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Boaty McBoatface and the Failures of Crowdsourced Marketing

Daliah Saper
Apr 14, 2016

One of the biggest recent trends in marketing is crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourced marketing involves consumers voting on or submitting ideas for marketing campaigns and advertisements. This offers huge benefits for businesses. 

Crowdsourcing saves on marketing costs because consumers are happy to submit their ideas in exchange for seeing them used in the marketplace rather than for thousands, or even millions of dollars, that an advertising agency would charge for the same service.

Additionally, crowdsourced marketing is highly engaging because it directly involves consumers.

The Rise of Crowdsourced Marketing

One of the best-known examples of crowdsourced marketing is the Doritos “Crash the Super Bowl” contest in which consumers submit homemade Doritos commercials for the chance for their work to be shown during the Super Bowl.

In the last decade, 85 percent of the top global brands have used crowdsourced marketing.

The Curious Case of Boaty McBoatface

However, there is also a lot to learn when crowdsourced marketing fails. Enter Britain’s National Environmental Research Council (NERC). Last month, the British governmental agency held an Internet poll to decide the name of a new $287 million polar research vessel scheduled to set sail in 2019.

Users quickly disregarded the names suggested by the NERC, including such stately proposals as Shackleton, Endeavor, and Falcon, and instead began suggesting their own names for the ship. In the end, the name that received the most votes was “R.R.S. Boaty McBoatface.”

Walmart Sends Pitbull to Alaska

This is not the first time the Internet has foiled such initiatives. In 2012, Wal-Mart held a contest to send rapper Pitbull to the Wal-Mart store with the most Facebook likes in a certain amount of time. Internet pranksters decided to send Pitbull to the most remote location they could and succeeded in sending the Miami musician to Kodiak, Alaska.

While Pitbull honored the contest results, in these situations it is more common for a business or government to override the will of the people. Examples include when the city of Austin, Texas overrode the people’s attempt to name the city’s waste management service after Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, or when Taylor Swift and VH1 vetoed the Internet’s choice of a school for the deaf for a concert venue, or when Slovakian lawmakers rejected the public’s vote to name a bridge after actor Chuck Norris.

On the plus side for the NERC, their website did see a spike in Internet traffic due to people searching for the agency’s name after hearing about the poll. However, despite this success, experts are still calling the poll results a failure, as it did not result in an appropriate name for the ship. Fortunately for the NERC, they are not legally bound to naming their vessel Boaty McBoatface.

Here are three things you can learn from the NERC so that you can avoid making the same mistakes when crowdsourcing:

1. Only Crowdsource Your Target Market, Not the Public at Large

The NERC made the mistake of polling everyone on the Internet rather a specific group of people, such as those who work in environmental sciences or are related to that community. While these suggestions might not get the attention of something ridiculous like Boaty McBoatface, these are the people who will ultimately be following the ship’s missions. It therefore makes sense to appeal to this specific group rather than the public at large. You should also attempt to tailor your crowdsourcing as narrowly as possible.

2. Make Sure Your Fine Print Gives You Some Control

The saying goes that the customer is always right, but when it comes to crowdsourced marketing, this maxim doesn’t necessarily apply. It’s your job as a business owner to anticipate your customers’ future needs, and crowdsourcing them seems like a great idea in theory. However, keep in mind that what they say isn’t necessarily what they want. No doubt the people who voted for Boaty McBoatface thought the name was hilarious, but if they actually see the ship in the news on an important scientific discovery mission, they might regret that decision.

It is important to have a disclaimer in polls or contests such as these that allow your company to override the people’s choice. Not only will this help you avoid ridiculous and unusable suggestions, but it can also help you avoid liability if the winning result happens to contain something that is subject to a third party’s copyright or trademark.

3. Give Customers Options, Not Free Rein

The NERC would probably have been more successful if they had simply given people a choice of specified options to vote on. Or, in the alternative, to poll the public for names and then narrow those results down to the best five, and getting people to vote on those five names. If you leave your crowdsourcing questions too open-ended, they could result in unrealistic suggestions.

Follow these tips to avoid the same kind of mistakes made by the NERC and crowdsourced marketing can become a great tool to not only save money on marketing costs, but also engage your customers.  And make sure you talk to your lawyer to put some controls around your crowdsourcing efforts. 

Image Credit:

SeventyFour / Getty Images

Daliah Saper
Daliah Saper is a Chicago based intellectual property, media, and business attorney that has handled many high profile cases (including one she argued before the Illinois Supreme Court). Daliah is regularly interviewed on national tv, radio, and in several print publications including Fox News, CNBC, ABC News, and The New York Times. She is the recipient of several prestigious awards including a 40 under 40 recognition by Law Bulletin Publishing Company. For the past 5 years, Daliah has served as an Adjunct Professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law teaching Entertainment Law; she has also taught Internet Law as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Illinois College of Law. As a litigator she handles cases involving trademark and copyright infringement, domain names, trade secret misappropriation, right of publicity, defamation, and commercial disputes. As a transactional lawyer she helps clients choose the right business entity, drafts bylaws and operating agreements, negotiates terms of use, privacy policies, software licenses and other contracts, and provides comprehensive trademark and copyright counseling. Full bio available at: