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Responding to the Mob: What To Do When Crowdsourcing Leads Us Astray
© Image: Flickr.com / Robert Couse-Baker
editorial

Responding to the Mob: What To Do When Crowdsourcing Leads Us Astray

Editor's Note: The following guest post comes to us from Jessica Day. She is the Communications Director at IdeaScale, an open innovation company. Day writes in to discuss the recent 'Dub the Dew' campaign that went horribly wrong for one of Mountain Dew's customers. She compares it to a few successful crowdsourcing campaigns and offers tips on how to recover from "mobsourcing."

Last month, you may have heard the unfortunate story of how Mountain Dew’s campaign to name its new green apple soft drink was turned into an example of how crowdsourcing can turn into “mobsourcing.” Although things started off simply enough: Mountain Dew posted a leaderboard for name suggestions on which users could vote ideas up to the top, by the end of the day the site had been crash-hacked and the leaderboard polluted with offensive names such as “Hitler did nothing wrong,” “Diabeetus,” and “Gushing Granny.” Not to mention, of course, various banners, rick rolls, and other crowd suggestions from the anonymous web image board 4chan.

After the site was taken down and the dust began to settle, these were the responses from Mountain Dew:

A Twitter post: Dub the Dew definitely lost to The Internet. It was a local customer program, not a Dew one, & we're helping them clean up.

An issued statement: ‘Dub the Dew,’ a local market promotional campaign that was created by one of our customers – not Mountain Dew – was compromised. We are working diligently with our customer’s team to remove all offensive content that was posted and putting measures in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Mountain Dew has a legacy of engaging its most loyal fans to tap innovative ideas for the brand through really successful programs like ‘DEWMocracy’ and ‘Your Malt Dew’ and so we sincerely apologize to all of our fans who may have been offended by this customer’s program.

Although appropriate, true, and swift – the Dew response wasn’t enough to un-ring the bell that thundered through numerous blogs and industry articles. Maybe it’s the brevity of the response or the obvious move to distance itself rather than talk about the brash and offensive content, but there is something that still has people talking about last month’s disappointing crowdsourcing campaign.

It reminds me of a much more muted, but nonetheless effective response in another crowdsourcing engagement.

A few years ago, a civic IdeaScale site was launched called “Transforming Washington’s Budget,” which encouraged citizens to share their own ideas about how WA would be best served and improved in its budget choices. Numerous suggestions were put forward, but the suggestion that garnered the highest number of votes was a suggestion to legalize marijuana.

This suggestion, though often a part of the national dialogue, is not an easy subject to manage and could have been a conversation that the state simply ignored as they prepared the next round of the budget. But, instead, something very different happened.

Governor Chris Gregoire recorded a video that addressed the crowdsourcing initiative, but also specifically attended to practical concerns associated with legalizing marijuana. Just a short video, just 90 seconds long, posted just over two years ago, but it allowed the Governor to share her thoughts while also making the engaged public feel heard, rather than alienated. Not everyone agreed with what she said, but no one could say that they didn’t feel heard, which really is often the key when it comes to making real progress.

Or how about the Mars Forum, which generated just as many questions as it did suggestions concerning the exploration of Mars? Numerous premature suggestions about populating Mars or terraforming the planet were put forward and voted high into the ranks. Although MPPG could have simply overlooked these high-voted ideas as before-their-time, the MPPG did something very different. When the campaign was said and done, they went on to record 12 videos of experts speaking on various real and hypothetical topics brought forward by the Mars Forum (including visions of human settlements at some point in the future on Mars).

The point is… these flubs are very often the launch-point for a real conversation, those honest discussions that we’re always talking about having. What if instead of Mountain Dew rapidly shutting down, it took the opportunity to talk about the criticisms leveled against it or invited a continued discussion elsewhere? Would that have made a difference in how we remember the “Dub the Dew” campaign? Maybe not, it seems unlikely that they would try. But maybe you could.

What can you do when the crowd is guiding the discussion?

Ask yourself “what is the opportunity here?” Remember, it’s not always the content of the conversation alone that’s important, sometimes simply having the conversation is relevant. Can you reasonably speak back?

Ask yourself “What conversation does the crowd want to have? What do we really want to say?” In general, it is an age in which sincere marketing is valued – the farther away you get from sincerity, the less a brand appeals. So if this is one of the places where you can begin that frank discussion, so much the better. You won’t please everyone, but that’s not necessarily the goal. There is something about being the person in the room that can handle the tough conversations that is its own cache. The point is – having a conversation, is what turns a mob back into an audience.

So what do you think? What is the best way to respond to the mob?

- Jessica Day is a marketing and technology writer and editor for IdeaScale, a leading innovation software solution for idea management. She received her Masters in Writing from the University of Washington. Day also blogs about crowd-based innovation and idea management solutions at blog.ideascale.com.

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