Four crowdsourcing pitfalls & how to avoid them

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Crowdsourcing is a powerful tool for sourcing fresh ideas, engaging your audience, and reaching new people. But great crowdsourcing campaigns don’t happen by themselves – there are best practices to consider and pitfalls to avoid. A poorly-framed or badly managed crowdsourcing attempt can sap time, resources, or even do damage to your brand and reputation. Here are four classic crowdsourcing pitfalls and how to avoid them. Twitter

1. Underestimating critics

When you’re embedded in a company, it’s easy to develop an “in-group” mentality which focuses on the positive aspects of the work you do, while downplaying or even ignoring any critical perspectives. Your organization’s “enemies” will be quick to appear and act on any opportunity to publicly tease, criticize, or embarrass – resulting in crowdsourcing pitfalls. Twitter

One example of crowdsourcing gone wrong is McDonald’s 2012 attempt to collect heartwarming brand anecdotes using the hashtag #McDStories on Twitter. One can imagine the one-sided internal mindset that concocted the idea – full of positive guesses for the types of inspiring stories that customers and employees alike might be inspired to share. But it doesn’t take a social media pundit to guess what happened when the campaign launched. Twitter users shared hundreds of dark, dystopic McDonald’s stories involving Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, and rotten bandages found at the bottom of food containers. This could have been avoided with a more realistic internal attitude toward the company’s critics.

Another similar failure was the New York City Police Department’s 2014 attempt to humanize their workforce with the Twitter hashtag #myNYPD. They called for New Yorkers to share images of positive interactions with local officers. Overnight, more than 70 000 people had used the hashtag as an opportunity to critique the police, tweeting images of citizens being forcefully searched, beaten, handcuffed, and even killed. Again, this PR nightmare could have been avoided if someone internally had raised their hand and reminded their colleagues that the organization has many sharp critics.

2. Unwanted humor

The Internet is full of clowns. In the best case scenario, you’d want to harness this comedic energy for your own purposes. But more often than not, such colorful enthusiasm results in crowdsourcing pitfalls as it is hurled against the objectives of a campaign, rather than leveraged in its favor. Twitter

One of the most memorable crowdsourced comedic hijinks in recent memory is the time the British National Environment Research Council asked the public to name a $287 million polar research vessel. One user submitted the childish, but admittedly funny name Boaty McBoatface, and the rest was history. Votes shot through the roof. The campaign caught on like wildfire and was covered by all the major news outlets. Google searches for “NERC” rose over 100%. Although you could see this misplaced humor as a problem for the esteemed arctic researchers, Forbes astutely pointed out the old adage that “all press is good press.” Though at first this seems like an embarrassing misstep – the fact that such attention has been brought to important research on climate change is a positive thing for the organization. It was indeed a lucky break; such a positive outcome may not necessarily have been the case in other companies or contexts.

A similar story comes from Kraft foods, who turned to the public to name a new spreadable version of the popular Vegemite in Australia. Jars of the new product went on store shelves with labels reading, “Name Me.” More than 48 000 people responded to the call, and the name with the most votes ended up being something very strange. To much public ridicule, the product was dubbed iSnack2.0, a cheeky riff on digital product names of the early 2000’s. Advertising professionals were left wondering why the multi-billion dollar brand didn’t save face by simply filtering out the ridiculous-sounding name submissions.

3. Appealing to a too-general audience

The general public can be asked to spend 30 seconds thinking up a new name for a boat or a vegetable-based spread, but any more effort than that is probably asking too much. Too many crowdsourcing pitfalls have happened because an appeal was made to the general public when it should have been targeted at a professional or cultural niche. Twitter You can leverage the innate group dynamics of specialist communities – especially the drive to share and compete. 

Google’s Little Box Challenge was a great example of how a highly specialized community is motivated by the opportunity to show off a bit in front of their academic peers. The challenge was for electrical engineers with “a healthy disregard for the perceived limits of engineering,” tasked with figuring out how to fit an industrial-strength battery into the size of a notebook.

Highly specialized engineers from all around the world submitted their designs. Finalists hailed from universities and private companies from Switzerland to Slovakia.

NASA also uses crowdsourcing to mine a highly specialized hive mind of aeronautical talent from around the world. As said by Jason Crusan, NASA’s director of the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation, NASA leverages the Internet to “tap into the diverse intellects and talents available around the world.”

4. Offering no reward

There are lots of ways to motivate a global crowd and reward participation. Twitter Crowdsourcing has the potential to connect like-minded peers and mentors from around the globe. In a carefully-managed crowdsourcing community, peers will even give give each other feedback, helping one another to continue to learn and even develop new skills. Participants can also be incentivized through access to unique and exclusive projects and résumé-worthy clients.

Cash prizes also boost the scale and quality of crowdstorm participation. For example, Google’s Little Box Challenge had a $1 000 000 prize for the first-place winner, with great results. jovoto also uses cash prizes for winners, and importantly, participants whose contributions are favorites of the creative community itself.

Interested in testing the waters with crowdsourcing? At jovoto, we’re experts, and have run hundreds of successful, fruitful crowdstorms. We help brands with their design and innovation challenges, and avoid these and other crowdsourcing pitfalls. Browse our resource center to view case studies that show how we’ve teamed up with great companies to effectively leverage the power of the crowd.


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Katie Shelly

Katie Shelly is an experience designer with a 6 year track record in understanding people through human-centered design. She's currently earning her MA in Digital Experience Design at Hyper Island.