phrase, thrown around indiscriminantly by marketers and the media.  As a result, I wrote several posts on the subject here on

These posts featured insights from several leaders in the fields of marketing & advertising and ultimately led me to create an e-Book on the subject called, Everyone Is Illuminated. I owe my gratitude to those who provided their estimable thinking on the subject and helped to make it a success.

Now, some twelve months later, it seemed to me the heat had dissipated a bit around crowdsourcing. I wasn’t seeing people referring to it on Twitter with the same frequency. Brands didn’t seem to be using it as much in high profile campaigns. Or was that just my perception and not the reality?

I decided to tap into my own crowd and once again ask experts in the field – agency types, marketers, ad industry vets – to help me survey the state of crowdsourcing. I hope you’ll find this as interesting and illuminating as last time. This year I’ve curated some of the the responses around specific questions, creating a conversation of sorts. We’ll start with asking a very basic question:

Last year at this time, it seems “crowdsource” was THE buzzword. Do you feel the heat has diminished, or is crowdsourcing still a shiny new toy?

It’s clear that crowdsourcing is now entering a new phase of its lifecycle. It’s gone through the proto-crowdsource stage where it indeed existed, but in an amorphous way, not yet labeled or codified. It’s gone through the thought-leadership stage where it was written about as a trend to watch in the future. It’s now had it’s “moment in the sun” phase where it was on the lips of agency execs, and brand managers were clamoring for it.  This led to the “misuse/overuse” phase and brings us to what I think are the more interesting phases: Results focused and diverse experimentation.

Now it’s time for serious people to get down to business and see if this will really work as a concept, not just today, but long into the future. My unscientific survey of agency execs seems to indicate that crowdsourcing is indeed viable.  Aaron Bateman, a copywriter at the Danish creative agency Advance and the man behind the site Agency Future sees crowdsourcing as “…approaching a level of normality now. The obvious reference is V&S ‘winning’ Harley, but less hyped outfits like Guided and The IdeaLists are quietly going about their work, refining their business model and seem here for the long haul.”

I think Aaron makes a key point here. Are the brands and agencies that jumped in (or just dipped their toes) in 2009/2010 learning from their efforts? Will their offerings or executions be refined and altered with future iterations? If so, crowdsourcing can continue to have a role.

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Crowdsourcing & Disruption Event at Pratt: Realities & Denial

Tremendously interesting event yesterday at Pratt. The star-studded panel lived up to its billing and a spirited give and take with the audience of Pratt students, alumni and teachers could have gone on for another hour.  The event certainly left me with several key takeaways that will help to further shape my thoughts on crowdsourcing. Here are some selected (paraphrased) quotes from the panel, along with some of my own personal key learnings:

First, we need to start refining the term ‘crowdsourcing.’ It is currently being used to refer to a whole host of different activites, tactics and executions, some of which are wildly divergent. I heard terms such as co-creation and mass collaboration used and I thought those were interesting. I’ve toyed with the word ‘expertsourcing.’ Better definitions will lead to more clarity.

Chris Clarke, Chief Creative officer of LBi, cautioned the crowd that you can’t make money off of a mastery of technology. By that he meant, knowing how to use tools isn’t enough. This would be a recurring theme.

Ben Malbon of BBH Labs urged people to recognize that the horse had left the barn and rather than fight against crowdsourcing, you should be learning how to master this concept before your competitors do.

Adam Glickman of ideaLists pointed out the importance of filters when utilizing crowdsourcing. This was also a repeated theme from the panelists. In fact, that’s where Clarke saw the opportunity for more traditional agencies as it relates to crowdsourcing. John Winsor of Victors & Spoils agreed that curation was important, and also noted that managing the size of the crowd was an important element.

Mike Samson, co-founder of crowdSPRING, felt that crowdsourcing is a great opportunity for smaller, even local companies and brands to get high quality work at an affordable price.  My takeaway here is that if smaller, even mom & pop shops are starting to get great looking design, that raises the bar across the board. Now everybody is going to have to have great design and now more design jobs and all levels are being created.

Great stat from Ric Grefe, Executive Director of AIGA: About 1 million design students in China, compared to about 40,000 in the U.S. Implication: your competition for jobs is about to expand exponentially. Welcome to the flat world.

This led to the number one takeaway of the evening for me: The difference between design and commercial art. If you are entering a logo design contest, that’s commercial art. Nothing wrong with that, but you’re going to be in a race to the bottom. Design is about problem solving and working intimately with a client.

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Crowdsourcing & Disruption – NYC Event

My descent into the world of crowdsourcing continues tomorrow as I’ll be at the Crowdsourcing & Disruption event at the Pratt Institute. This figures to be another quality gathering by the looks of the panel, which includes Ric Grefe, Executive Director of AIGA; Craig Kanarick, Founder of Razorfish; and FoE (Friends of Eyecube) Ben Malbon from BBH Labs and John Winsor of Victors & Spoils.

For those of you unable to attend, I reached out to organizers James Tung and Alexander Smith and hit them up with some questions. Here are their takes on the state of crowdsourcing today and in the future. First up, James:

James Tung's poster for Crowdsourcing & Disruption

Eyecube: For students or creatives early in their careers, does crowdsourcing offer a great opportunity, or is it devaluing the creative product?

James Tung: Crowdsourcing’s initial proposition does suggest greater opportunities for students and people early in their careers, but upon closer examination one realizes that there are some issues: 1) the opportunity is open to a broad range of different kinds of people in all stages of their various careers and 2) the reward (usually monetary) is singular in nature.

While a tiered reward system may be implemented, the situation where everyone involved may also be rewarded seems highly impractical. The time that one applies toward this opportunity may, indeed, go unmerited and it is with this understanding that perhaps the opportunity becomes a risk where there is no gain.

The democratic nature of crowdsourcing suggests elimination of traditional classifications. Does it make sense to talk about students, creatives early in their careers, mid-level creatives, veteran creatives, retiree creatives, or even creatives in general when a project is open to everyone and anyone?

I see the creative process as equally valuable if not more valuable than the end results sometimes. In an ideal situation this creative process is unique and benefits both the creator and the client requesting creative work. I am unsure of crowdsourcing’s role as creative process. I see it as an attempt to commoditize creativity. Is there such a thing as a generic creativity? I don’t think so.

Eyecube: Can 3,000 amateurs produce higher quality work than three or four pros? Can they do it once, or consistently over time?

James Tung: There is a possibility that 3,000 amateurs may produce higher quality work than three or four professionals, but I think the question is misleading. It implies that 3000 amateurs are working together collectively when in reality it is 3000 amateurs working individually. In my experiences with such an experiment, the output was tremendous and wide ranging, but the quality of the work was underwhelming. I can see a client becoming very overwhelmed with so many options. The output of three or four professionals may seem small, but if it is the right three or four professionals the work will be informed. I offer the following historical exchange:

John Ruskin: “The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?”

James Whistler: “No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”

Eyecube: From a consumer standpoint, does it really matter where the creative comes from? I mean does it matter whether a 30 second Doritos ad was made by your neighbor or by CP+B?

James Tung: It depends on the consumer type you are speaking about. Not all consumers consume creative in the same way. Some people enjoy movies without being interested in who makes the movies, whereas some people are devoted to certain filmmakers and sit through the end credits.

There is most certainly something to be said about consumer generated content. However, I think this requires someone, somewhere to recognize that such content has creative merit.

Eyecube: It’s 2015. Is crowdsourcing the go to creative platform or has it been discredited? (no points for hedging!)

James Tung: I do see value in crowdsourcing as a process and I don’t see crowdsourcing going away in 5 years time. As for its role in certain creative fields, it is already a reality. Do I want it to be the go-to platform for creative work? Not really. (Did I cheat? Probably.)

Thanks James, now, same questions for Alex…

crowdsource event poster

Alexander Smith's poster for the Crowdsourcing & Disruption event

Eyecube: For students or creatives early in their careers, does crowdsourcing offer a great opportunity, or is it devaluing the creative product?

Alex Smith: Students and creative professionals in the early stages of their careers have always been presented with many offers to do work for little or no compensation. These are usually framed as excellent opportunities for the young designer to get some exposure or develop their portfolio, but in the end the only person for whom they are great opportunities is the one commissioning the work. Still, sometimes it turns out to be worth it for the designer. Those just starting out have to go through the process a couple of times before they can judge how much they are getting taken advantage of.
Eyecube: Can 3,000 amateurs produce higher quality work than three or four pros? Can they do it once, or consistently over time?
Alex Smith: Can one million monkeys pawing at a million typewriters for a million years bang out the complete works of Shakespeare? I just looked this up on wiki[pedia] and it turns out the chances are very low. Miniscule in fact, but not zero. The irony of the fact that I used a crowdsourced encyclopedia is not lost on me, though to be fair the models are quite different.

The actual answer is, it depends. It depends on who those amateurs are and what the problem they are working on is. Not all crowds are created equally, some crowds are in fact curated or pre-filtered. As I understand it, this is the idea that Victors and Spoils built their business model on. Furthermore, some problems lend themselves to crowdsourced solutions. In fact sometimes crowdsourcing IS the solution itself. Still, for all of that to work there needs to be a firm hand on the tiller somewhere upstream.

Eyecube: From a consumer standpoint, does it really matter where the creative comes from? I mean does it matter whether a 30 second Doritos ad was made by your neighbor or by CP+B?

Alex Smith: It probably matters less for a Doritos ad than it does for a Mercedes Benz ad. Or, from a consumer standpoint it seems unlikely that your neighbor’s ad will have the kinds of high value signifiers that one might look for in a brand message about luxury, quality and craftsmanship.

Eyecube: It’s 2015. Is crowdsourcing the go to creative platform or has it been discredited? (no points for hedging!)

Alex Smith: Crowdsourcing will still be around in 2015. It will have spawned some sub-species by then. The curated crowd, or the pre- qualified crowd being the most obvious of these, but I expect there will be other more exotic forms as entrepreneurs work to create different facilitating platforms. Serious brands will continue to work with professionals with whom they have on-going relationships because in the end good design is structural rather than surface driven and its execution requires a talented and passionate professional.

This should be a terrific event if the thoughtfulness and strength of viewpoints exhibited by James and Alex is anything to go on. I’ll have a follow up report on the event later this week.