Isn’t Crowdsourcing Just Good Marketing? Interview with Rick Liebling


“The world is becoming too fast, too complex and too networked for any company to have all the answers inside.” Yochai Benkler, Yale University, from The Wealth of Networks

Image by Goldberg, via Flickr
Lightbulbs image by Goldberg, via Flickr

Our collective interest in crowdsourcing (the creative and commercial opportunities and challenges it throws up) seems to be on an exponential curve only matched by the controversy and misunderstanding still surrounding the topic. Cue Rick Liebling’s eBook, Everyone is Illuminated, out today, a compendium of constructive thinking on the topic to date. As experiments in crowdsourcing start to unfold and the world waits to see just how sustainable it is a marketing tool, his primer aims to shed light on the whole area by gathering (in part crowdsourced, of course) insight and hands-on experience of crowd sourcing together in one handy place. We were happy to make a contribution to the eBook and caught up with Rick to tell us more about the project. Check out his introductory post here too.

1. What inspired you in the first place to pull this together? Why now?

I had seen and read so much about crowdsourcing over the last part of 2009, and the term seemed to be becoming a bit of a “catch all.” People were using it almost indiscriminately, or using it for whatever seemed to suit their purpose. I thought it would be worthwhile to explore the concept a bit more to try to get an understanding of what people were really doing and how the concept could be leveraged effectively.

2. Naturally enough, you’ve crowdsourced parts of the book. That ensures there are some (dramatically in places) varying points of view. What challenges did this throw up? Have you unearthed anything that surprised you?

I must say I’m very fortunate to know, or know of, some very intelligent people who are quite generous with their thoughts and time. Several of the people who contributed were ‘friends of friends’ at best, but they were very enthusiastic on the subject. I tried very hard to gather a variety of viewpoints and even amongst those who have positive feelings, they are using crowdsourcing in a variety of ways. I thought that would be beneficial to readers, to see that crowdsourcing can be utilized for various purposes.

2. Having digested this topic as much have you have, what are the key conclusions you draw for the marketing communications industry?

For me the key distinction is this: Aggregating hundreds or thousands of contest entries from consumers – perhaps the most common form of crowdsourcing – is really just an exercise in consumer engagement. I would strongly recommend against that tactic if you are looking for a new logo or campaign concept. I’m far more intrigued by the idea of a loose network, or Guild, of talented creatives with specific skill sets that can be called upon for a project that requires a high level of craftsmanship. So rather than asking everyone from a group of 1000 to submit work, it’s about having one person in your group of 1000 with the specific expertise to solve your problem.

3. Commentators still like to draw battle lines between what might be called the Creative Minimalists (who believe truly great creative inspiration can only come from the few) and the Creative Maximalists (who believe harnessing the creativity of the masses is the way forward). Is it really as simple as that?

I think the easy answer here is “you’ll still need that creative expert who can curate the masses” which is a bit of a compromise answer. I’ll plant my flag in the minimalist camp. I just don’t think you come up with things like Blade Runner or Mad Men (or Apple’s 1984 ad) by taking the best of whatever comes out of a crowd. Truly great creative work comes from the minds of those who are invested in the process in a way that is unlikely to be the result of a creative cattle call in my opinion. Now, that being said, I think it’s incredibly hard for one person to maintain that level of genius over an extended period of time.

4. When might crowdsourcing be a genuinely ‘better’ route to any other? To the naysayers, when is it not just ‘spec work’ (with all the associations of poor quality work done cheaply that phrase carries with it)?

I think there are times when you can find yourself going down a creative rabbit hole and after a couple of years a campaign has painted a brand into a corner. At some point a fresh perspective can re-invigorate a brand. I think this would work best for a brand that has a really strong identity. The Nikes, Starbucks and Cokes of the world, where even the average man on the street has an understanding of what these brands stand for.

4. What do you think we should be excited by and what should we be worried about?

More than the specific of crowdsourcing, I’m excited by the notion of new models being adopted or at least tried. Where, as an industry, we get in trouble is when models become calcified and standard ways of working are accepted as the only way of doing things. Conversely, I think we have to be careful that clients don’t misunderstand concepts like crowdsourcing and start to use them indiscriminately. I expect that several brands will spend quite a bit of money in 2010 on crowdsourcing, use the concept for the wrong purposes and there will be a general backlash that sends agencies back to the “tried and true” which would be a mistake.

5. You talk about the likelihood of crowdsourcing projects failing in 2010, not through any failure of the concept per se, but of how they are managed. What are the pitfalls people should be looking out for?

Like everything else in marketing communications, the first question has to be “what does success look like?” 1,583 mediocre logos are a failure only if, “we want to have an award-winning logo” was your goal. If success was “we want to engage consumers in a new and interactive way that will be the start of a more intimate relationship,” then those logos may be a success.

6. Looking forward, what do you see as the potential future scenarios for crowdsourcing and its role for brands and marketers?

There are a couple of interesting things I’d like to see crowds be utilized for by brands. I’d ask people to come up with solutions that involve other brands. Most brand marketers can figure out that their ‘chocolate’ brand will go with a ‘peanut butter’ brand. But a consumer on the outside will bring a perspective that says, “combine your ‘chocolate’ with this ‘chipotle chili’ brand for a unique and unexpected combination. The other goes back to using the crowds to find that one person with specialized expertise. Get the right crowd and you’ll solve problems not by receiving hundreds of so-so solutions, but by receiving just one or two brilliant solutions.

‘Everyone is Illuminated’ by Rick Liebling – check it out here on slideshare

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