It seems like a no-brainer. You're not sure what to name your product, or what new feature to offer next, so rather than have engineers and marketers try to figure it out, you invite your customers -- and the world at large -- to provide input. After all, if the people who actually buy whatever it is you're selling get to make important decisions about it, then everyone wins, right? You get lots of sales, and they get exactly what they're looking for.
That's the concept behind crowdsourcing, and sometimes it works great. Solar-powered food dehydrators and recycling old tires into shoes are great crowdsourced ideas. The breathtaking animation To This Day...for the Bullied and Beautiful was created by crowdsourcing.
But sometimes crowdsourcing can go horribly wrong. Customers or others deliberately distort results, use crowdsourcing as an opportunity to express their displeasure, or just come up with inexplicably bad ideas. Here (in reverse chronological order) is what happened when some big brands decided to try crowdsourcing, and likely wound up wishing they hadn't.
1. Peanut M&Ms with...chili?
M&Ms decided to crowdsource some new peanut M&M flavors by getting focus groups to choose their three favorites, then putting all three on the market and inviting customers to vote for their favorites. What could possibly go wrong?
The first flavor to emerge from this experiment was coffee nut, which seems to be headed for success. Because, really, how can you go wrong combining coffee and chocolate?
With the second flavor, M&Ms made an unashamed attempt to cash in on the latest gourmet chocolate craze for dark chocolate with chili in it. Now fine dark chocolate with a zing to it is one thing--a nod to chocolate's Mayan history. A milk chocolate and peanut M&M with hot spice in it is a very different matter and was met with a puzzled "why?" by many reviewers. As if M&Ms themselves recognized it wouldn't really work, they held back on the spice, adding a very slight spiciness that some samplers can't taste at all and others only experience a few moments after eating the candy. (The most frequent reaction among tasters is something like, "It's not spicy! Oh wait--now it is.")
You'd think that was as bad as things got, but no--the third flavor M&Ms' focus groups came up with is even worse: Honey Nut. The idea, apparently, was to reproduce the flavor of Honey Nut Cheerios by adding artificial flavor, plus even more sweetness, to the already-quite-sweet peanut M&M. "Honey was the most frequently requested flavor in focus groups," explains the M&Ms' press release. Be careful what you wish for.
But don't take my word for it. You can find all three flavors in stores and vote for your favorite until June 17.
2. A ferry named ShouldveBeenABridge?
Note to would-be crowdsourcers: Don't ask your customers to name a product if they're angry at you. That's a lesson the British Columbia line BC Ferries learned the hard way last year. With three new ships to launch, the company invited customers to suggest names, apparently without considering that those customers might be a bit disgruntled after the financially strapped company cut senior discounts, eliminated service to smaller communities, and threatened to raise prices 80 percent.
Suggestions for the new ships' names included "Spirit of the WalletSucker" and "Incompetence Afloat," as well as "S.S. ShouldveBeenABridge." Unperturbed, the company announced plans last summer to name its new ships Salish Orca, Salish Eagle, and Salish Raven, in a nod to the Coast Salish Native American people in the region.
As for the disparaging name suggestions, company CEO Mike Corrigan took them in stride with typical Canadian good nature. "It really promoted the naming contest for us," he said.
3. Cappuccino potato chips.
It doesn't sound like a real product but it was -- for a little while. Frito-Lay has been running its "Do Us a Flavor" contest for a few years, resulting in the successful flavors cheesy garlic bread and wasabi ginger. But when some customers suggested coffee flavored potato chips in 2014, the folks at Lay's inexplicably thought this was a good idea. After all, people love coffee, and they also love potato chips. Why not combine the two?
Because they taste "nasty" and "gross," according to comments on the company's Facebook page. Lay's execs remain unfazed, saying that the coffee-flavored chips only made it into the finals because a lot of people liked them. Who are these people? I can't imagine.
4. A space station named for a late-night comic?
In the most high-profile crowdsourcing fail of all time, NASA ran a contest in 2009 to name a new node of the International Space Station. The agency invited website visitors to vote among its proposed options -- Venture, Legacy, Earthrise, and Serenity -- or write in suggestions of their own. Stephen Colbert, whose "Colbert Report" was then at the height of popularity, urged viewers to write in his name. "Colbert" won the contest by more than 40,000 votes.
That left NASA with a potential international embarrassment. But the agency reacted with good humor, sending astronaut Suni Williams to appear on Colbert's show and explain that while the node itself would be named Tranquility, it would contain a treadmill named Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or C.O.L.B.E.R.T. for short. Colbert, noting that the node was just a container for the treadmill, proclaimed himself delighted.
5. The New York Mets get "Rickrolled."
It sounded so simple. The Mets wanted a new song to play during their 8th innings, so why not hold an Internet vote? Unfortunately, they held their vote in 2008, at the height of an obnoxious Internet fad called "Rickrolling." The idea was to present an unsuspecting victim with a useful-seeming hyperlink that would actually lead to a video of Rick Astley's 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up." Anonymous began singing the song at protests, and YouTube added to the fun by putting a few disguised links to the song on its site on April Fool's Day.
Like any good Internet meme, the more people heard about it, the more it grew, and "Never Gonna Give You Up" won the online contest with millions of votes. Fortunately for everyone, the Mets reserved the final decision to be made by fans in the stadium, when it played all the finalist songs on Opening Day. When "Never Gonna Give You Up" came on, it was roundly booed.