Pursuing creative crowd control

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The crowd is feeling pretty good about itself these days. What with the sudden popularity of “crowdsourcing” and the arrival of new books about the wisdom of us, marketers may be tempted to just chuck all their high-priced talent and let the hoi polloi deliver the message. Certainly the ranks of freelance writers, designers, videographers and other media professionals are feeling the pain these days. But before you outsource your creative process to the world, consider a passage from Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield's wonderful new book, “The Chaos Scenario.” Garfield tells of how consumer-generated cable channel Current TV “persuaded Sony, L'Oreal and Toyota to participate in a ... contest. They called it "V-CAM,' Viewer-Created Advertising Messages. They might just as easily named it "V-CRAP.' My god, were the entries awful.” (Both Advertising Age and BtoB are published by Crain Communications Inc.) Garfield goes on to cite other examples of user-generated ad campaigns that failed because of poor quality, off-target messaging or a general lack of creativity. In fact, campaigns created by customers often turn out to be low-quality stabs at what people think advertising should look like instead of truly new concepts, he writes. Maybe the crowd isn't the answer to every problem. B-to-b software maker VMware ran a video contest leading up to its user conference earlier this month. You can search on “VMware Video Contest—Vote for Your Favorite Video” to view the five finalists. Please go to the New Channels section of and tell me what you think. I hated them all. In producing its first user-generated issue of Budget Travel last year, Editor Erik Torkells wrote that the process of sorting through 2,800 pitches from readers was “neither cheap nor easy” and noted that the staff had to do an “extraordinary amount” of editing. The editors of the defunct magazine JPG said more or less the same thing when they noted that the contents of one issue last year were culled from photos uploaded by more than 16,000 submitters. If panning for gold is your idea of fun, then user-generated content might be just the thing for you. There's no question that crowdsourcing can be very powerful. Garfield tells how he chose the cover design for his book from more than 100 entries submitted by bidders on the designer Web site. Total cost: $500. But before you fire your creative staff, have a look at the comments people are posting on prominent blogs in your market. Ask yourself if that is the kind of source material you want to work with. At its best, the Web is a means to pit talented people against each other in a process that delivers better quality at lower cost. But at its worst, it's a time sink of uninspired noise. Pick your spots carefully. M
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