Thursday, April 30, 2009

Nielsen, Twitter Quitters, and Why it Doesn't Matter

If you follow Twitter news, you're aware and have an opinion about Nielsen's recent report on Twitter's low retention of new users. Some Twitter fans are irate and believe the Nielsen data is incorrect; meanwhile, the Twitter haters are enjoying the "I told you so" opportunity. I'm not sure all the buzz about the study really amounts to much, except perhaps to call attention to how quickly many media outlets are eager to latch onto any whiff of negative news regarding Social Media.

The story begins two days ago, when David Martin, Vice President of Primary Research at Nielsen Online, authored "Twitter Quitters Post Roadblock to Long-Term Growth" on the Nielsen Wire blog. He shared an overview of a Nielsen study that found "the percentage of a given month’s users who come back the following month, is currently about 40 percent."

Many Twitter fans were quick to point out that Nielsen may have failed to account for the many people who use Twitter but never visit According to Tweetstats, 40% of Tweets come from people posting updates via third-party applications and sites. For many observers, this proved Nielsen's numbers were incorrect.

Of course, Nielsen was averse to having its accuracy questioned, so today Martin posted a follow-up on Nielsen Wire called "Update: Return of the Twitter Quitters." He says his organization has rerun the analysis "adding in more than 30 websites and applications that feed into the Twitter community" and found the retention number didn't change compared to the earlier report.

Given that Twitter's meteoric growth is well established, why should we care what Twitter's retention rate is? Because, according to Nielsen, the service cannot grow beyond a certain reach of Internet users with such low retention of new registrants. Nielsen calculates Twitter's maximum reach at 10%, a still formidable figure but nowhere near as large as many expect Twitter to attain.

Time will tell, but my feeling is that Nielsen may have gotten the data right while reaching an erroneous conclusion. Twitter's growth is undisputed, even (or especially) by Nielsen. The same organization that says Twitter loses 60% of new registrants each month also said that the site has seen its monthly unique audience grow 1382% from February 2008 to February 2009. By my calculations, for Twitter to have grown in a single year from 475,000 to over 7 million unique monthly visitors while shedding 60% of new users each month, it must have attracted around 16.4 million new visitors while losing 9.8 million of them.

While my calculations required quite a few assumptions to fill in for data not released by Nielsen, the basic contention is sound--Twitter's growth was already astounding, but for the site to have achieved this growth while retaining a mere 40% of its new users is mind blowing. This is also why I'm not really that concerned about Twitter's future. Nielsen seems to believe that a user that is lost to Twitter will stay lost, but is that a reasonable assumption?

It isn't hard to understand how 10 million people might have joined Twitter prior to its rise into the mainstream, failed to find many friends, and then abandoned the site within 30 days. But as more people are drawn to Twitter by Oprah, Ashton, Britney, Ellen, Demi, and Diddy, all of those neglected accounts are still waiting and available. In other words, the fact someone registered in June and left in July doesn't mean they won't ever return. In fact, my guess is that Twitter's growth this past year has been fueled in part by Nielsen's quitters who came back months later to rejoin the Twitterverse.

Twitter's problem isn't a lack of retention or reach but the opposite. I've already written on how once-popular sites have faded and how Twitter could, in fact, follow suit. Despite the Nielsen report that calls into question Twitter's stickiness, I still believe the service's primary challenge is establishing a business model that will be accepted by its fan base and investors.

So, if Twitter has grown impressively and continues to do so, what is with the almost joyous headlines about the Nielsen report? The LA Times says "Nielsen on Twitter: It's so five seconds ago." BusinessWeek says "Twitter is a Fad" and offers "it looks like it’s popularity may soon fade." And on PC World, a columnist writes, "Twitter has shown it is nothing more than a fad. Its services are limited, its fan base drops out quicker than a brick in a wet paper bag."

With Twitter so obviously still growing--and doing so exponentially--what would cause this sort of unfounded pessimism? First of all, it's clear many media outlets simply misinterpreted the Nielsen data. Nielsen isn't saying that Twitter is losing its audience; in fact, they've established Twitter's continued growth. Not only is there no evidence that "its fan base drops out quicker than a brick in a wet paper bag" but instead the facts show the site is continuing to skyrocket.

Maybe it's just jealousy. indicates Twitter has not only grown 10 to 20 times faster than the LA Times, PC World, and BusinessWeek sites in the past year, but it also now attracts double the unique audience of those long-established Web destinations.

In the end, this sort of coverage is an embarrassment for these media outlets. Whatever the cause, the failure to portray Twitter's real situation and the rush to pronounce it "a fad" says far more about the writers' bias than it does the facts. Articles like these remind me of the dot-com crash when those who'd said the Internet was a "flash in the pan" got their "I told you so" moment, but it didn't last long; soon the Internet came roaring back and forced the naysayers to get on board (or into early retirement).

Twitter will succeed or fail; other Web 2.0 sites will come and go; but there is no doubt about the future of Social Media. We are moving into a more networked, interconnected, and transparent world. It will happen, whether or not the reporters, columnists, and bloggers at mainstream media sites are ready for it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Social Media isn't a "Discussion," It's a Party

The following is a slightly updated and edited version of a blog post from June 2008. I'm on a brief vacation, and I thought you might find this article just as interesting today as a year ago.

Social Media is often likened to a conversation where marketers "seek to be part of the discussion" or "engage consumers one-to-one." This conversation analogy--which emphasizes the one-to-one over the one-to-many--may neglect important aspects that differentiate Social Media from other forms of communication. If marketers and brands think of themselves not as joining "the discussion" but instead "the party," it may help set the appropriate tone for engaging in Social Media.

Marketers didn't need social media to have "a discussion" with consumers. Email, which has been a primary online activity for over a decade, has always allowed for one-to-one discussions with consumers. Nor did we need technology to enable one-to-one contact; before email, consumers and brands used the telephone and snail mail to engage in discussions.

The analogies that liken Social Media to a private discussion are widespread but incorrect. A more appropriate simile is that Social Media is like a party already underway. Groups of people are gathered, they have existing networks of relationships, and they are already talking.

As brands enter the Social Media "party," they must not make the mistake of thinking they are guests of honor; in fact, the truth may be exactly the opposite. Nielsen's recent "Trust in Advertising" report reveals that consumers are 30% or more likely to believe recommendations from other consumers than they are information provided by brands on Web sites, on TV, on the radio, in magazines, and in every other medium except newspaper. So, don't expect "partygoers" to stop and pay attention just because your brand walked through the door.

The value of the party metaphor becomes even more apparent when you think of the distributed nature of Social Media. It's a big party--people are talking about your brand on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and YouTube, not to mention on hundred or thousands of blogs. You can no more control the many discussions underway across the Internet than you can command the floor at a large party. Sure, you can try to shout, but that won't encourage others to pay attention but instead to leave (and to take with them a very poor impression of you).

You might wonder if all this focus on analogies is an intellectual exercise without purpose, but here's why it matters: Once you perceive social media not as individual discussions but as a never-ending and constantly-shifting party, you can begin to appreciate what it takes to succeed. The following tips are derived from party etiquette sites such as those found here and here:
  • "Determine what your goals are." Is there a better tip for a smashing party experience or for success in Social Media?
  • "Extend your hand and introduce yourself to unfamiliar guests." Be sure to introduce yourself, and be honest. Let others know you represent or are working for a company or brand.
  • "Keep conversations away from sex, politics and religion." I'm sure this needs not be said when interacting with others on behalf of your brand, but this tip can also be interpreted more broadly: The line between the private and the professional is at best thin and at worst nonexistent. Whether it's the Social Media professional who insulted his client's hometown or the job candidate who lost an offer from Cisco due to an ill-advised tweet, there are plenty of personal topics and observations that should be carefully considered before they are uttered.
  • "If attending a cocktail party in a private home, treat household staff with dignity and respect. There are to be no personal or special requests from you to the staff." Do not treat bloggers or bulletin board moderators with anything but professional courtesy. You may not see them as "official" members of the media, but you should treat them with as much care and deference as you would a reporter or editor.
  • "By all means, converse. But don't dominate all conversations; be a good listener, too." If you attempt to control the conversation on blogs and boards, others will ignore or complain about you. And don't interrupt--when joining a discussion that is underway, do so respectfully and in a way that enhances the discussion for everyone and not just yourself.
  • "Smile, mingle and converse." A successful party is one where you circulate, seek out others, and engage people throughout the room. Your Social Media policy should require the same commitment to listening and covering ground. And, perhaps most importantly, while it's fair for a brand to talk about itself or advance it's own agenda, this has to be done with respect for and in balance with an interest in others. Any professional and successful sales person will tell you that parties are a great place to prospect for opportunities, but being obsessively self centered, graceless, and annoying can do far more damage than good.
Those party etiquette tips are helpful, but since your brand's goal in social media is to protect and enhance your reputation and not simply to be entertained, I'd offer the following additional ideas for your consideration:

  • If you are unwelcome in a discussion, leave. Your brand has every right to combat incorrect information, but engaging in a flame war with an unreasonable, bull-headed, and biased individual won't yield results. If you find yourself unwelcome in a discussion, excuse yourself and find a more welcoming corner of the Social Media party (but continue to monitor the discussion and jump back in if damaging and erroneous gossip is being spread).
  • Simply being at the party isn't what impresses others; it is how you behave, the personality and mood you convey, and the respect you show for others that will alter perceptions.
  • Realize that the party is going on with or without you. If you want to know what is being said, or better yet influence others' opinions of you, you have to get dressed and show up.
The invitations are out, the table is set, and the guests have arrived. Are you coming to the party or do you intend to sit at home with your ears burning?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Twitter's Made It, But Will It Make It?

Back in November, I wrote a blog post entitled, "Is Twitter Mainstream?" At the time, TechCrunch was speculating that Twitter was having its "hockey stick" moment--a point in time when traffic and popularity make an abrupt change that signifies a move into the mainstream. Five months ago, I felt it was premature to call Twitter mainstream, but now that moment has clearly arrived. The question is, can Twitter survive its own success?

First, let's explore the compelling evidence that Twitter has "made it":
  • Oprah: One cannot underestimate the significance of Oprah, the reigning arbiter of all things mainstream. When she reads a book, it becomes a bestseller; when she acknowledges a diet plan, a million people suddenly start detoxing; and now Oprah is tweeting. The superstar made her first Tweet just two days ago and already she has 343,000 followers. According to UPI, more than 70,000 people signed up to Twitter just to see Oprah's first tweet. And if Oprah becomes addicted to Twitter like so many have--if she continues not just tweeting but talking about tweeting--you can bet newbies will continue to multiply.

  • Number of Tweets: On you can find a graph that shows the growth in the number of tweets per day. (A similar chart can be found on Popacular's Gigatweet.) It took the better part of six months in 2008 for the daily average to rise from around 600k to 1M. Since the beginning of January, the average number of tweets per day has risen from 2M to 5M, and the rate of increase is not showing any sign of slowing yet. Of course, at some point in the future the rate of growth will decline, but by the end of 2009, the traffic on Twitter will likely be 10 to 20 times higher than it was just six months ago.

  • Twitter is old: It is popular to think of Social Media participants as being teens and tweens, and some Web 2.0 sites and tools do skew quite youthful. But the demographics on Twitter are very mature (or, one might say, "mainstream.") According to CNET, the same percentage of Twitter users are between 55 and 64 as between 18 and 24. "In fact, the majority of Twitter users are 35 or older."

So while there may be no generally understood definition for "mainstream," I think it's apparent's time has arrived. The question is: Is Twitter ready for it? Anyone who uses Twitter is now very accustomed to seeing the "Fail Whale" that greets site visitors when Twitter is over capacity. Although the Fail Whale may have its own fan club, there is no denying the frustration Twitter users are experiencing on a regular and ongoing basis.

The troubling thing is that Twitter has never been all that stable. As Dan York wrote on his blog Disruptive Conversations, "It's getting increasingly hard to remain a Twitter fan." And he wrote that in May 2007!

It's not as if Twitter doesn't have any competition. Other micromedia sites such as Plurk and Identica would love a larger slice of the microblogging pie, but Twitter is swamping them. According to, Identica and Twitter have had similar rates of growth in the past year, but Twitter has around 5,000 times more traffic.

Much like the iPhone, which is making headway against its mobile phone competitors thanks to the plethora of third-party apps available on the platform, Twitter's growth is being spurred in part by the third-party tools that use or hook into Twitter's system. I can't even count the number of Twitter apps and clients listed on the Twitter fan wiki, and every one of these applications creates new ways for users to access and create additional demands on Twitter's overtaxed backbone.

All of this popularity comes at a cost for an online service that famously still doesn't have a revenue plan. Some estimates put their burn rate at around $7.5M to $10M per year even before the latest surge of demand and traffic, and while Twitter has had no problem finding additional funds, investors cannot indefinitely bankroll Twitter's growth without an expectation of significant revenue . Even if Twitter is sold and becomes part of a larger publicly-owned entity (perhaps Google, as is rumored), their new owners will be obligated to produce positive cash flow and value for their shareholders.

What happens if Twitter waits too long to develop a revenue model or they fail to come to an agreement to be sold? Some seem to feel that "Twitter will never fail" and that "users will stick with it for better or worse". For them I have two words: SixDegrees and Friendster. Both were darlings of Social Media before the term was even in common usage. was well ahead of it's time, operating from 1997 to 2001. It offered a service not unlike LinkedIn, permitting people to see how may degrees of separation they were from each other. At it's height, the service had one million registered members.

Friendster was launched in 2002. It, too, was ahead of it's time; MySpace wouldn't convert into a Social Network until 2004 and Facebook didn't open up to the non-student public until 2006. While Friendster is still kicking, it is but a shadow of its much larger siblings; Facebook receives around 7,000% more traffic than Friendster at the current time.

So the idea that Twitter has become too big to fail is ridiculous. (Twitter isn't BOA and won't get any TARP funds!) While we can only speculate at the scenarios that could cause Twitter to be added to the same dustbin of history as (or once soaring online businesses such as, Webvan, or Flooz), possibilities include an eventual failure to find capital or a buyer.

A complete financial failure seems unlikely (and would certainly be more than a year or two off), but here's a more plausible, imminent, and disastrous scenario: Frustrated by constant latency and downtime, turned off by the arrival of a wave of Oprah newbies, and dubious of the mainstream popularity that has vaulted celebs such as Ryan Seacrest and John Mayer over tech and Social Media leaders, a couple key early adopters announce a shift to a different platform. What happens if the likes of Pete Cashmore, Michael Arrington, and Tim O'Reilly decide to endorse a more scalable and reliable platform to their 250,000+ followers? A scenario such as this would precipitate the kind of shift that MySpace--which just a year ago had twice as much traffic as Facebook and today has 40% less--would recognize.

Don't get me wrong--I very much hope Twitter succeeds--but I also lived through the dot-com bubble and subsequent crash, and the "growth is more important than revenue" mantra is one that causes me to flinch uncontrollably. A decade ago, some people argued that the Internet had somehow rewritten the rules of business and value creation. Those people lost a lot of other people's money; $5 trillion in market value evaporated from March 2000 to October 2002 as investor learned the hard way that the digital economy still required old-fashioned revenue and profit.

As a modestly early adopter of Twitter and a student and professional of Social Media, I am pleased to see the service grow into the mainstream. I just hope as 5M tweets a day becomes 10M or 20M that my one of my favorite communication tools doesn't rest on the mistaken belief that people are handcuffed to Twitter by their existing networks and will have infinite patience for cute Fail Whale images.

Few companies fail focusing on the needs of users and the user experience, but plenty have failed believing they can grow themselves to success!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Domino's Huge Social Media Opportunity

Everyone is talking about Domino's big Social Media challenge, but I think they actually have a Social Media opportunity--a HUGE opportunity. Domino's--if it acts quickly, authentically, and socially--can turn lemons into lemonade (or snot into gold, as the case may be).

There's plenty of places to get details about the pizza chain's burgeoning PR crisis, so I won't go into detail here except to share a bit of information from's article: Two Domino's employees, identifying themselves as Kristy and Michael, posted a video in which they "besmirch a pair of sub sandwiches and the pizza chain's reputation. Michael inserts pieces of cheese into his nose and waves pieces of salami behind his backside. Both the salami and the cheese are placed on the sandwiches." In other videos posted to the Internet, Michael sneezes on cheese sticks and wipes his bare backside with a dish sponge.

According to, a Domino's spokesperson said the company "is looking into what can be done to prevent this in the future, but there's only so much a marketer can do." The company decided not to issue a press release or post a statement online fearing that "a strong response from Domino's would alert more consumers to the embarrassment." While I agree that issuing a press release to combat a negative and viral Internet threat is like fighting a forest fire with a garden hose, I believe there is a way to fight fire with fire. This Social Media disaster demands an equally social response!

No, the answer isn't for Domino's' to produce their own videos. It's not that official videos--ones that demonstrate the care given to food safety or with an apology and denial from Kristy (who has already claimed that the tainted ingredients were never distributed to customers)--are a bad idea. But anything Domino's says officially to try to combat the negative PR will be met with some level of suspicion. "Of course," consumers will think to themselves, "Domino's corporate staff thinks all of their rules are followed, but what really happens when their young, part-time kitchen staff are left on their own in the 8,000 stores they have worldwide?" Of course, that's the insidious image that has been planted in the back of consumers' brains by Kristy and Michael's video--what happens when the bosses aren't watching?

No, the million-dollar idea isn't an "official" response. In a social and interconnected world, the way to fight situations like this is in a social and interconnected way. Here's how to turn this PR problem into an opportunity: Be authentic and social by asking other employees to post their video responses. Domino's shouldn't guide those responses, issue talking points, or even ask that these be positive. Instead, Domino's should challenge their 125,000 employees to share their thoughts online and in video form. How did Kristy and Michael's clips make other employees feel? What did they think when they saw their peers' behavior? What message would they like to deliver to those two?

If a hundred or a thousand Domino's employees--ones who look not like corporate suits but instead are exactly like Kristy and Michael--were to speak with a different message, the problem could not only be resolved but could actually become a marketing opportunity.

While Domino's could train their cameras on their employees, tell them what to say, filter it, edit it, and polish it, doing so would drain their employees' words of their authenticity. Instead, encouraging their own employees to share their own thoughts in their own words is the authentic response necessary. Might some employees say the wrong thing? Sure, that's authenticity at work! My guess is that most employees, when encouraged to do so, will instead demonstrate the care and commitment they have for their jobs, the food, and the customers, which would create a wave of buzz, attention, awareness, and goodwill.

The only way to fight Social is with Social! As my friend and Fullhouse peer Cindi Thomas says, "Focus on the Social, not the Media!"

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Can Influencers Be a Bad Influence?

This article is an unintentional sequel to last week's post, "Crowdsourcing: When the Crowd is Wrong." That article explored the problems that can occur when a small, passionate group of folks overwhelms a crowdsource program. But what about when a small, passionate group is the intended audience?

The right influencers enlisted for the right reason can yield extraordinary benefits, but influencers can be a bad influence if they are not carefully identified or if their impact is permitted to exceed their knowledge, vision, and capabilities. The world of entertainment provides two cautionary tales about the importance of identifying both who are influencers and what they will be permitted to influence.

The first case study is "Snakes on a Plane." Many consider it to be the first movie ever crowdsourced because online fans were invited and allowed to influence important elements of the movie's script. Interest in the film went viral well in advance of its release, purely on the merits of it's kitschy title. Fans (or should we call them "pre-fans"?) began to upload fake plots and trailers, and filmmakers eventually reshot parts of the movie "to meet the fans' expectations."

According to the Hollywood Reporter, The changes demanded by these "influencers" included bumping the rating from PG-13 to R with "more gore, more death, more nudity, more snakes and more death scenes." One well-known addition to the film was the now-infamous line, "I want these mother####ing snakes off the mother####ing plane," which was based on a fan trailer that became a viral sensation.

To paraphrase the late, great Paul Harvey, you already know "the rest of the story." "Snakes on a Plane" performed terribly--it opened with a meager $15 million in its first weekend and slithered out of theaters with a total gross of just $34 million.

That the movie was bad surprised no one--not even the Web fanatics--but it was shocking to see the online frenzy evaporate once the film premiered. In fact, it could be argued the fans hurt rather than helped the movie--the R rating increased the appeal to horror fans but limited the merchandising options and decreased the potential audience by omitting 13- to 18-year-old moviegoers. At best, it seems the influencers amounted to nothing, and at worst, they harmed rather than helped the movie.

So, where did the filmmakers go wrong? First of all, they mistook an online craze launched by four small words--snakes, on, a, plane--as an endorsement of the movie. The people who influenced the script weren't fans of the movie; they were fans of the wacky title. SoaP producers treated as influencers people who didn't have wide networks, had virtually no knowledge of the actual product, and offered nothing by way of insights about moviegoers or the factors that make a movie a successful.

Secondly, the producers allowed the fans to influence inward (altering the product) but didn't activate the outbound influence (improving a wider audience's perception of and intention to see the film). Instead of designing programs to expand the buzz to a more diverse audience, New Line launched a song-writing contest that didn't appeal to anyone outside of the existing base of fans who were already creating and uploading SoaP-themed songs. In short, they failed to use the potential influence of their fans.

A contrasting view of how to identify and handle influencers can be found with "Battlestar Galactica." The show, which recently left the air, bore little resemblance to the schlocky TV program of the 80s. The new series offered a mature and challenging vision of the future and was widely hailed by critics. Salon called the show, "electrifying, frank about the predicaments of the present in a way that a TV drama about the present could never be." E! Online offered a "hearty thank you to the creators, cast and crew" for the "entirety of four epic years with this great story."

Executive Producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick specifically set out to deconstruct the original television series. Cylons looked like humans, capes and lasers were replaced with military uniforms and bullets, and Starbuck was turned into a woman. In the words of Bonnie Hammer, then the president of the SciFi Network, "It was no longer your father's Battlestar Galactica. It was provocative, it was edgy, it was dark."

But what if a certain group of influencers had gotten their way? As Entertainment Weekly reports, Moore got a rocky reception when he showed preview clips at Galacticon, a Battlestar Galactica fan convention. "The clips ended and they booed and they hissed," he reports. Richard Hatch, star of the original series, agrees, "It was icy-cold in there. It was obvious that no one liked it." In the end, a Galacticon attendee stood up and asked Moore, "Now that you've heard all of this, will you take a pledge now that if this show goes to series, you will make sure it's more in keeping with what we would like to see?''

Moore could very well have treated the attendees of Galacticon as influencers; after all, this was a bunch of people so in love with the mythology of the show that 25 years later they still traveled across the country to gather. So what was the Executive Producer's response to the fan's question? Moore didn't promise changes to appease the existing fan base. He didn't even tell the Galacticon fans he'd give consideration to their concerns. Instead, Moore stood before the only group of consumers who gave a damn about the Battlestar Galactica franchise and said, "This is the show. You may not like the show, you don't have to watch the show, but this is the show that we're making.''

Rather than listen to the fans of the campy 80s series, the SciFi Channel instead turned to other science fiction fans, many of whom appreciated darker and more serious fare such as the "Matrix" series and cult flick "Blade Runner." In doing so, they rejected the easy and obvious choice for a group of influencers and instead found the ones that really mattered. At a subsequent Comic-Con convention, the stars of the new show were "pleasantly surprised at the positive fan response."

Moore and his crew might have been tempted to take the same course as the makers "Snakes on a Plane," opting to involve the existing fan base, turning to them for scripts, and allowing the BSG fans to set a different direction. But they didn't. Why? Bonnie Hammer summed it up best when she said that fans "can't drive the creative process."

There is a great deal of wisdom in that statement. It's a message that doesn't contradict the concepts of crowdsourcing and influencers but instead enhances them. In our newly Social world, brands should tap their fans, involve consumers, gather their insight, and provide opportunities for collaboration, but we must never forget that strategy and vision is the essential job of those within the organization and cannot be left to the influences of crowds.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Crowdsourcing: When the Crowd is Wrong

Crowdsourcing evangelists are pretty breathless about its benefits. Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business, says "the crowd is more than wise -- it's talented, creative and stunningly productive." In his book, Wikinomics, Don Tapscott contends, "Billions of connected individuals can now actively participate in innovation, wealth creation, and social development in ways we once only dreamed of."

It all sounds so wonderful, but when did it become fashionable to be associated with a crowd? We used to want to "stand out from the crowd." There was a time we hated to "get lost in the crowd." And when we said "Two's company; three's a crowd," it wasn't because three people was the desired state.

Of course, Crowdsourcing--the act of organizing large groups of people outside an organization to collaborate on tasks that might otherwise be done within it--holds terrific potential, but it also can be dangerous. To effectively tap the "wisdom of the crowds," it is vital the task be carefully chosen and defined, all possible outcomes foreseen, and appropriate limits and guidelines implemented.

One danger of crowds is that they're prone to be affected by passionate minorities. Stephen Colbert has proven this several times already. In 2006, Colbert asked the viewers of "The Colbert Report" to vote for him in an online poll to select a name for a new bridge in Hungary; within two weeks he had earned 17 million votes--7 million more than the population of the country of Hungary. (The bridge was eventually named Megyeri Bridge, a name that didn't even make the second round of polling.)

Colbert is back in the news because he urged his viewers to vote for him in a NASA poll to name a new space station module. NASA offered four names of its own but permitted write-ins, which created an opening for Colbert's highly engaged fans. When voting ended, "Colbert" beat the most popular NASA name, "Serenity," by 40,000 votes. As noted in the Associated Press article, "NASA's mistake was allowing write-ins".

You might think that NASA covered it's bases since it "reserves the right to choose an appropriate name." In this case they're probably safe, since although Colbert and his fans might howl in protest when NASA passes over the comedian's name, it's still all in good fun. But what if a different set of passionate people had hijacked this exercise in crowdsourcing?

As a hypothetical example, what if instead of Comedy Central fans, it was a vocal set of opponents of California's Proposition 8 that had targeted the NASA voting campaign? Such a group might have mobilized folks from across the country to have the space module named "Milk," after the gay politician who was the subject of the recent award-winning film, "Milk." In this case, even with the stated right to choose an appropriate name, NASA would've been caught between a rock and a hard place--on the one hand conservatives might have objected to the politicizing of the space station, while on the other hand activists would've accused the space organization of homophobia and bias if NASA overruled the popular vote.

This example demonstrates several considerations for organizations looking to mount a crowdsourcing effort:
  • Consider every possible outcome and ensure the worst-case scenario is one that can be accepted.
  • Setting the rules so that the organization can make the ultimate decision regardless of the group's wishes does not mitigate every risk. Consider again the worst-case scenario in order to determine if the control retained by the organization is real or imagined. Recognize the danger inherent in publicly nullifying the will of the group after having asked that group for their time, consideration, and opinion.
  • In many cases, open-ended tasks may furnish an opportunity for a passionate minority to overwhelm the majority. It may be better and safer to allow participants to choose from a set selection of options or to otherwise constrain the thinking and activity.
  • Put limits in place that prevent or reduce ballot stuffing. While it may be difficult to obstruct all manipulation of a crowdsourced program, many sensitive situations can be avoided by setting appropriate rules and implementing technical restrictions such as requiring registration and limiting participation based on email address and/or IP address.

Crowdsourcing furnishes tremendously exciting ways to gather knowledge from stakeholders, increase loyalty among customers, mitigate risks with fresh thinking, and provide a unique perspective from outside the organization. If you execute and manage a crowdsourcing program with the appropriate foresight and care, you'll find yourself agreeing with P.T. Barnum, who said "Every crowd has a silver lining."