Crowd Sourcing’s Dark Side

11080I’m all for keeping a finger on the pulse of what consumers are saying and thinking, but there seems to be a new trend in over-reliance on crowd sourced results to direct business, especially when it comes to creative work. Crowds, especially of the consumer variety can be very useful for feedback on new products, but be wary of inviting crowds into the intimate creative places of your business. From graphics, logos and websites to tag lines, brand names, domain names and even the products themselves, many businesses are turning to crowd sourcing to get their creative work for free or practically free. As a creative entrepreneur, I find this trend a bit disturbing, not just because it degrades the value of true creative work, but because it can have a larger negative impact on businesses and their brands.

A business image is not something to leave in the hands of the masses. Brand building is a delicate thing that should be orchestrated by the owner of the brand, not by those who consume the brand. Kraft’s Vegimite/Snack 2.0 debacle is a great example of how crowd sourcing can completely backfire. This trend of crowd sourced creative work waters down what a brand truly can be. Brand building comes from creating multiple layers of elements like product, quality, message, image, graphics, website, communication, partnerships and reputation in the industry, marketplace and with consumers. Why so many businesses are leaving these crucial elements in the hands of the masses is perplexing. As someone who created and built a brand of children’s shoes from scratch, the idea of asking the general public for creative direction or creation was something I never would have even considered. The masses don’t know what is best for your business, you do. The masses are consumers, not innovators. In most cases, consumers can’t imagine what they haven’t already seen before.

Can’t afford a professional? Just ask anyone for a free opinion
So many social media sites have opened up the flood gates to this kind of thinking. Certain LinkedIn discussion groups have become a hotbed for free crowd sourcing of creative work. I’ve seen people asking for marketing plans, brand names, domain names, and logos all for free. There has been one discussion that has been going on for over a month now from someone asking for “suggestions” for a tag line for his music company. To date, there have been 272 responses coming free from the likes of a student in Malaysia, a “Change Communicator,” a “Senior Solutions Specialist,” but more surprising is that supposed Marketing Experts, Copywriters, and Brand Strategists also added their suggestions. For Free. I understand the whole concept of giving in the social media world, but expecting professional results from people willing to simply throw out random suggestions for something as important to a brand as a tag line is simply unrealistic. The results of this person’s request, even though there were 272 of them were pretty terrible. They were terrible because none of the respondents knew anything about this guy’s business, what his goals were, who he was, what his message was, who his market was or what image he was trying to project. These are all the things that a professional would take into consideration carefully and spend time contemplating before even suggesting a solution.

This isn’t work, it’s a contest

I got an email the other day specifically addressed to me inviting me to enter a contest to come up with a new domain name for someone’s business. I was told that I would get $10 for my submission, and then if it were chosen as the best, I would “win” $500. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link to see what this was all about. There were very specific parameters for this project. It was a domain for a new dating website, but it wasn’t just a domain they were looking for, actually it was a brand name. It had to be nine letters or less, had to be a .com address, had to be available, had to be unique and not trademarked or used by any other business, and it had to capture the essence of the philosophy of their site. There was also a long list of words that could not be used. It was suggested that the estimated work time on this project would be ten minutes. That’s right, I said ten minutes. It was also stated that this was the second contest they were holding because the first one “did not generate the kind of results that they were looking for.” Hmm, you think they mean PROFESSIONAL results?

More is better

Would you rather savor one incredibly delicious meal created by a talented chef or would you rather stuff yourself with unlimited piles of junk food? Crowd sourcing is like a junk food feast. The premise (I think) behind crowd sourcing is that if you get a ton of responses, you will have a bigger pool to choose from, increasing your chances of getting the results you are looking for. More is better, right? If the goal is to find quality creative work, then the answer is no. Anyone willing to enter a “contest” is not going to be giving you professional work. They’ll spend the ten minutes to take a chance – kind of like buying a lottery ticket. But let me let you in on a little secret: Believe it or not, great graphics, design, writing, naming, branding, and marketing all take talent, experience, creativity, knowhow, and time. Instead of blowing your budget on a contest that generates piles of amateur entries, spend your money on talent. You know, someone who will spent some time THINKING and talking to you about your business and what you hope to achieve. That my friends, takes more than ten minutes.

I’ll pay you if I like you

There are numerous sites popping up that are going beyond the bidding wars of sites like elance or odesk for creative work, but they actually solicit suckers to do the work up front, upload it for all to see, and only pay the one that is chosen as the best either by the poster or by votes from the crowd. Would you walk into competing bakeries, eat their respective cakes, and only pay for the one that you think tastes best? Would you expect to have several landscapers come to your house, plant their gardens, build their stone walls and only pay the one who you think did the best job? This is called working on spec. I don’t understand how this approach to hiring creative work is acceptable. It’s a cop out really on the part of the hiring person. They apparently are not willing to take the risk or the heat of hiring the wrong person. Maybe it comes from a lack of confidence in knowing what is good creative or not, but if you do your homework, look at experience, previous work and get recommendations from others who the creatives have worked with, then educated choices can be made. Anyone who is willing to put their time and energy into creating something without knowing whether or not they will be paid is clearly either desperate or an amateur looking to build a portfolio.

I’m not a real ______, I just play one on the Internet

Ah, the self proclaimed guru problem again. I recently wrote about that subject here. But for true designers, writers, marketers or anyone else who offers creative consulting services to business, the guru problem has invaded their potential for livelihood like Kudzu in a Louisiana swamp. Again, it’s a matter of research. Know who you are working with and find out if a person has ever done what they profess themselves to be.

The bottom line is that you have a choice. It all depends on what your goals are. You can risk your budget and/or brand on a contest with amateurs who will only spend a few minutes on your project, or you can do your homework and hire a professional who will take a vested interest in your business’ success. Your success, image and happiness is their success, image and happiness. Don’t underestimate the power of talent.

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The American Idol Guide to Brand Building

idol-logoOk, I’m going to make a confession. I’m coming out of the closet and admitting that I watch American Idol.
There, I said it. But it’s not what you think.
Although I always pride myself as someone who generally operates outside of the mainstream, I find myself intrigued by this American Idol phenomenon. It’s not because I love the music or the contestants or that I get caught up in the voting frenzy. I don’t wear t-shirts with “I heart whoever” or make signs on poster board with glitter markers saying “Whoever rocks my world.” I actually can’t stand most of the music and contestants. But what does intrigue me is looking at American Idol as a study in mass market brand building. Although Fox tries to make its viewership think otherwise, this show really isn’t about listening to singers perform, enjoying the music or finding the best of the best. It’s about the guided and careful crafting of a mass market commodity. It’s about the structured building of a product and an incredible buzz machine. It’s about the selling of lots of stuff to the masses.

From the beginning of the season where hundreds of thousands of singing and screeching characters prance through, do their thing and either get booted out or “Go to Hollywood,” the brand building has already begun. The producers choose who to feature more heavily in clips, quietly influencing the soon to be voting public on who they feel has the most potential as a marketable product. The contenders are chosen for their poignant stories of a desire to overcome poverty, crime, disease, homelessness, blindness, loss of a loved one or shyness. They are chosen for their good voices or their quirky interpretations of standard songs. They are chosen because they are eye candy or they are the ugly duckling with a great voice, but with a hip haircut and a trip to the mall, they might actually look pretty good. The producers are looking for a brand story, a decent product and a good package.

I watch Simon Cowell as he observes the singers before him. He’s not just listening, but he’s looking. He’s checking out their demeanor, their style, their song choice, their hairdo, their clothes, their facial expression, their personal story and he’s measuring the potential marketability and pliability of this commodity that stands before him. You hear comments like “you are so commercial” or “you are this kind of ‘artist’” or “I love your look.” You see week after week, contestants trying so hard to be what the judges are telling them they should be. An artist can’t be crafted. It’s quite sad really. The art isn’t in the music; the art is in the building a money making machine, this American Idol brand – the show itself, the record deals, the tours, the gear, the ringtones, the commercials, the sponsorships. It’s like watching a Walmart product being molded and manufactured and promoted before your eyes. It is guided crowd sourcing.

American Idol is a reflection of what I see happening more and more in business and online. Crowd sourced opinions and masses being guided unknowingly by those who have marketed themselves as authority figures are becoming the norm. Real talent, skill, creativity, experience and innovation don’t seem to be noticed, valued or rewarded as much anymore. Mass appeal seems to be winning over originality, and fame and/or fortune seem to be the primary goals. Is that really what Americans idolize? If so, maybe I need to move somewhere else.

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