Crowdsourcing: The Next Digital Age Phenomenon?

I attended recently what might be termed a crowdsourcing event.

It was a Meetup.com group involving a presentation at a popular New York bar by Pepsi’s Gatorade brand team.  At the end of their presentation, the Gatorade folks solicited ideas for revamping the sports drink’s image from a room of social media and marketing professionals.  The reward?  Those who offered the best concepts might be invited to make a more comprehensive, one-on-one pitch for Gatorade’s business.

I don’t know if Pepsi ever contracted with any of the marketers who spoke up at that open call, but recent news suggests that crowdsourcing is growing in popularity as both a marketing and fundraising strategy.

A few years ago, when the internet was evolving into a practical way to distribute multimedia, brands began latching onto crowdsourcing as a new way to tap the brainpower of the masses. Actually, companies didn’t call it crowdsourcing then.  Other terms like “active engagement” and audience “conversation” were used to describe the promotions that brands created to gain mindshare. Many brands started awarding prizes, fame and the remote dream of an entertainment career to the consumer or prosumer who created the cleverest video, song or other type of content.   These crowdsourcing efforts were primarily about publicity, not necessarily about mining for marketing gold. Contests quickly became old hat.

That could be changing, however.  In Britain, Unilever has announced a new $10,000 competition soliciting ideas from the public through a specially created website for a new TV and print campaign promoting its Peperami snack food brand. What’s different is that Unilever jettisoning their advertising agency of 16 years, Lowe, in favor of the crowdsourcing strategy.

It could be that tough economic times helped influence Unilever’s decision to experiment with a crowd-driven creative approach. Likewise, the economy could be stimulating interest in new entrepreneurial models for raising funds.

As Silicon Alley Insider has noted, dwindling dollars from traditional investors may be prompting entrepreneurs to experiment with the crowd-funding approach.  Companies such as Kickstarter, SellaBand and Spot.us are enabling start-ups, artists, journalists and others to obtain micro-financing from thousands of individuals.  In a New York Times profile of his company, Kickstarter Co-Founder Perry Chen referred to it as, “a sustainable marketplace where people exchange goods for services or some other benefit and receive some value.”

It seems that social networking and microblogging have been hogging the news on the front page – or landing page, if you prefer – for some time now.  Don’t be surprised if a new phenomenon, crowdsourcing, begins grabbing some headlines of its own.

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