Crowdsourcing is a term coined by Jeff Howe in a famous article in Wired magazine back in 2006 and later explored at length in a popular book by the same author. Howe described how the power and wisdom of crowds can be harnessed to produce solutions and results beyond the capability of individuals, as well as the impact of that opportunity on organizations and the speed of innovation. He traced the origin of this phenomenon to networked computers and the rise of open source software solutions. Today we see crowdsourcing applied to business problems as diverse as designing tee shirts and toys, managing stock funds, broadcasting traffic updates, aggregating news and other content (wikis), maintaining virtual environments, or selling goods and services. New enterprises have been born that rely heavily on crowdsourcing to either drive cost reduction or create revenue where previous frictions denied those opportunities. Not just a business tool, crowdsourcing can also be employed to resolve scientific, philanthropic, and governmental quandaries.
There are many avenues and even more motivations to tap the power of the crowd. The crowd may supply an answer that eludes you, skills you don’t possess, may provide free or cheap work, may respond more quickly than you could otherwise, or have access to the tools, audience, or geographic proximity you lack. The crowd may limit your risk while you simultaneously explore your own solutions, or bring a new perspective to a problem or opportunity. The crowd can be a focus group or an army of cost efficient labor bringing you ideas and work product if you can identify the organizational, operational, and technical means to harness it.
In e-marketing strategy, crowdsourcing solutions may allow the digital marketer the opportunity to explore channels they might not have used before due to budget, time, skill, or knowledge gaps. Video in particular lends itself to crowdsourcing due to the expense of professional video production and the rising call for video content. I explored this approach a bit with Neil Perry, president of Poptent (formerly XlntAds), who I can find readily enough as he is married to my business partner and we have often worked together.
Poptent is a crowdsourcing solution founded in 2007 that connects brand marketers with videographers to produce low cost, high quality commercial videos for use online or in television. It has a community of 18,000+ videographers – “creators” with a diverse set of skills and languages who complete video assignments on spec for Fortune 100 companies like P&G, Anheuser Busch, Unilever, and Callaway Golf. If you go there today, you will see prizes of up to $40,000 and a chance to create a new e*trade baby ad, among others. Creators range from college kids to wedding and bar mitzvah videographers to moonlighting ad agency creatives, but the largest group – about 30 percent of participants – is small boutique creative shops looking to get in front of these major brands.
It’s a model that benefits both the creator community (and, by extension, our industry by promoting needed talent) and the brands that use them. Poptent is about a month away from reaching 1 million dollars paid out to the creator community and it has some creators who are generating their primary income out of these assignments. The crowdsourcing model as embodied by Poptent and other competitors creates a true meritocracy where the quality of the work becomes primary and not the agency reputation or access to decision makers. This has helped produce some stunning success stories including young creators, 19 and 20 years old, who have had their work purchased by major companies like P&G.
According to Neil, there are two key reasons why big brands are embracing the crowdsourcing of video content:
“First, they have so many more needs for video now and it is getting cost prohibitive to produce all the video that they need across websites, microsites, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and other places. As brands are developing content across all these sites, they are looking for custom video that is appropriate. They can’t just slap the TV commercial that has been running for months onto these sites and expect anyone to pay attention to that video or to them. Which brings us to reason number two – cost. A crowdsourced video comes in at roughly one tenth of what brands traditionally pay for creative services through an agency or a production house in a timeframe that is actually a bit shorter than the typical agency production schedule.”
It appears to be a win-win. Brands get new ideas and multiple, custom executions from a wide talent pool. Marketers pay a single fee and have unlimited rights with no talent residuals and no pesky re-negotiations. In fact, after interactive marketing staff, the procurement team is often the biggest proponent of this efficient approach. About 25 percent of clients are repeat, but that number is increasing as the business continues to grow quickly. It’s a model not without challenges, however.
The largest organizational obstacle appears to be getting the master service agreement in place. Once the legal department understands this new model and why tens of thousands of individuals should have access to and permission to use their logo and brand assets, the rest is turnkey. Poptent works as a clearing house to obtain and validate all the releases as needed to cover talent, music, location, photography – anything that needs to be covered. Another challenge for marketers new to this approach is the hands-off nature of their involvement. In a traditional video engagement they are accustomed to rounds of revisions and having early involvement in the storyboard stage. In order for the crowdsourcing process to be efficient they must now remain on the sidelines after presenting the creative brief and simply wait to see what they get back.
Creators get a chance to win challenges that earn them significant dollars and provide visibility to the brands – not to mention bragging rights and portfolio content. They also get the advantages of a true community. Poptent is setting up some programming now on the site to allow for private collaboration. Neil relayed one example in which “the crowd put their heads together and a very talented animator located in Florida hooked up with a very talented songwriter and scriptwriter in Maine and the two of them worked together to produce an ad that was ultimately purchased by Ben & Jerry’s.” Using technology to facilitate open discussion on each of the assignments and commenting on each other’s work as it comes through fosters collaboration among the creators. Creators publish responses within this community on technical questions and artistic choices, editing approaches and software recommendations in a true dialogue in this very social community and establishing a benefit to creators in their own professional development.
Some agencies may feel a bit threatened by this win-win for marketers and creators. There is a legitimate concern that this approach might commoditize the creative process, artificially depress prices for these services, overstate the value of the crowd, and devalue the knowledge and history that trusted partners can bring to a similar assignment if given the opportunity. There are some that believe the power of the crowd is a lie; that all we are really doing is aggregating groups and allowing those more talented or expert to rise to the top.
Crowdsourcing may be something agencies can use in conjunction with their other solutions, but however agencies choose to respond to this new business model the genie is out of the bottle and there is no going back. While most marketers have read about and understand crowdsourcing in theory, comparatively few have actually employed the approach – yet. Now that enterprising businesses have streamlined avenues to help marketers leverage the crowd and the efficiencies of the Web, we are going to see more of it. That’s a good thing in my opinion. What’s your position?