Does Crowdsourcing Help Your Brand?

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I am a passionate advocate of crowdsourcing, which for the uninitiated is a brand or organization taking and using content or suggestions from the crowd that constitutes its audience.

One of the originators was Maxine Clark, founder of St. Louis-based Build-A-Bear, who years ago realized she could allow her customers – little kids – to customize her products to their specifications. More commonly recognized examples are Dell’s “Idea Storm” or Starbuck’s “My Starbucks Idea,” both providing opportunities to submit product ideas or improvements and each having brought much-deserved kudos to their respective brands.

“The world’s most successful brands of the 21st century are diligent crowdsourcers,” said Aaron Kahlow, CEO and founder of the Online Marketing Institute. “Amazon, Facebook, Starbucks and on the list goes. They use the power of this little thing we call the Internet to get feedback to make products better.  To get content to drive engagement amongst peers in a huge butterfly viral effect and finally to get to win the hearts and minds of the customer.  Give an individual an outlet to express themselves and the spoils of digital success are yours.”

I’ve personally executed and pitched (successfully and unsuccessfully) the crowdsource model to several clients, and even last year helped create Rally Saint Louis, a first-of-its-kind online crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platform aimed at shaping outside perceptions of metro-St. Louis by harnessing the collective ideas and financial backing of residents.

Many, however, have been a bit unnerved by crowdsourcing as to some degree you give up control of the asylum to the inmates. You essentially hand over your brand to consumers, for better or worse, and there can be consequences – such as brand advocates finding a way to harm or bastardize the brand by attaching it to unflattering topic matters or images.

St. Louis is an extraordinarily parochial town, and when we quietly shopped Rally STL across the region to influencers, we made it clear that our concept required relinquishing control, as well as the harnessing of the creativity of our citizens to work effectively. And to the credit of the leaders we spoke with, each of them enthusiastically endorsed the concept.

I recently helped launch a program for CafePress called “Retire The Owl” ( On the heels of the company launching its new consumer platform, it is now seeking to replace it’s 14-year-old owl mascot and seeking new mascot concepts from graphic designers who are the heart of the CafePress’ user-driven content on the products it sells. Between Aug 22 – Sept. 30 graphic designers can submit designs, and Facebook users will vote and select the top design, with the winner receiving a prize package that includes personal promotion on, its social media outlets and at South By Southwest (SXSW).

And yet despite an actual benefit to the winning designer, we knew there were some downsides to the approach with the brand’s core audience.

“As a designer you’re essentially doing free work to participate in a contest like this and most of us are swamped as it is,” said Louis Kokenis a longtime graphic designer and principal of BizBoosters, “It typically isn’t a senior designer who would participate in a program like this, but more so it really appeals to younger designers who are looking to increase the value and visibility of their portfolio.”

Does crowdsourcing help a brand?  Crowdsourcing has clear and direct audience engagement opportunities and today’s digital tools make it easier than ever to execute. But there are always calculated risks that anyone who considers using it as a tactic must weigh.

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  • Patricia Arnold

    Crowdsourcing certainly helps a brand when news goes viral. Awareness can peak and demand can skyrocket. But crowdsourcing also has its limitations. You must be sure that your product or project is one that really excites or tugs at the heartstrings of consumers. With the right exposure, it could really take off.

    I had a client who had patented technology that solved a huge problem for the transportation industry. We had made significant inroads with our targets’ senior management, and after nearly five years, the start-up was finally making progress.

    The owner was adamant about launching a crowdsourcing campaign. I was adamant that he shouldn’t: He didn’t have an exciting consumer product, and his target market wasn’t cruising crowdfunding sites searching for great campaigns to fund.

    I had serious concerns that crowdsourcing would bruise the company’s brand and make prospective customers question the company’s financial ability to deliver on its promises. After all, a quick online search would reveal the owner standing on a Cyberspace corner shaking a cup.

    He did it anyway–and raised all of $2,666. The prospects walked away. So did I.

    • David Novich

      Interesting point, Patricia. Crowdsourcing can actually hurt a brand if the company is aiming higher and further along.

  • Markku Nummila

    True that there are risks involved in crowdsourcing BUT the fact is that the customers talk about your brand anyway. It is better to empower the customer in an organized way, get the feedback, and adapt your brand accordingly.

  • Juan Mario Inca

    Really interesting Aaron, thanks​!​

    I think that you would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across about crowds and citizen science.​ ​In particular I feel you may find these two emerging pieces of research very relevant:

    – The Theory of Crowd Capital

    – The Contours of Crowd Capability

    Powerful stuff!