Crowdsourcing your brand’s next smash hit

Asking interested consumers for product ideas and other feedback is becoming a popular strategy for PR and marketing pros, but it’s not for everyone. Just ask Mr. Splashy Pants.

If you’ve been to the store lately, chances are you’ve seen a few products of crowdsourcing. (Wasabi Ginger or Cappuccino Lay’s, anyone?)

Many brand managers have embraced the spirit of asking consumers what they think, and their brands have gained from it.

Instead of using an internal team or outside specialist, crowdsourcing taps into collective smarts to get product ideas, logos, brand names, and other campaign ideas. If your company is thinking of trying that approach, consider these factors first.

Asking your audience can be a big win

Doritos has been crowdsourcing Super Bowl commercials for years, and crowds aren’t tired of it yet. According to Advertising Age, the brand had two of the four most effective Super Bowl spots in 2012 and has consistently won the USA Today Ad Meter poll.

Consumer ideas don’t just get ratings, either.

The process to create a Fisher-Price character is often a lengthy and expensive one. However, by using ideas from its social community, the toy brand created two new characters for its Little People line within four weeks, spending only $10,000.

The characters are also more likely to be successful—after all, the ideas came from the community that buys the toys.

Crowdsourcing that’s done right can harness the trove of ideas from consumers ready to take part in improving products, services, and customer relations.

The risks

Many brands—such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, Amazon, and Lego—have successfully asked consumers for opinions on products, shows, and other marketing matters. Still, crowdsourcing doesn’t come without a few dangers, such as intellectual property theft, privacy violations, and even reputation damage.

Crowdsourcing can also threaten professionals and drive down quality. For example, many companies go to stock photo sites or Flickr instead of freelance photographers, and professionals can’t compete when the going rate is little to nothing.

Professional designers have railed against logo competitions, arguing that only one person is being paid for professional work. Designers, in particular, expect to be paid for the work brands don’t use, along with what they do.

“Thriving on risk is what makes the difference between break-out success versus consistent mediocrity,” says Sandra Fathi, president and founder of Affect Communications.

Just make sure your risk isn’t a blind guess, but a solid decision.

Considerations for brand managers

Pros should make sure their communities are ready and willing to give opinions, and should pose questions in such a way as to assure members of the community that the brand isn’t taking advantage of them. Brand managers should also be willing to adjust if a campaign is hijacked by the crowd and taken in another direction.

Greenpeace learned this lesson when the Internet settled on a name for one of the humpback whales it was trying to save: “Mr. Splashy Pants.”

Though it wasn’t close to the original, internal thought process—Greenpeace chose names like Aiko, Libertad, and, Kaimana—the nonprofit embraced the silly name, turning a potential PR mess into a social media hit.

Ultimately, brands shouldn’t use crowdsourcing unless they’re going to use the ideas they gather.

Consumers can quickly figure out whether companies sincerely want to gather new ideas or if it’s just a ploy for engagement.The lack of participation won’t be the only result of those failed attempts; reputations can suffer.

Crowdsource away, but do so with caution.

Beki Winchel is the co-editor of PR Daily.

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