(mis)Adventures in Crowdsourcing

There are few topics more contentious among marketing creatives than crowdsourcing.  The arguments both for and against are filled with so many bad analogies and hyperbole that it’s almost impossible to discuss civilly with anyone who has been involved in creative services longer than six months.  You can only tiptoe through the banana peels so long before you slip and have to run back to an oversimplification to save your argument.

If you boil down the concept behind crowdsourcing you usually come up with something along the lines of “the knowledge of the crowd is more vast than any one person.”  It’s one of those statements that’s hard to refute yet, the more you get into the specifics of crowdsourcing in application, the less it makes sense.

Crowdsourcing, in it’s modern form, is driven by the primary desire to cut costs.  There are instances of crowdsourcing achieving things that would be difficult for a small team, like the example Don Tapscott uses in his book Wikinomics of Goldcorp tapping the crowd to help them find better places to mine for gold, but the majority of crowdsourcing is used as a seemingly viable alternative to paying more.

The issue has grown a little more complicated as simple bargain creative services, like 99 Designs, have been birthed at higher levels.  One such case is the ad agency Victors and Spoils, which found itself on last year’s Advertising Age “Agencies to Watch” list.  While there aren’t many marketable designers fighting for $200 logo projects, V&S is competing against larger agencies by crowdsourcing the concepting phase of the creative process (the projects are then handed over to a fairly traditional structure of full timers and freelancers for execution/production).  It’s not just inexperienced ad school students and computer nerds from the Ukraine submitting ideas though.  I heard first hand that there are art directors from top 10 agencies who regularly work 60+ hour weeks that are also throwing their ideas in the ring, though they generally ask to credited as anonymous.  So, in this instance, you’re getting ideas from some of the same people you need a budget of $10 million+ to even ask to take your business.

The emergence of these kinds of companies are driven by problems at the height of the creative pyramid.  Hiring a top creative agency that pays top dollar for their creative talent is one of the most simultaneously risky and safest things to do for brands with wallets fat enough to even be in this position.  While you could argue that the majority of most marketing initiatives ultimately fail, some of the most detrimental black holes of substantial resources come at the hands of some of the most experienced marketers with some of the best portfolios at some of the most respected agencies.  A misfire in a print ad in a local paper probably won’t sink a business but an ineffective Super Bowl spot that does nothing but create negative sentiment for the brand can do lasting damage and often results in the squandering of the only chance that brand will have at that level of media.

On the other hand, no one has ever been fired for hiring the agency that put their competitor on the map.  Sometimes it’s easier to defend a colossal waste of resources than it is to defend the decision of taking a chance on an unproven creative entity.  This mentality is what keeps the Cannes crew in business and 45-year-old creative directors in expensive jeans.

At this higher level, the argument against crowdsourcing often comes down to the idea that experienced people are professionally cheating themselves by working on spec.  They’re devaluing creative work across the board by offering their expertise for free.  A good chef wouldn’t prepare three dishes and let you choose which one you wanted to pay for so why would you offer your work for nothing but a chance at getting paid?

This argument is new to the ad world but not to the business world.  Venture capitalists have a saying that “the idea is worthless.”  Most will say “we invest in teams, not in ideas.”  History backs this up as well.  There is virtually no marketplace for ideas but companies are routinely acquired for their teams and resources.  When Facebook bought Friendfeed, they had no use for the product but needed the team to help them develop the Facebook news feed, which is now the most popular part of the most successful private site in the history of the Internet.

The argument for participating in crowdsourcing ranges from “it’s worth a shot for the prize” to a claim that getting your work produced or applied is the only real reward for a creative that isn’t just working for a buck.  As a creative, are you intellectually cheating yourself by not taking advantage of the best opportunities to have your work go into production?  Is sitting at your desk pumping out banner ads that do nothing buy contribute to your savings account morally superior to your peers that participate in briefs that otherwise would never reach their desk?

Then there’s the question of quality.  Those opposed to crowdsourcing will tell you that “you pay for what you get” and you will suffer worse quality of work if you only rely on crowdsourcing.  This seems to be more of a hunch than a fact.  In my opinion, Victor and Spoils Dish Network campaign stands up against any broadcast work from a top ten agency this year, though I have no idea who is responsible for the concept.  On the other hand, Doritos has really put their creative in the hands of huge consumer creative group and their results are routinely mundane.  I won’t even bother to start rattling off examples of expensive ad campaigns that have done nothing but hurt their brands over the past 12 months.  You win some you lose some, I guess.  There certainly isn’t a formula for creative success.

So I had to find out for myself.  Is crowdsourcing really the end of the world as we know it or a democratized process that is a natural evolution for creative services?

On to the grand experiment…

To give this things a run, I committed to allowing the designers of 99 Designs to create a logo for me to put on consulting invoices and a placeholder Web site.  Hardly a prestigious honor but the logo would at least be applied in some way.  To top it off, there would be a prize of around $200 for the chosen designer, which is less than I’ve ever paid a designer for any project.  In fairness, I would treat every submission with just as much attention and feedback as I’d give a dedicated designer and I would answer any questions that came in.  I’d basically try to treat it like a normal project with a detailed brief and everything just to see what the bottom of the crowdsourcing pyramid could produce.

This proved to be quite a task when 77 designers submitted work, but I fought through it.  Even as many of the designers were obviously ripping each other off.

I then thought I would ask friends and colleagues, most of which touch creative services professionally in some way, to help me narrow it down to eight so I could use the voting tool on 99 Designs to pick a winner.

Boy was that a mistake.

Asking my personal network to participate in a crowdsourcing experiment was met with very long email threads, especially from people that wanted to inquire about this being an experiment that would result in me never hiring them again.  While there was one or two instances of positive feedback, the rest was almost universally against the very notion of exploring this concept.  A couple people even offered to best the competition for free, which pretty much defeated the purpose.  Also, out of about 18 thoughtful responses, most of which refused to vote for a design, only one submission got two votes and it was effectively cancelled out by a specific rant against that design by one of the non-voting malcontents.

So the experiment was cut short with the only real conclusion to be drawn being that the majority of my respected friends and colleagues despise the concept of crowdsourcing creative on almost every level.  Some to the point where they could barely articulate it apart from knowing in their hearts that it’s wrong.

My personal experience wasn’t quite as one-sided.  I found the people that submitted  designs to be just as easy to work with as designers who are being paid $125 or more an hour, although their work wasn’t nearly as consistently good as the people I use directly for client work.  Although I wasn’t really paying out of pocket, I still thought that the work was at least deserving of what was being paid.  The market for this level of service is probably as flawed as the system itself since a much higher quality of work could be achieved by going to a site like Behance and finding a good designer who charges a fair rate, which would probably only barely double the cost.  If you can’t pay $500 for a platform for your visual identity, I probably wouldn’t classify you as a business.

However, my larger conclusion about crowdsourcing as a concept was quite different.  I don’t, in fact, find anything fundamentally wrong with crowdsourcing except when the primary motivation is driving costs down, which does, most certainly, drive quality down as well.  You do still, in theory, get what you pay for up to perhaps the boutique agency level and then you start paying a premium to keep the larger machine running.  I realize that, in a sense, I do a lot of crowdsourcing as a consultant when I “bounce” projects off different people to both gauge their interest, initial impressions and their costs.  It may be to a much smaller and more filtered group due to my previous experience with them but it’s far from the blind faith that a brand puts in a large agency that is constantly churning industry talent.

The rise of crowdsourcing can be attributed to two primary factors: good people being out of work and a slow realization that traditional creative hubs aren’t delivering value consistently.  An economic comeback will be a huge blow to companies that are hanging their hat on crowdsourcing but an overall evolution of the management and thinking of top creative employers is possibly the only thing that will sink it.  Until then, it’s you against the crowd and you’re probably right if you think it’s an unfair fight.


Earned Media: Certified Organic

OrganicThere is a lot of talk about the “fine line” in PR now that social media has been pushing the envelope on what is acceptable to traditional PR practitioners (read: media relations).  You’ll hear that there is a “fine line” between PR and advertising now that PR is incentivizing non-journalists to broadcast various messages on behalf of their clients.  There is a “fine line” between Pay Per Post and paying a PR agency to try to get placements for you.  There is a “fine line” between sponsored posts and banner ads.

The lines get less fine when you revert back to definitions that few will disagree with.  You generally won’t get into a big argument when you separate PR from advertising as the difference between paid media and earned media.  Paid media has certain benefits, like being predictable, as does earned media, like generally being more trustworthy.

If you’re paying for placement through a company like Izea, Pay Per Post or BlogHer, you’re not doing PR…or you’re just doing it badly.  Clients pay PR people to craft persuasive messaging and develop assets to support this messaging, which can then be used to reach influencers and shift sentiment around an issue or news item.  These services aren’t necessarily immoral (thought I don’t personally like them) but they are paid media and should be purchased by media companies and advertisers and held to the same standards as other media buys.

Why is this an important distinction to make?

Put simply, it’s because organic impressions are worth so much more than manufactured impressions.  Social media, blog-related media in particular, is going through something that search engines went through a little while ago in that they’re trying to figure out the right place for sponsored content among organic content.  Today search is a more mature industry and the brands that are investing in SEM have a clear understanding of the difference in value between paid search and organic search results.

PR can play a very strong role in organic social media marketing if it’s willing to distance itself from paid media.  I won’t argue that paid media doesn’t have a place in this mix (in fact, this looks about right to me) but public relations needs to take it’s discipline a lot more seriously before someone else steps in and becomes a better resource for working your brand into this media segment organically.

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Does the Creative Dept of Your Agency Need to be Shaken Up?

French painterSocial media presents an interesting challenge to agency creative departments.  In many ways, the rise of a largely consumer generated media entity is a potential pitfall for ad creatives.  By definition, it seems that they are almost completely unnecessary in a consumer generated world yet they’re still part of it.

Fortunately for the creative class, brands have been elbowing their way into this space for a few years now and most of them aren’t willing to give up control of their brand to the masses.  Instead, they’re always looking for new ways to “get their message out” at any cost through these channels and that falls squarely into the strength of the modern agency structure.  “Help me push in an environment I’m not comfortable in!”

This has created an interesting distinction between paid media and earned media.  In areas of the world like China, where BBS dominates, brands have been more reluctant to jump in because the channels provided few, if any, safeguards. Brands haven’t made as strong of a shift away from paid media in these markets because the opportunities in social media haven’t really matched up to many of their strengths as marketers.  Why waste resources in earned media when you get a better return through traditional channels?

In the US and UK, things are different.  The social media market for advertisers has largely adopted a version of the traditional advertising model.  If you look at the glorified brochureware sites that support most packaged good brands, you’ll often find a social media element squeezed in amongst a heavily manicured Flash animation or a wrapper for video.  Design a can, submit your picture with our product, make our next commercial, tell us what this means to you…rarely a compelling interaction and usually a behavior that needs to be significantly incentivized to be successful.

Why is this?

The reason is largely due to the pedigree of the creative class.  With few exceptions, most creative professionals come from a background in visual design or film.  It’s no wonder that agencies have embraced the concept of the “viral video” when it is primarily a version of the 60-second spot with less constraints.

There is a problem though.  Social media isn’t about video or visual design.

Yes, video and visual design play an important role in some aspects of social media but it is, by no means, a requirement.  When you look at actual creativity within the social space, it’s not something that’s clearly driven by titles like designer, copywriter or producer.  It’s a new kind of creativity that involves almost a mix of UX and sociology.  How do people want to engage with this brand in a social context and what is the most compelling way to facilitate that engagement?  Hint: it rarely requires a Flash microsite or shooting a video.

What is required is shaking up the creative structure of most agencies.  You’re starting to see plenty of social media strategists at big interactive firms but how many social media creatives do you see?  How many creative directors are really experts on social media and don’t come from design backgrounds?  How many even understand basic principles and ethics of word-of-mouth marketing, which is the closest discipline to social media?

As always, I love to be corrected so if you know of any social media specialists that sit within the creative department of a major agency please let me know and I will post an update.  If you’re in a creative director role and think you’re doing just fine, I’d be equally interested to hear from you.

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Bud Light: The Difference is Friendability

facebook-bud-lightBrands have struggled with how to integrate with emerging media channels for a long long time now.  Social networks are no longer “new” to most people under 40-years-old.  Brands have been creating MySpace pages and online communities for almost a decade.  Unfortunately for many companies, not all brands are the kinds of brands that people want to interact with on those platforms.

Some brands, like perhaps an online shoe store, fall into this category.  Do I really want to be “friends” with the company that ships me shoes?  This is the challenge that Zappos must’ve felt.  However, Zappos is a company that has a pretty clear idea of who their customers are and how they might want to interact with their brand.  If you look at how they use a channel like Twitter, you can see a somewhat organic conversation taking place between Zappos employees (including the CEO) and a select group of stakeholders.  If you’re really interested in how the company operates, they even offer a variety of behind-the-scenes content on their Facebook page.  It’s not for everyone but it’s a way to build a deeper connection with a select group of stakeholders who have a pretty high probability of becoming advocates for your brand.

That’s fine for a company that ships shoes but what if you’re a beer brand?  Your brand is synonymous with fun and socializing.  There are few brands that would seem so uniquely suited for seamless social media integration than an alcohol brand that is so closely associated with the very behavior that these platforms are trying to extend.

Then why do brands like Bud Light fail so clumsily in this regard?

As I was traveling and concerned that my favorite hockey team might be falling out of playoff contention, I checked ESPN, only to find a prominent and expensive banner ad from Bud Light asking me to become their friend on Facebook.  Being somewhat nuetral to Bud Light as a brand but fascinated by what a company that spends hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising would do with a platform like Facebook, I clicked through and prepared to become a “fan” of the brand.

Unfortunately, once you click through, you’re greeted with BL Central.  At BL Central you either send a beer (or a basketball[?]) to a friend, which is quite possibly one of the most innane and low level social interactions enabled by Facebook, or you can watch a series of commercials, which you may have already seen a few dozen times depending on whether or not you own a TV.  What else does one of the largest media buyers in American advertising invest in?  How about some desktop backgrounds and a PDF of the March Madness basketball tournament that hasn’t been updated since the tournament started?

So why does Budweiser have such weak profile of their customers compared to a company like Zappos, who has a much smaller and difficult customer base to reach?  Why can’t a relatively bottomless media budget and the help of some of the most skilled agencies in the country do anything to convert someone like myself into a brand advocate?

The difference is the brand culture.  Bud has bought their way into our culture through paid media in an era when brands had limited options to reach consumers in a meangingful way.  Yes, “friending” Bub Light will result in a certain amount of advocacy when your social network sees your association with the brand but it’s unlikely anyone will see your desktop background and, if they do, the reflection isn’t wholly positive on the brand.

It’s worth noting that this hasn’t hurt Bud Light.  The company sells a lot of beer and shows no signs of fading.  Similarly, their activity in social media is hardly a huge part of their marketing expenditures.

The failure is in the missed opportunity.  How could Bud Light fund a social utility that would promote their brand image for the same amount they spend on disposable media?  How could Bud Light’s numerous sponsorships – real brand experiences for many people – leverage social media to enhance the events and places that now only act as logo holders for the brand?  How could Bud Light come to life online like it does in a bar or any of the settings it exists organically?  If Zappos can invite you to their water cooler what’s stopping Bud Light from clinking glasses with you?

The answer is that they can and probably will but, for now, companies that were born into this environment will excell at building their brands in this tiny corner of the media universe while the brands that are positioned to benefit the most will continue to stumble around looking for ways to replicate the simplicity of how they originally carved out their niche in our culture.

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Don’t Hassle Me, I Advertise Local

dont_hassle_me_im_local_shirt-p235996556728301186yqms_400Sarah Lacy stoked the fires of a debate that a lot people, including myself, aren’t looking forward to having in a recent article in Business Week.  Will local advertising online be hurt by the same pressures that are killing local newspapers?

Obviously, many people are betting that the answer will be no.  The New York Times is launching a series of local blogs and ESPN is just begining to roll out a series of local sports sites.  Even a hack like me is involved in an attempt to capitalize on the Great Newspaper Extinction.  Are we all wrong?

It’s clearly not Craig’s fault alone.  It’s also highly unlikely that an overabundance of inventory is driving the price down since there really aren’t too many online media properties that have nailed the local thing.

I’d love for someone to prove me wrong here but I think it’s the advertisers.  Yes, I’m sure the economy factors in substantially, but I really think it’s far more of a cultural factor.  Media buyers were always more comfortable with newspapers in their regional buys but the small businesses that are the staples of this segment aren’t as comfortable with ad networks and buying across disparate channels.  Sure, they can probably understand basic CPM advertising but they don’t understand bidding for space across multiple sites and the various advanced targeting that is available through all the modern ad networks.  Alienate people with technology and they will go away.

So maybe the blame needs to be shared.  The ad networks haven’t made the adjustments necessary to keep the advertisers spending in a rapidly evolving media landscape.  Of course, i don’t think this is a permanent trend.  In fact, I think we’ll see the advertisers come back long before the economy follows.  It’s more of a learning curve than a overarching environmental condition.

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Buzz Off, and Please Make It Viral

beeThere are a lot of terms in this new world of marketing that I really hate.  I’ve written before about how I believe that nothing is really “viral.”  I work in an industry where I get calls out of the blue asking me how much it would cost for us to do a viral video for brand X.  Or how can we stop the “blog chatter” around some bad news (this is usually involving a blog with millions of readers).  Or how do we generate some early “buzz” around an announcement that no one really cares about.

Ben McConnell tackled the issue of word-of-mouth vs buzz quite adeptly in a recent blog post.  He defined “word-of-mouth” as follows:

Word of mouth is a byproduct of a remarkable culture. It’s how companies like 37 Signals, Discovery Education, and The Container Store grow and flourish. Their companies are organized around a well-defined purpose and strong values, which may not be for everyone, but they’re important enough to a significant group of people.

Subsequently, he describes “buzz” quite differently:

Buzz is the result of word-of-mouth marketing. Its results are typically short-term. Gimmicks are common, and examples abound.

I would take it one step further.

Word-of-mouth is an actual marketing behavior, like executing a call to action.  It’s a marketing conversion that can be measured.

Buzz is the perception of word-of-mouth activity.  You can manufacture buzz, much like McConnell shows in his post, but it doesn’t have to be real.  While buzz can be the result of widespread word-of-mouth activity, it can also be created in a void by PR and advertising.  How often does a film having “Oscar buzz” actually result in an Oscar?  There’s often no delivering on the buzz promise, which is a pretty good sign that it’s been manufactured.

It will be a good day for all marketers when terms like “viral” and “buzz” are put to bed and we can finally focus on measurable behaviors that actually support quality brand values.

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What’s with the Advertising?


You may be wondering why you suddenly see advertising on this blog.  Well, don’t worry…it’s not about to become a giant billboard.  I’m merely participating in an experiment that attempts to quantify what kinds of blogs get the best click throughs with AdSense and where those click throughs appear.  After a few months the ads will be gone and everything will be back to normal.  Until then, feel free to click on anything that appeals to you or, by all means, ignore them.

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Greatest Internet Phenomenons of 2007: Widgets

WidgetsAlthough I might not call it the Year of the Widget, like GigaOm, 2007 was definitely the year when Internet junkies seemed to finally reach consensus on a word that was as alienating to non-geeks as “wiki.” With Internet publishers yearning for more power with less knowledge of what they were doing, the concept of portable code became more and more attractive to less and less sophisticated publishers. You can probably trace it back as far as the first WYSIWYG editors and then onto the various publishing platforms that have made the idea of publishing content less frightening to people who don’t know what “a href” means but 2007 was probably the first year where consumers felt comfortable being the mules for their favorite services or destinations.

While blogs can definitely account for what drives a lot of widgets, it was really the social networks that took the concept from being a fringe technology to a ubiquitous presence on cites like MySpace. Of course, widgets could also be blamed for the many annoyances of MySpace that are driving more and more users to the cleaner Facebook, where widgets remarkably become “applications.” The movement continues to expand and suddenly Google jumps in with OpenSocial and suddenly the entire social networking world can add widgets with a few clicks. No more embedding code or giving third parties your login information. Widgets are now only a click away.

Oh right, and then the advertisers caught on. Now this seemingly altruistic sharing of development resources could be funded by the beloved brands that ship shoes across the country for us to try on and send back and the ones that sell us leftovers that people didn’t want the first time they were marketed to them. Yes, why just share when you can sell other people’s products for free.

Ok, maybe advertisers haven’t quite figured this out yet.

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