When crowdsourcing goes wrong: Lessons in crowd control

August 29th, 2012 by

If the Discovery Channel ever makes a documentary called When Crowdsourcing Goes Wrong, I suggest you watch it. I say this partly because, as you probably know by now, our industry is full of eye candy. After all, there’s no better way to tone up for summer than working long hours in front of a monitor and near continuous travel. Even more compelling, however, is the fact that attempts at using the crowd can be interesting and occasionally hilarious, for all the wrong reasons.

The most recent example of crowdsourcing going wrong involves a campaign by pizza company Villa Fresh to come up with a new name for apple flavored Mountain Dew. As discussed in a recent Crowdsourcing.org post, the process was hijacked by pranksters from Reddit and 4chan, leaving the online leader-board filled with suggestions like “Gushing Granny” and “Fapple.” This is not an isolated incident. As General Motors once painfully found out, sometimes the crowd acts unpredictably.

The thing is, it’s not hard to see why Villa Fresh turned to crowdsourcing in this instance. Crowdsourcing efforts in very similar scenarios have brought excellent results. Alas, in this case, the restaurant chain was left with an embarrassing waste of time and brand credibility, and probably a stern glance from Mountain Dew owners PepsiCo. I wouldn’t want to be the guy to climb Mount Pepsi and tell the bosses up there that you accidentally named their new drink “Diabeetus.”

Recently we’ve offered advice on how to bring crowdsourcing into manufacturing, and how to use crowdsourcing to get help from your community. Here we offer some Villa Fresh-inspired ideas for effective “crowd control.”

Know your objectives.

It’s always necessary to have a solid aim, and when you think about it, Villa Fresh actually achieved its goal to “name a new flavor.” In retrospect, a better objective might have been “name a new flavor something appropriate.

Vet the crowd.

One of the best things about the crowd is its diverse thinking and creativity. In order to stimulate this unpredictable creativity you need a wide and mixed audience. But this doesn’t mean you can’t vet the crowd in certain instances. In Digitalkoot we did this by only allowing volunteers to actually participate once they had demonstrated that they were genuinely trying to help (one malicious player wasted hours deliberately typing in incorrect words that never did any harm to our results because he or she did not pass the vetting stage).

Actively guide the crowd.

Guiding or setting boundaries for the crowd often produces better results. A previous Mountain Dew-organized campaign on Facebook was more tightly controlled and much more successful for it. Guidance can work wonders too. When it comes to design contests, the more feedback you give the crowd the better the results are likely to be.

There’s a Kardashian-sized but coming, though. While minimizing the risk of the crowd behaving badly is good, you still have to maintain the integrity of the whole process. Heavy-handedness in certain circumstances will stifle creativity and potentially alienate the crowd. Vet the crowd too much, and you may submit to expert bias (or end up with no crowd at all). Being too rigid in your aims will deny you the occasional flash of unexpected brilliance.

It’s a tricky balance to find, but there have been plenty of examples of companies getting it right. And admittedly getting it wrong can be entertaining. Glass of “Diabeetus”, anybody?