Before You Buy Our Product, Can You Help Us Sell It To You?

by Matthew L. Schafer

In 2006, Jeff Howe told the indelible website Wired that there was something in the air.  What was it?  Crowdsourcing or the outsourcing of labor, creative processes, sweat equity, etc. to the audience.  While some were initially skeptical about the potential of crowdsourcing, one thing is now certain: It grabs attention, and people love it.  Just ask the Old Spice guy.

“Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003,” Howe wrote in 2006.  “The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D.”

Crowdsourcing, in the broadest terms, can refer to any contribution of the audience to the production of content of some type.  Most interestingly, however, is the rise of advertising crowdsourcing.  Essentially, companies are employing their audience to sell products to their audience.  Whether this is exploitation or not is a topic for another day, but whatever it is, it’s something the audience likes.

The most recent, and possibly the most successful advertising crowdsourcing to date, is the recent Old Spice campaign.  With the help of retired NFL player Isaiah Mustafa, Old Spice put together a crowdsourcing campaign that used social media not only to get ideas from its audience, but to start a conversation with the audience.  With a few popular commercial spots under its belt, the Old Spice team began to scour the Internet for audience commentary on the new advertisements.

This graph from Google's Insights for Search shows when the Old Spice advertising videos went viral according to search volume. "A" marks the release of the second of two commercials featuring Isaiah Mustafa.

Using Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and other popular new media outlets, Old Spice advertisers and audience members started having realtime conversations.  The advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy came up with the conversation advertising campaign in order to breathe new life into an almost 80-year-old company that was most famous for burning cheeks before the new advertising campaign. So how does it works?

First, Old Spice develops a character through traditional commercials that appeal to many demographics–men and women alike.  Second, using the existing fan base, Old Spice begins to answer in realtime to queries posted on new media outlets across the web.  For example:

A Twitter user named @iggip0p wrote, “@Oldspice man, what is the manliest thing you have ever done?”

Once the team of editors and advertisers at Wieden+Kennedy chose to respond to @iggip0p’s post, they wrote and produced this video, and posted it on Youtube with dozens like it:

The turnaround is extremely quick.  Ian Tait, a director for the project, told Fast Company that the firm was producing nearly 100 Youtube videos a day.  It paid off, at least in views.  All told, Old Spice’s videos have posted almost 100 million views on Youtube–a much cheaper proposition than buying advertising revenues from cable and broadcast companies.   When asked why the company decided to use all types of social media platforms, Old Spice advertising directors said they wanted to juice as much potential out of new media offerings.

“By locking the campaign into any proprietary place would have just severely limited the exposure it would get and diminish it,” Ian Tait of Wieden+Kennedy told Fast Company.  “This whole idea of responding to people and being very smart about who we decided to respond to, and in what manner, that wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t done it in a format like YouTube where we are able to embed it. People are very familiar with the ways of sharing it, liking it, and favoring it, and just the fact that it can go everywhere very quickly was a huge positive.”

Other companies are now trying to figure out how to profit from a similar approach.  It’s unclear how replicable this type of advertising will be in the future.  Indeed, it may just have been a fluke.  It does appear, however, that the audience enjoyed talking back to the advertiser though.  As of July 23, Old Spice had over 90,000 followers on Twitter and 690,000 fans on Facebook.

Despite the excitement around the campaign, some close to the media industry spoken to by Lippmann Would Roll question the moral underpinnings of what one person called “advertainment” and using the audience to help sell products back to the audience. Questions about ethics are unlikely to stop future iterations of Old Spice’s campaign as advertising isn’t new to questionable ethics practices.  As one advertising executive recently said, “People in advertising spend a lot of their time dealing with ethical choices, and those choices are almost never black and white. They’re subtle, shades-of-gray choices.”

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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One Response to Before You Buy Our Product, Can You Help Us Sell It To You?

  1. Nick Russo says:

    Glad you decided to write about this. Great post.

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