Ask The Crowd. Crush Your Soul.
WHAT DO SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH AND LIMP BIZKIT HAVE IN COMMON?
They together stand as a shining example of why, if you focus group your marketing work, you will hate life.
OK, so what does this actually mean?
If you've been paying attention to the news over the last week, you know that Boaty McBoatface is about to make its first ocean voyage.
I was not paying attention to the news. I learned this tidbit while listening to Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me! Which is a much more distinguished source of news than The Daily Show, lemme tell ya.
Anyway, the wisdom of sourcing world news from comedians aside, Boaty McBoatface first surfaced in the news about a year ago.
It all started at Great Britain's NERC.
"NERC" IS THE KIND OF NAME YOU GET WHEN BUREAUCRATS ARE IN CHARGE
It's not catchy. Doesn't have a good beat. Can't dance to it.
It stands for Natural Environment Research Council.
NERC ran a contest to name its new ship, a 410-foot research vessel that cost close to $300 million.
Intended to replace the RRS James Clark Ross and RRS Ernest Shackleton, my first question is: If it's replacing two ships, will it have the ability to defy time and space and be in two places at once?
NERC does not appear to have considered this question.
Anyway, NERC announced an online contest to name their new vessel, their presumed pride and joy.
THE INTERNET, PREDICTABLY, WENT NUTS
Everyone is a comedian.
People were floating names like, Clifford The Big Red Ship.
One of my personal favorites is RRS Usain Boat.
And a PR guy named James Hand (who certainly has endured his share of name jokes over the years) saw it all, laughed, and threw his hat into the ring with Boaty McBoatface.
The internet lost its mind.
THOUSANDS OF VOTES LATER...
RRS Boaty McBoatface was leading the pack as the internet's favorite name.
Was NERC really going to give a stupid name to its $300 million research vessel?
After all, the wisdom of crowds is a verifiable phenomenon. There's even a book about it.
And look at all the other hugely successful crowdsourced names over the last few years.
The nation of Slovakia crowdsourced the name for a new cycling and pedestrian bridge.
By a landslide, the internet's winning name was Chuck Norris.
There is no Chuck Norris Bridge in Slovakia.
It is called the Freedom Cycling-Bridge. Again, the kind of clunky name you get when bureaucrats are left in control. The "Freedom" part is very poignant, honoring the memories of people who tried to cross to freedom, but gets upstaged by "cycling bridge."
But I digress.
THEN THERE'S THE CITY OF AUSTIN
In a brilliant hybrid move of political correctness and keeping weirdness, the city's Solid Waste Services Department asked the internet for a new name.
I might've suggested the name Barry.
But they didn't ask me.
The internet suggested all kinds of interesting acronyms. Like The Department of Filth, Litter, Outreach, Abatement, Trimmings, Education and Recycling--which would be known as FLOATER.
One guy got his 15 seconds of fame by suggesting the waste management department be named after the front man for rap-rock band Limp Bizkit.
By a landslide, it was a favorite.
About 30,000 people voted to change the department's name from Solid Waste Services to the Fred Durst Society of the Humanities and Arts.
BUT THE INTERNET'S OPINION IS NEITHER BINDING NOR FINAL
If you live in the Lone Star State's capital city, your trash is now picked up by Austin Resource Recovery.
That's the kind of name you get when imaginative, politically correct bureaucrats are left in charge.
And the kind of name you get for your $300-million research vessel is not Boaty McBoatface, but RRS Sir David Attenborough.
A respectable name for a deep-ocean research vessel to succeed a proud ship like the RRS Ernest Shackleton.
Yes, Boaty McBoatface is going to sea. That's the name of the lead submersible aboard the Attenborough.
And PR guy James hand publicly apologized for creating internet mayhem by suggesting the name.
Interestingly, if you research Mr. Hand, in his Twitter bio he calls himself "The reason we can't have nice things."
EVERYBODY'S A COMEDIAN
Or everyone's earnest.
Or everyone's a clown.
Or everyone's sincere.
Or everyone's the wrong people to be doing this with.
Asking anyone else their opinion on the creative work you're trying to do is a bad, bad idea.
Unless you are certain the person you're reaching out to is in the right demographic, has the right sensibility, and you ask the absolute right questions, you get mayhem.
WE NEVER CROWDSOURCE ANYTHING
We also don't do focus groups until we are at an impasse and we need to know something specific.
Recently, The Fabulous Honey Parker and I were at an impasse.
She had designed a logo that I thought was too distinctly reminiscent of a certain portion of the female reproductive anatomy.
So finally, I said, "Focus group it."
Which meant sending it out to a handful of individuals we know who happen to be representative of the client's core customer.
And there was no, "Hey we're arguing about this. Help us decide."
We just looked for reactions.
AND IT WAS JUST AS I HAD SAID
It was evocative of human female biology.
And it was just as Honey had said: the women who is the core customer loves it.
Because a middle-aged woman of a certain income level I am not--and that is who we need to reach.
When you start just throwing your branding or your advertising or anything else out to people who aren't the right people, you set yourself up for a soul-crushing experience.
YOU'RE ASKING, "WHADDAYA THINK?"
They're hearing something else.
If they're a bunch of comedians, you'll get Boaty-McBoatface suggestions.
If they're a bunch of friends, they're hearing, "I need to solve this."
There will be comments and suggestions and opinions and (yes) mayhem.
If you're ever going to solicit input from anyone, you need to pick your critics wisely.
Recently here in the screed, we talked about a radio guru who asked listener opinions about radio commercials.
The top criticism of commercials? They're too long.
But if you scratch just below the surface, it looks like they're too long because they're loud, annoying and boring.
BUT SOMEBODY WITHOUT ANY IMAGINATION WHO'S LOOKING FOR A QUICK FIX?
They're going to stop at "Too long."
"We need to make these spots shorter!"
And if they continue to be loud, annoying and boring, listening to the crowd hasn't solved the problem.
We once had a client who went from thrilled to mortified over 72 hours. The exciting brand options we'd presented on Friday afternoon were so much horrifying oatmeal by Monday morning.
We're convinced the client did an ad hoc focus group. And all these people who lacked any sense of context but wanted earnestly to help explained what all the problems were.
That's why we now make every client sign an agreement that includes a promise to not focus group their material with "friends, family, neighbors or pets."
WE ALSO PROMISE TO TALK PANICKED CLIENTS IN OFF THE LEDGE
We explicitly state that we will administer adult beverages and/or dark chocolate as necessary.
You don't want people who aren't creative problem solvers trying to solve your problems for you.
But you do want to know what the person who fits your core customer avatar feels about something.
That can be really useful.
It's how a logo I thought was inappropriate went on to be the client's favorite and makes her feel really enthusiastic about her business.
The wisdom of crowds is a powerful thing.
Beware the wisdom of crowds.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.