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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8 comments so far. Leave a comment.

  1. John Cavanaugh

    wrote on March 23, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Cheryl,

    I shook my head in knowing agreement several times while I was reading this (unfortunately).

    Once my agency had a logo presentation for a company that was re-branding. At the end of the presentation, the CEO invited all 72 people in the company to line up in front of our boards and choose one of the four we presented. At the end – surprise – we were told that since there wasn’t a majority opinion we had to do it again. Awesome.

    Crowd information is, at best, one small element of means. It is NOT and end.

    Great post. Sorry it was necessary!

  2. Cheryl Andonian aka Momblebee

    wrote on March 23, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    Thanks John. It takes some bravery and confidence to move forward in business without having to have group decisions on everything. Was there another vote taken on your second round concepts?

  3. Tad Dobbs

    wrote on March 23, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Cheryl,
    Thanks for another great post. Business should look at hiring a creative agency from the same perspective as hiring a new manager. Interview them, ask to see past work, ask who will be working on the project and even follow up on references. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a contest to hire a brand manager or marketing VP, so I can’t understand the logic for hiring someone based off a contest. To do a successful job you have to start with research and strategy which is the major element missing from crowd sourcing, contests and spec work.

    @John Sadly, I had a similar scenario when presenting logos to a client at a past job. We thought we’d be presenting to the CEO, but when we arrived he called all 50 employees in to provide feedback as we presented. We were asked to leave the room for 30 minutes for everyone to discuss. When we returned the group decided to have a brainstorming session to redefine the goals, mission and brand value statements that were established in a previous meeting. We were just spectators, as they discouraged us from contributing to the discussion. It was a very strange experience, and ultimately they ended up liking the first version presented in round 1. It’s a shame that it took 4 more rounds to arrive at that decision.

    Thanks for the great post.

  4. Cheryl Andonian aka Momblebee

    wrote on March 23, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Tad,
    I think there is a general sense in many circles that creative work is something anyone can do. If you have a computer, then you can be a writer. If you buy some logo software at Staples, then you can be a graphic designer. If you buy and existing product off the shelf and copy it, then you too can start your own brand. The right side of the brain doesn’t seem to be as valued as much as the left by certain business types. There is a lack of understanding of the complexity of the creative process. Thanks for stopping by again and adding your thoughts.
    Cheryl

  5. Greg Satell

    wrote on March 24, 2010 at 1:53 am

    Cheryl,

    Great post.

    Another point is continuity. Creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but in how it achieves specific goals and that requires a stable strategy.

    Secondly, crowdsourcing brand creative is not requires a lot of built in brand equity that only established brands possess (i.e. Doritos).

    Coincidently, I just wrote a related posts about what types of associations work for different types of brands

    http://www.digitaltonto.com/2010/how-to-build-brand-associations/

    So the irony is, crowdsourcing works best for mature brands who have big budgets.

    - Greg

  6. Cheryl Andonian aka Momblebee

    wrote on March 24, 2010 at 7:12 am

    Greg,
    I suppose crowd sourcing (creative)may work in some unique instances for large established brands, but I think it would have to be for a specific novel campaign, rather than letting it rule overall creative direction for the brand…again, the Kraft iSnack 2.0 is a prime example of a disastrous attempt to leave branding in the hands of the masses.
    Thanks for adding your thoughts on the subject.
    Cheryl

  7. Terry

    wrote on March 25, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    And THIS is why I’ve become so cynical about this profession lately.

    Very good examples and arguments, Cheryl and all. I have others, but they just make my stomach hurt… :-{

  8. Cheryl Andonian aka Momblebee

    wrote on March 25, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Terry,
    Sorry – I really didn’t mean to make your belly hurt ;)
    Cheryl

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