Viralsourcing: Let Crowds Create Your Ad Message

Ross Kimbarovsky, the co-founder of online design studio, faced a dilemma last December. CrowdSpring, which matches designers with companies that need Web site graphics or logos, was less than a year into existence and needed to promote itself on a limited startup budget.

Kimbarovsky took a page from his own social Web playbook. He asked a group on one of CrowdSpring's online forums for marketing ideas; one user suggested designers contribute a Web site to a nonprofit group free of charge. The group picked a charity that helps fathers of children with autism.

The project garnered attention—enough that Kimbarovsky landed a major new client, LG Electronics, within several months. "It never started as something in our plan," Kimbarovsky says. CrowdSpring's crowd did more than come up with a product concept: They helped market it by chatting among influential people to help the concept take off.

Meet "viralsourcing"—a new way marketers are tapping into Internet audiences to design and distribute products. It's a twist on the familiar online practice of crowdsourcing, or soliciting ideas from large numbers of people, often via the Web.

Viralsourcing combines elements of crowdsourcing and viral marketing. In viralsourcing, the crowd helps design and promote products. Burger King's (BKC) offbeat "Subservient Chicken" Web video reached millions of people, but an agency designed and shot it. With viralsourcing, the crowd creates and spreads the campaign.

Savvy marketers are combining the cleverness of informed crowds with familiar viral marketing tactics in several fields:

Executive Recruiting. When Best Buy (BBY) Chief Marketing Officer Barry Judge decided to hire an "emerging media marketing expert," he posted a blog and a Twitter message inviting readers to "help us write the job description." Getting the audience involved spurred a flurry of activity on Twitter, helping the company reach hundreds of thousands of candidates.

Auto Design. Peugeot Citroen for the last five years has held design contests, awarding 10,000 euros ($14,120) and a small model to winners. The submissions are often striking. One design last year had an innovative safety feature: air bags separating an egg-shaped passenger compartment from "wings" holding the wheels. The contests generate online awareness of Peugot among auto enthusiasts.

Sports Management. British soccer fans are known for their passion. The Web site tapped into that by inviting fans to buy and run a soccer club in 2007. The promotion attracted more than 20,000 people and 300,000 pounds ($489,840) to purchase the Ebbsfleet United soccer team of Kent, England. Today, fans run the team, deciding which players make the roster and which companies sponsor its uniforms.

Music. Market researcher Peter Sorgenfrei recently founded to let fans provide input on decisions such as what venue an artist should play. The Web sites and offer similar crowd control of music acts. "You get immediate buy-in" from the audience, "which creates a viral marketing force," Sorgenfrei says.

Viralsourcing has been gathering steam for a while. In 2004's The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argued that masses of people can be remarkably accurate in their predictions. Fields including open-source software development, Wikipedia entries, stock photography, and even border-monitoring in Texas borrow elements of crowdsourcing. Web sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (GOOG) take the concept further.

Web companies are leading the charge to use the Internet to create products and ad campaigns. In the most vivid example, Twitter has viralsourced much of its business model by opening its software to third-party developers who can add features. Brian Morrissey, an editor at Adweek, has noted that Twitter's most basic problem—how to make money—has in some ways been outsourced to other companies that experiment with advertising on the site.

When something works, such as Twitter search engine, the success becomes a new product feature. If it fails, such as attempts at sponsored "tweets" that users have perceived as spam, Twitter can walk away with clean hands. Firefox Web browser creator Mozilla has used a similar model for years. Recently, software developer Ken Saunders, who is legally blind, created a tool that makes the browser's video player easier to use by people with vision problems.

lower barriers to entry

Another appeal of viralsourcing is that it can slash the costs of doing business. "In the past, [artists] needed at least $100,000 to $200,000 from the decision to record an album to [the time record companies] put it in stores," says Crowdbands' Sorgenfrei. "You would get dropped by your label if you stopped selling a quarter-million albums" each time out. With big labels out of the picture, bands can keep more profits, and individual investors may be happy with smaller returns, he says.

One of the perils of viralsourcing, though, is that it's risky for companies to appear too self-serving. Tyson Foods (TSN) is an example of a company that has avoided this pitfall through "cause marketing." Tyson community relations director Ed Nicholson this spring created an "open-source donation network" to give 35,000 pounds of food to charities, but only if participants helped direct Tyson's largesse.

Tyson asked groups to design marketing campaign elements, such as which social-networking sites should be used to promote the food handouts. The company promoted the campaign at a conference and made 560,000 meal donations.

Epidemiologists have known for a century that viruses spread after mutating; opening a service or idea to crowds allows for the same type of evolution. But viruses can also hurt if your service isn't up to par. United Airlines (UAL) found this out recently when its baggage handlers damaged the guitar of musician Dave Carroll. After getting no compensation from United, Carroll posted a music video on YouTube called United Breaks Guitars. To date it has had more than 3 million views.

include success incentives

When enlisting crowds for help, it's important to balance guidelines with freedom. "People are only willing to put their name to [a campaign] because they can tell their own story," says Scott Henderson, a director at agency MediaSauce who worked on the Tyson Foods project. An ideal approach is for organizations to set a premise, then let consumers "fill in the blanks," he says.

Companies should also be aware that consumers can be shortsighted. Would a crowd have predicted five years ago that people would want video cameras in their cell phones? Or that SUVs would be out and fuel economy in? Professional organizations can foresee demand because of their industry expertise; consumers often think only in the present. And many lack the specialized knowledge needed to make informed decisions.

A solution may be to give crowds incentives if a product or message succeeds. For example, automotive designers could give consumers discounts for submitting great ideas.

Viralsourcing is a bold move for companies used to a command-and-control approach. But the odds are that any one organization doesn't have all the answers. "No one can see the future," says Sorgenfrei. "But everyone in the process can have an interest in getting the future right."

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