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GeniusRocket’s Curated Crowdsourcing: The Rise of the Intelligent Intermediary
© Image: Eric Blattberg /

GeniusRocket’s Curated Crowdsourcing: The Rise of the Intelligent Intermediary

If you watched one of Sylvan Learning’s new television ads during a commercial break, you might smile and chuckle. If you have a child struggling in school, you might even write down Sylvan’s telephone number. But realistically, you probably wouldn’t think too much of it.

You should. GeniusRocket, the company contracted to produce Sylvan’s latest ads, represents an innovative force in the realm of video production and design. Founded in February 2007, the Bethesda, Maryland-based GeniusRocket produces dozens of videos and animations a year for companies like Amazon, PepsiCo and Heinz. GeniusRocket acts as an intelligent intermediary between these clients and its community of video production teams, effectively “curating” its crowd of production talent. A full appreciation of GeniusRocket’s “curated crowdsourcing” model requires familiarity with two other advertising industry frameworks: traditional agencies and open call crowdsourcing.

Conventional advertising firms come in all shapes and sizes — full-service agencies include the actual media buying as well as creative work, specialist agencies focus on specific media versus the entire media landscape — but compared to the various crowdsourcing platforms available, they almost always share one feature: they’re on the more expensive end of the spectrum. After all, they have to finance their own creative, production, and media services departments, among other expenses. Think Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper agency — well, for an accurate, 21st century picture, substitute bandwidth for alcohol, large online communities for smoke-filled rooms and a highly diverse collective of creative talent for three men and a drawing board.

Open call crowdsourcing — in this case, in the form of contest platforms — is the polar opposite of a traditional agency solution. Many sites utilize this open call model for video and animation, like Wooshii and Userfarm, but Poptent has grabbed the most headlines in this space. To acquire advertisements from these contest-oriented communities, brands approach these sites with a brief description of their upcoming product or service and a guaranteed payout, ranging from hundreds to many thousands of dollars. With the brand’s contest brief and assets out in the open, the sites’ community members — primarily amateur filmmakers interspersed with the occasional professional — can accept the project and submit their video entry, typically a 30- or 60-second television or web spot.

When the contest concludes, the brand purchases its favorite video — or videos. Indeed, one benefit of this model is that it allows brands to purchase several submissions if they so desire. What happens, however, when a brand doesn’t like anything the community created? They’re stuck forking out the prize money for a video they don’t want to use. As rare as that may be, there’s no high-quality guarantee with the speculative open call model. There’s usually a diamond or two in the rough, but for every superb submission, there’s inevitably a ton of trash.

GeniusRocket used to employ the contest-based model outlined above, but in October 2009, the company launched the beta version of its “GeniusRocket Select” service. Over the next 14 months, GeniusRocket partnered with talented production studios on five “Select” projects, bypassing the open contest model to instead match clients with more limited, specialized, and consistently high-quality production teams. A year ago, GeniusRocket dropped open call contests entirely, revamping its entire business model around the concept of curated crowdsourcing — a phrase the company coined. GeniusRocket’s resourceful model straddles the line between the two aforementioned frameworks (traditional agencies and open call crowdsourcing), delivering the consistently high quality of an agency with the creative breadth a crowd of talent offers.

“We utilize the same production and animation teams that either work for or are contracted by the agencies, and we never ask them to work for free; we simply take advantage of their underutilized time,” Peter LaMotte, president of GeniusRocket, told “This is how we maintain the high quality of the work.”

Analyzing its old contest model, GeniusRocket determined that, on average, content creators would leave the community after submitting two and a half losing entries. The two exceptions: a stellar brand or, more often, a massive payout. “At the end of the day, compensation matters,” noted LaMotte. “That’s why those Doritos ads with the million dollar prizes garner some amazing entries.”

Now, GeniusRocket’s creative community is intentionally small; after all, there are only six full time GeniusRocket staff members to coordinate and communicate with the various production teams, copywriters, creative directors and what they call “big idea thinkers,” who work on project pitches. The larger production teams often have their own copywriters and creative directors on staff; smaller teams, sometimes just one or two individuals, work collaboratively through GeniusRocket. Joining the company’s exclusive community of just over 400 teams — a far cry south of Poptent’s 40,000 registered content creators — is a big deal. In fact, statistically, it’s tougher than getting into Harvard: GeniusRocket rejects about 95% of applicants.

In stark contrast to its old contest model, nobody leaves GeniusRocket’s current community — by choice, at least. “We realized recently that we’ve had literally zero percent attrition in our community,” said LaMotte. “The only people that aren’t in our community are people that we don’t want in our community anymore; we’ve grown beyond the quality of their work.”

After a client approaches GeniusRocket with a brief, the company scans its community for teams potentially well suited to the project, considering factors like experience, general interest and knowledge of a particular industry or target demographic. “We know the kind of spots they’ve worked on, we know the kind of spots they want to work on, we know where they’re located, how many people are on the team and so on — we consider all this meta-data,” continued LaMotte. “We can cater to exactly the type of production that the client is looking for.”

Importantly, GeniusRocket’s creative teams retain the rights to their ideas unless the client buys their pitches, which is unique to the company’s curated model. In Poptent’s contest-driven model, for example, a client technically owns all submissions, the winners and the losers. As explained in the document FAQ: Poptent’s Agreement Terms, “Because your ad includes the client's property, is based on the client's creative brief and is also commissioned in response to the creative brief, the client must ‘own’ the associated work product from the perspective of the agreement.” Nonetheless, Poptent President Neil Perry assures that “any notion that a brand could use assets or ideas from any submitted ad without the original creator's permission and full compensation is totally false.” Still, ownership of one’s creative content is significant, and in that regard GeniusRocket has the upper hand. In an additional advantage of GeniusRocket’s model over contest sites, businesses don’t have to broadcast their marketing strategy to the world at large, just a select few individuals who have signed a non-disclosure agreement.

GeniusRocket clients purchase pitches for an average of $2,000 dollars. For Sylvan Learning, GeniusRocket solicited over 40 pitches from various “industry adjacent” teams (familiar with service industries), eight of which Sylvan purchased. Those eight went on to the storyboard phase, in which the commercials are mapped out shot-by-shot along with the accompanying audio and dialogue. GeniusRocket covers the cost of developing the storyboards, but if a creative team has proven storyboard skills, it will compensate them an average of $500 dollars per storyboard. With eight finished storyboards in hand, Sylvan selected four to go into production. A final commercial tends to cost GeniusRocket clients an average of $20,000 dollars, or about $10,000 for animation (though costs vary between live action, claymation, stop motion and motion graphics).

“We turned to GeniusRocket because we felt we could really get a great range to choose from — and obviously it’s a very cost-effective approach as well,” commented Sue Byrnes, Sylvan Learning’s senior manager of advertising and promotions. “We also feel it’s a good thing to have many brains looking at your product — and it’s enlightening to see the many different ways others see it. We ended up producing four concepts, basically for the cost of one of our previous ads.”

Running Away from Homework from GeniusRocket

At Sylvan Learning’s annual franchisee meeting, Sylvan decided to do some crowdsourcing of its own: the crowd in attendance voted on the spot they wanted to represent the brand as its national ad. The winner, a spot produced by Revolution Pictures called "Running Away from Homework," features a son chasing his mother who is terrified of helping him with his math homework. Naturally, she runs straight to a Sylvan Learning Center.

Then, inspired by GeniusRocket, Sylvan placed the spot online and used it as the basis for its own open call video contest, offering up a cash prize to creators of the most creative video showcasing what parents would rather do than help their child with algebra. So throughout the entire process, there were three levels of crowdsourcing at play: curated crowdsourcing at the professional level through GeniusRocket, crowdsourced voting at the franchisee meeting, and a crowdsourced video contest.

Though GeniusRocket pioneered the concept of curated crowdsourcing, others are beginning to adopt and adapt the model for their own uses. ThinkSpeed, a market research company interviewed this past October, taps into the collective intelligence of its curated community of experts and professionals to generate market research for technology companies, investment professionals, and IT decision makers. TaskRabbit, a site for busy individuals and small businesses who need an extra hand doing errands, curates its community of task “runners” through an extensive process involving an application, interview and background check. YouTube and National Geographic partnered with Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald, producer Ridley Scott and film editor Joe Walker to curate (in essence, edit) 4,500 hours of footage from over 80,000 individuals to create the 95-minute Life in a Day, which documents life across the planet on July 24, 2010.

Clearly, curated crowdsourcing is an increasingly pervasive, powerful trend. The crowd is a phenomenal resource — but with a filter, it can be even more effective.

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