Why crowdsourcing isn't a synonym for community

Jan. 18th, 2010

In these economically challenged times, what company isn't attracted to the idea of crowdsourcing to generate free marketing content? As the saying goes, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and crowdsourcing can actually cost your business plenty in lost revenue, customers, and perception.

Using the Internet to broadcast an open call to a crowd for contributions can generate a lot of ideas for your marketing campaign. Those ideas, though, can vary widely in value, and this can cost you in time spent sifting through the slough of submissions to find the gold nugget buried among the silt. Even then, the end result may backfire, as it did for Toyota in Australia.

Toyota gave five agencies a $15,000 budget to create an ad for Yaris for the Australian market. One of the agencies, Saathchi & Saatchi, crowdsourced its entry but received few results. When Toyota reviewed the finalists from each agency, it chose the video submitted by Saatchi & Saatchi.

The public response to the crowdsourced video was disastrous. The ad, called Clean Getaway, drew a lot of backlash for having incestuous overtones and being degrading to women. Needless to say, Toyota pulled the video from YouTube.

Toyota's experience raises an important point about using crowdsourcing as a marketing technique: You have to know enough about it to pull off an effective, successful campaign. I'm sure the notion of a crowdsourced video ad for its Yaris product seemed like a cool idea to the marketing folks at Toyota. However, the company might have had better success in attracting and retaining customers—and in reinforcing a positive brand identity—had it invested in creating a loyal customer community and tapping that resource for its ad.

Here's why: Any crowd responding to your campaign is probably not made up in large part by your customers. Any Tom, Dick, or Mary can submit an idea in response to your query, but this random person on the Web doesn't have a vested interest in your business the way an established customer does.

In contrast, creating a community of your customers gives you group of shareholders who do have a vested interest in your company, your products, and your success.  And this community is likely to provide far more valuable feedback and ideas for your business.

Flor, for example, reached out to its community to solve a problem. The company invited customers—not a random crowd—to create designs for area rugs using the company's carpet tiles. What Flor received were great design ideas that the company could then use as new products.

Similarly, Threadless, a T-shirt company in Chicago, has built its business on a tight group of loyal customers. In fact, this Chicago T-shirt company maintains an ongoing, open call for design submissions. It may sound like crowdsourcing, but it's not.

Threadless has built a community based on knowing what interests its customers and giving them a place on its website where they could not only submit design ideas, but also vote on designs and exchange ideas with others. In return for its investment in a close-knit community, Threadless gets quality designs for products it can sell.

This kind of community involvement requires reward and recognition. In other words, give credit where credit is due. Threadless does just that—and more. The customer whose T-shirt design is selected for printing gets credit on the company's website, $2,000 in cash, a $500 Threadless gift certificate, and more.

Crowdsourcing may be a less expensive way to generate marketing content, but it may not be the best way. Consider whether creating a carefully cultivated community would provide better value—and content—for your marketing dollars over the long term.

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