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Power to the People: How Brands are
Rallying Consumers to Engage

By Kim Hennig
Principal at Kim Hennig Marketing

Four years ago, Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, coined the term "crowdsourcing" to describe what was then an emerging trend—using the Internet to reach people with specialized talents and harness their skills. Not long after, he published a book on the topic, aptly titled, Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. Call it crowdsourcing or just a good, old-fashioned contest, evidently that future is now.

Rarely does a day go by, for instance, without stumbling across yet another brand inviting consumers to create their own commercials, one of the most popular crowdsourcing tactics.

Doritos, a pioneer of this approach, launched its "Crash the Super Bowl" ad contest in 2007, generating both widespread participation and consumer interest in the spot. Two years later, the winning entry scored at the top of USA TODAY's popular Super Bowl Ad Meter. "For the first time, it wasn't an ad agency that created the best-liked Super Bowl commercial," quipped USA TODAY. "It was two unemployed brothers from Batesville, Indiana, whose ad for Doritos—created for an online contest for amateurs—won them $1 million from Doritos maker Frito-Lay and leaves ad pros with a lot of 'splaining to do." Beyond the live Super Bowl audience, the winning Doritos spot generated more than 2.3 million views on YouTube.

Other brands getting into the crowdsourcing act include CareerBuilder, whose 2010 winner, "Casual Friday," has generated more than 1.2 million views on YouTube, and GoDaddy.com, which used the 2010 Indy 500 as the stage for its contest-winning spot, "Go Momma."

Since not every consumer has the wherewithal to actually create a commercial, some brands have taken the idea and made it more accessible. PetSmart offers a great example. Housed on its Facebook page, the "Scare Your Way into a TV Commercial" contest invited pet owners to submit a photo of their pet in a Halloween costume. PetSmart did a lot of things right with this contest. After consumers entered, they were provided with a link to post on their own Facebook page to extend reach beyond contest participants. PetSmart also posted weekly winners to maintain interest, and it awarded random gift cards on a daily basis. In addition, the company made the voting rules clear and fair, specifying, "Remember, you can vote for as many entries as you'd like, but you can only vote for an individual entry once per day."

Clear and fair rules are essential in such efforts. Consider the ill will generated by Oprah Winfrey in the "Win Your OWN Show" contest for the new Oprah Winfrey Network. More than 15,000 people entered the contest, either by submitting audition videos on which viewers could vote or showing up at a casting call at Kohl's stores. Why participants should choose to audition at a Kohl's store or send in a video was unclear, as was how many finalists would come from each. There were no rules ascribed to the voting process, allowing participants to vote over and over for themselves, or worse, utilize auto-voting software to do it for them. (The top vote-getter generated 9.1 million votes, with only 1.3 million views.)

Not all crowdsourcing efforts involve television. Take the Pepsi Refresh Project. In 2010, PepsiCo redirected $20 million it would have spent on advertising on the Super Bowl and created a massive social good program in which consumers voted on non-profit programs to fund. At the Mashable & 92Y Social Good Summit in September, PepsiCo's Bonin Bough pointed out that the project generated more votes than the 2008 U.S. presidential election. PepsiCo extended the reach of the program by partnering with Major League Baseball and its legion of fans, with MLB teams nominating worthy projects to receive funding. Two million fans voted in the MLB portion of the program alone.

Non-profits have engaged consumers in similar, if not quite so grandiose, efforts. Habitat for Humanity, for example, launched a photo contest inviting friends of the organization to submit images "that communicated something vital about the organization's life-changing work." The contest was promoted and hundreds of photos shared through a variety of social media channels, including Habitat's Facebook and Flickr pages.

Some crowdsourcing programs are less about marketing and more about the products themselves. A great example is Electrolux's Design Lab, an annual global design competition open to undergraduate and graduate industrial design students who are invited to present innovative ideas for household appliances of the future.

Every day in social media, brands are utilizing crowdsourcing approaches to name a product, sing a jingle, pick an all-star team, create a recipe, and nominate a winner. The drawback? If such programs become ubiquitous, their talk value will diminish, and their effectiveness is bound to decline. And if consumers are given more rein to shape corporate messaging, brand strategy objectives could become more difficult to meet.

But make no mistake—the consumer now expects to be not just part of the conversation, but also part of the decision-making process. As Jeff Howe predicted, they're driving the future of business.

Kim Hennig

Kim Hennig is a 20-year marketing veteran who has delivered record sales, award-winning advertising, and profitable marketing plans for some of the nation's best-known consumer brands, including McDonald's, 1-800Flowers.com, and Subway. Her experience covers both the client and agency sides of the business. Kim is a classic marketer, with significant expertise in new media as well. Her key strengths are in strategic leadership, multimillion-dollar budget management, innovation, consensus-building, and most importantly, driving sales and profits. Kim also conducts social media seminars and facilitates social media workshops for corporations and ad agencies.