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December 30, 2010
10 Tips For Using The C-Word

Aaaaah, crowdsourcing. The 13-letter c-word that’s been tossed around a lot lately. And pontificated upon at length. But it’s a concept that’s so new, it’s like the wild west. And it’s probably fair to say that a lot of us are confused about what it even means. So let’s take a stab at straightening that out first, before I get to pontificating about it myself.

At its most basic, “crowdsourcing” is where a project, brief or problem is launched out to a crowd of folks who then get to submit ideas on how to solve it. It can be anything from letting part of a web community decide which T-shirt is the best – ala threadless.com – to presenting a previously unsolvable calculus theorem to a world of math geeks. Whatever the challenge, the “magic” of crowdsourcing lies in allowing a large group of engaged folks take a crack at it. Solutions come from the most surprising places, dialogue about different ideas or approaches spurs further refinement and development, and people who would otherwise not be invited or asked to contribute are given a stage to show their stuff.

That’s a radically over-simplified explanation, to be sure. So if you want to know more about crowdsourcing, I recommend Jeff Howe’s book called, appropriately enough, Crowdsourcing. He’s the fella who coined the term, and his book does a good job at framing up exactly how this growing trend began and why it’s smart to engage the crowd for all sorts of things. Even for brand communications. Which is where we come in. Yep, you and me. Because more and more, crowdsourcing is being used to create marketing-like objects. It’s happening through project-hosting sites such as crowdSPRING and 99designs and Ideabounty. It’s happening via brand-managed contests such as initiatives launched by Dorito’s, Starbucks, Best Buy and Unilever. And even ad agencies are trying it – there’s Brammo’s logo development via Crispin Porter + Bogusky and everything we do here at Victors & Spoils. So, as one creative director who’s been been dabbling in crowdsourcing over the last year, I thought I’d share a few tips for anyone who might want to submit their ideas via the c-word.

1. Read the brief. I know it sounds radically obvious. But you’d be surprised how many people don’t do it. Whether the brief is poorly written or so good that it feels as if it’s guiding your hand as you create, if you don’t pay attention to it, you can’t possibly get going on the right track. So read the brief. Please. And download any attachments included and read those too. I know that the briefs we put out from V&S are painstakingly created so they can point creatives in the right direction. Are they perfect? No way. No brief is. And sometimes the brief will need to morph and modify as the project progresses. But the point is, you’ve got to read it. And keep it handy. Most of the answers are in there. If not, ask questions of whoever’s managing the project. But at the same time, don’t wait for answers. Just get started. The answers will come.

2. Trust the process. If you decide to jump in and try your hand at any crowdsourcing project, sooner or later it’s going to seem absolutely insane. For myriad reasons. You’ll see. But stay at it and trust the process and you’ll find, more often than not, that the process works - talent rises to the top, everybody learns, and the best work wins.

3. Forget the money. If you read Jeff Howe’s book, he explains how when the crowd is motivated for reasons other than payment – such as reputation – it works better. Now that’s not to say that crowdsourced projects can’t be a viable income source. They can indeed. And winners should be compensated as richly as possible, both monetarily and with increasing credibility, reputation and invites to more projects. But do it to hone your skills or for fun and the whole thing will work a whole lot better than if you’re doing it for the greenbacks.

4. Don’t waste energy in other people’s comments. For good reason, many crowdsourcing platforms are extremely transparent. You can read comments that are written to other creatives from the project manager/creative director. And you can see their comments back. Now while it is possible to gain insight from reading these comments, you may not get the full context. There are probably private communications between director and creative that you can’t see. So don’t spend too much energy trying to glean insight from other people’s comment strings. Instead, spend your energy in creating options of your own.

5. Speaking of options, use a funnel. Wait. Work like a funnel? Well yeah, kinda. At first, just pour it all out. Cast a wide net, like the opening of a funnel. Try lots of options. And don’t refine too much. Put the big idea out there or the main jist of the design. That isn’t to say be sloppy. It’s just to say that at first, do broader strokes. As the project moves forward and gets closer to the due date, you should be refining what you’ve been told is working and getting more detailed. Narrowing in on the ideas and polishing - like the other end of the funnel. I know, it’s a weird analogy. But you’re thinking about it now, aren’t you? If you hate the metaphor, that’s OK. I hate it too. Point is, try lots of broad-stroke ideas early. Wait to refine and detail and polish until you know that the main thought is working. Then polish the hell out of it.

6. Keep moving. There are going to be times when you’ve submitted work or maybe asked a question of the person directing/running the project and feel like you need an answer before you can move forward. But don’t stop. And don’t blame the halting of progress on the creative director’s slow response. Keep trying things. Give the benefit of the doubt to whoever’s running the project and know that he or she might be buried in comments, or unable to respond for some reason such as travel, a killer hangover, etc. Eventually he or she will respond. Or maybe they won’t. Point is, if you continue letting the ideas flow, you’ve got more chance to win.

7. Do lots of versions. And label the suckers. As you get closer to completion, the person running the project might well start asking you to try versions or iterate on a given idea, design, script, coding solve or layout. This is a good thing, as it should mean that he or she digs your idea. So the move here is to try lots of versions. But when you do this, be sure to make each version easy to reference. If you’re submitting a page of 8 logos - each slightly different because you’re trying some subtle differences - put a small label by each of them such as A, B, C, etc. - or 1, 2, 3, etc. This way when giving feedback, the person running the contest can easily refer to a version or versions and keep everything moving.

8. Show the path. This is a technique that is often very smart to do as you make versions: include the original for reference. In other words if you’re doing revisions to a script and submitting those revisions or options, include the original in that new batch of versions you send in. That way, the person reading them or looking at the logos or whatever can see the path and refer to the original if necessary.

9. The easier you make it for the creative director to give feedback, the more feedback you’ll get. This should make a lot of sense. If not, see points 7 and 8.

10. Read the brief.

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Evan Fry is Chief Creative Officer of Victors & Spoils, the first creative ad agency built on crowdsourcing principles. Prior to co-founding the Boulder, Colorado-based agency, Evan was an award-winning VP/Creative Director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky for seven years, where he worked with leading brands such as Best Buy, Burger King and Nike, among many others.

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