At its best, crowdsourcing can lead to better product and service creation that is more closely aligned with consumer wants and needs, and can function as a self-fulfilling marketing for itself.
At its worst, crowdsourcing has led to a bevy of embarrassing PR disasters and subsequent backtracking for major companies and organizations.
NASA’s Space Station fiasco
In 2009, NASA decided to crowdsource the name for a new node of the International Space Station. The online poll provided four suggested names (Earthrise, Serenity, Legacy, and Venture), but also allowed voters to submit their own suggestions. Submission voting quickly spiraled out of control, with names including “myYearbook”, “SocialVibe”, and “Xenu” (Scientology’s galactic overlord) receiving an alarming number of votes.
The real coup came when Stephen Colbert encouraged viewers of his show to vote to name the node “Colbert” – ultimately, “Colbert” was the runaway favorite, finishing with 40,000 more votes than the most popular NASA-suggested name, Serenity.
NASA refused to honor the results of the contest as the fine-print rules stipulated that they had ultimate discretion in choosing an ‘appropriate’ name. A few months later, they announced the node would be called Tranquility, completely ignoring all contest submissions…
Kraft’s Vegemite saga
In 2009, Kraft developed and launched a new Vegemite – cream cheese blended product, and asked consumers to submit suggestions in a “name me” online contest. Of 48,000 submissions, the name iSnack 2.0 emerged as a winner, and Kraft released the newly minted product across supermarkets in Australia. Kraft’s head of corporate affairs announced the new name by saying “Vegemite iSnack 2.0 was chosen based on its personal call to action, relevance to snacking, and clear identification of a new and different Vegemite to the original”.
Backlash for the name was immediate – Vegemite is a beloved Aussie bread-spread product that is present in 80% of Australian households, and consumers felt that Kraft was mocking the brand. Succumbing to pressure, Kraft chose a pre-approved shortlist of different names, and yet again allowed the public to vote on a name replacement. Vegemite Cheesybite was the ultimate winner, and is still on Australian shelves today.
What can we learn from crowdsourcing disasters?
What these two examples have in common is that the thing being crowdsourced (a product name) was superficial, added little to no incremental value to consumers, and was conducted in a forum easily co-opted by jokesters or nefarious consumers. The best of crowdsourcing comes out when consumers are engaged in actual product design, and can perceive additional value in co-creating with their favorite brands and organizations.
However, we should consider how disastrous these crowdsourcing failures really were for each respective organization… After recovering from public embarrassment, NASA announced they would name a treadmill aboard the new Tranquility C.O.L.B.E.R.T. (Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill), a compromise that thrilled both the comedian and his fans. In Kraft’s case, though backlash was quick and vocal, sales for Vegemite didn’t suffer, and in fact later increased over the course of the re-naming campaign.
Crowds can be fickle – if they detect that a company’s crowdsourcing effort is merely a publicity stunt rather than a genuine attempt to engage and innovate, collaboration can quickly cede to catastrophe. That being said, in a world where all publicity is good publicity, the media attention garnered by a crowdsourcing disaster might be worth the calculated risk.