Seeking wisdom of the crowd isn’t always a wise idea.

September 2, 2020

Everybody loves to win. Contests are a great way to engage your audience in a way that other marketing does not.  It gives people a chance to gain a valuable product or free year of service for low effort in the name of promotion.  Yet not all contests benefit you the way you expect, especially the ones that involve contestant submitting Intellectual Property. Having a contest open to the public to determine the next name, logo, flag or look for your endeavor is risky. Polling the public is fine when the stakes are low. But you when you have decisions that could make a big impact on the public perception of your business or affect its bottom line, why outsource the thinking to people who don’t understand your business as well as you do? Answering this question requires a closer examination of why you might be tempted to do so, reasons this approach isn’t always a great idea, and what you might want to consider instead.

Why you might be inclined

Where do you start? The crowd knows.

Sometimes a situation predates your experience and you are at a loss for direction. Where do you start? How do you begin? You know you need insight and you might need guidance. You also know you need results and answers. You might even have budget or time restrictions. But starting your project by asking for the answers first is like looking at someone’s exam during a test during school. It is an answer. It is also their answer. And like an exam, the time to learn the answer is before the exam. Unless you are on a gameshow, polling the audience can be dangerous, and even then it is not foolproof.

Many significant projects that affect a large group of people require market research, giving you valuable insight as to whom you are really speaking and what they expect from you. Are you doing things that are working and should not be abandoned? Or have you been investing in resources that are ineffective? When you speak to those expectations and insights, you build trust. If you ignore them, you lose trust and show that you are out of touch with what, in your audience’s eyes, made you, well… you.

It’s the crowd’s decision. Not mine.

You might be thinking you can defer the responsibility of the decision. This may seem like a great idea at first until you have a Boaty McBoatface situation on your hands and you realize that this brilliant scheme isn’t so brilliant. This plan rolls out two ways; 1. If everyone suggests and selects something great, you’re a hero and are praised, 2. The participants choose something unorthodox, uninspiring or contentious; you are absolved of accountability because it is the choice of the people. Compelling stance, yet as a leader, are you absolved of the duty to lead the contest, accept or deny the results and determine the “winner?” But if you accept the results of a, for the lack of a better term, bad submission you have to live with this result, most likely for years. You are steering a boat you didn’t mark the course for.

It’s all about publicity. Isn’t it?

You could also be thinking that a clever strategy to market something is to get the audience involved early. The earlier the better, right? If a contest gets publicity, people will be excited about the result through the process. Well sometimes being first out of the gate does not mean first overall.  

Raising interest in something too early can backfire. You ask a mass of people to submit ideas and they do. You release the submissions to continue the buzz.  Everyone that submitted ideas, and those who did not, have their favorite. When the concept that they were rooting for is not the winner, people don’t automatically abandon their loyalty to their cause. After all, they weren’t persuaded in the first place. Why would the final selection change their mind?

Why you should not

Let’s now examine some undeniable truths and negative consequences about crowdsourcing ideas.

How well does the crowd know your business?

You just asked, let’s say, 10,000 people their opinion. Do you know their experience? Have they done this, or something related, before? Do you know their intentions? The people who participate will only be the people who heard of the contest, determine it is worth their time, can participate within the timeframe and agree to the rules. Often, that is not a large sample size of quality candidates. Even worse, contributors most likely fall within two categories; amateurs and trolls.

Amateurs are budding in their craft and are thankful for the opportunity. It is a bragging right or a portfolio builder for them as they get their dream off the ground. They may consider their first thought their best thought and not refine their idea for it to have a broader appeal. Amateurs are also part-time and may not be committed or invested they way a professional would. They may have an idea while driving their car home from work and may never try to attempt something like this again.

False Results

Crowdsourcing the answers from the Internet may seem foolproof. It worked for Wikipedia. Yet, most likely your audience is not the whole Internet. And that is an important distinction, who is on the Internet and what do they want verse who your audience is and what they need. Are the intentions of your participants in your interest? There are plenty of Internet trolls out there that will be involved and disrupt things that don’t affect them because it would be fun to suggest something ridiculousor malicious.

Once again, who are these people? Do they interact with what you do? Are they your audience? Do they represent the sentiments of your audience or are they an outlier suggesting an idea that they love but expresses the interest of 5%?

Legal Concerns

Whether the contributor is an amateur or troll, don’t think there are not legal concerns. An amateur will not be professionally invested the same way a company would be with their reputation or the legal consequences of poorly executing the deliverables.

Your contest may have rules. The participants can agree, yet litigation can still occur. It has been reported that for logo design contests online and open to the world, some “designers” submit work that is not theirs hoping to win. The Internet is rampant with fraud. Why open your organization up to such a liability? If the original owner of that work finds out and contacts you, now you have a legal burden; not from a contest participant but from a third-party. I must disclaim I am not a lawyer and the laws are different everywhere, so be sure to consult with your attorney before committing to new endeavors.

What should you do instead

We’ve looked at the reasons you might be inclined to crowdsource ideas that will impact your mission and its audience, and we’ve reviewed the risks. Now let’s look at the alternative to a contest, contacting an expert. Every field has an expert. Find them and work out the details.

Work with someone you trust. An Expert.

When you need legal advice, do you consult a lawyer or do you Google it? Was the answer you found clear and helpful? When you feel weird or sick inside, do you visit the doctor or WebMD for the answer? The latter will often suggest you have Cancer or another fatal disease.  

Working with an expert in the field is invaluable. People debate the monetary value of working with an expert, but one thing is for sure, the repercussions of not working with experts are often more costly.

Experts are guides. They know the process and take you and your team through it confidently. The process for a creative consultant is the same for most professional experts. They start every project with understanding, they develop appropriate solutions, and deliver them. Understanding can be as simple as learning your challenges and determining an objective or as complex as conducting research among your management, employees, customers and the public to determine what your challenges are. Understanding the challenge will, of course, influence the development of solutions.

Experts know how to navigate the waters of buy-in from multiple parties. Experts have perfected their craft to deliver solutions that are new, exciting and attractive. Experts know how to present to the public or aide you in your presentation when unveiling your new ideas.  Experts run their businesses with contracts and Agreements that address Title of Material, and that the authors admit the work they are providing is theirs to transfer and no one else’s.  Experts have a vested interest in providing quality solutions because their reputations are at stake.

How do you find an Expert?

There is an expert for everything and knowing whom to contact for the job is key. The creative field is rather expansive. Brand designers develop visual identities and logos. Copywriters craft messages that inform and emote. Photographers capture photos, but retouchers color-correct or photo-manipulate images. An illustrator masterfully creates illustrations. Even though each person or company serves a specific role, they may specialize in only food photography, sci-fi illustrations, or web copy.

This may seem confusing. How do you find what you need? Ask for referrals from people who have done similar projects or find creative work that excites you and research the creators. If you find the name of the company that made the impressive work but they are unable to work with you, they will most likely recommend a colleague that they respect.

Alternatively, you could release an open RFP  that would allow companies to compete for your business. They would pitch based upon their expertise, knowledge of your industry and product, price, and methodology. Some RFP’s are open and some are only by invitations.

Lastly, you can research for professional organizations that best relate to the profession in question, contact the board and inquire for recommendations. AIGA is the professional organization for design, which includes all types of designers (graphic, web, environmental, product) and also covers related fields like photographers and copywriters. PPA and APA are two American professional organizations for photographers. There is a professional organization for just about everything, vexillology, advertising, marketing, architecture, environmental design, illustrators, and many more.  

Now that you know why it is potentially harmful to run a contest that involves submitted intellectual property and what to do instead, think about crowdsourcing efforts that have been conducted. Was the payoff worth the risk? Or would it have been simpler and more effective to hire an expert?