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Crowdsourcing: 9 Hidden Pitfalls of This New Method of Generating Your New Business Name

by Marcia Yudkin

Want to get a spiffy new company name or product name fast, at low cost? A lot of Internet-savvy people are looking into a method of finding new names called "crowdsourcing." Actually, there are three methods that fall into that category, with one of them at least decades old, another one as about new as the Internet and the third much newer than that.

The oldest method, running a naming contest, involves no advanced technology. Just let people know about the contest and tell them how to enter. Have one or more judges choose a winner and award a prize.

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The second oldest method consists of asking for naming suggestions on an email discussion list or web-based forum. Usually there's no reward; people help because they enjoy being creative.

The newest method of crowdsourcing involves sites set up explicitly to facilitate a web-based competition for the new name. Examples of this kind of site include Naming Force and Name This, with Mechanical Turk also being used for this purpose, even though it also runs other kinds of online work projects.

Advantages of Crowdsourcing

All three of these methods of collecting name suggestions have obvious advantages. First, the cost ranges from free to $100 or $200. Second, ideas generally come in rather fast. And third, the thinking power of so many people often yields many promising name candidates.

Disadvantages of Crowdsourcing

However, crowdsourcing also brings with it quite a few disadvantages. Since these tend to be much less obvious to the average business person looking for a name, let's consider them carefully one by one.

1. No confidentiality. This is the deadliest downfall of crowdsourcing. Soliciting suggestions makes your plans and the competitive advantages of your company or product public. Putting your naming challenge out for crowdsourcing can clue in competitors to what you're up to and make it possible for someone else to see your great new idea and run away with it. Someone watching the entries come in can also hurry to register the best domains before you have a chance to do that. On the other hand, if you try to be cagey and provide less information for these reasons, namers don't have enough to go on to offer usable ideas.

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2. Poor quality entries. Crowdsourcing contestants normally submit whatever comes to them off the top of their heads. They may not know much about your industry and don't take the time to learn about it. They often ignore any naming criteria you stated, so you have to wade through a ton of wildly off-target suggestions. They don't think carefully about all aspects of your naming challenge the way professional name consultants would. 

3. Wrong direction. Because amateur naming helpers don't look at the whole business landscape, they can lead you in a foolish direction. This pitfall snared Kraft Foods Australia, when they asked the public to suggest names for a new Vegemite spread. What were they thinking when they selected the entry "iSnack 2.0" as the winner from 50,000 submissions? Was it because it was so different from the more obvious options? Their announcement of the new name caused such an uproar in Australia that within four days, Kraft retracted it amidst a public relations disaster.

4. Popularity misleads. The number of votes received by an idea has nothing to do with whether or not the target market will find it appealing, whether a name is legally free for use, whether it contains any connotations that can backfire on the company, whether it sufficiently differentiates the item to be named from the competition, etc.

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5. Stolen or recycled names. Contestants in crowdsourcing competitions have been known to deliberately submit ideas they copied, plagiarized or submitted in other competitions. One high-tech company turned to crowdsourcing when they received a cease-and-desist notice about their new logo.

However, the exact same thing happened after they unveiled the winner of their competition. It too prompted a cease-and-desist notice, from a company charging that the new logo looked too similar to theirs. Ironically, this high-tech company ended up spending much more on PR spin control and legal fees by turning to crowdsourcing than it would have cost to hire a naming firm.

6. Coming up empty. Contestants don't normally have to ensure that their suggestions are legally available, as well as linguistically wise and appropriate from a marketing standpoint. Therefore, all the submitted options that stand up and sing may need to be eliminated from consideration, leaving nothing worth using. On the other hand, naming companies assume responsibility for delivering smart, feasible possibilities.

7. Derailment. When NASA asked the public to help name a new room to be added to future American space stations, comedian Stephen Colbert asked his fans to suggest it be called "Colbert." And indeed they did, in droves, so that he received 40,000 more votes than the runner-up name. The U.S. space agency was not amused.

8. Missing the best talent. Those who are eager to contribute to a crowdsourcing competition may not have the keenest talent, since those with the greatest experience and skills are probably being handsomely paid for what they do. 

An episode of the TV show House MD spun a story where a patient got so frustrated with his misdiagnoses that he posted his symptoms online and asked the public to diagnose him in exchange for a $25,000 reward. At the end, viewers discover that Dr. House anonymously submitted the correct diagnosis because he had recently quit his job, was bored and needed a challenge - not for the reward. While fiction, the show nevertheless made a valuable point: Experts are much more likely than novices to nail the assignment.

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9. Hidden costs. Culling through 50,000 submissions takes vastly more time than considering the top 5, 10 or 25 suggestions offered by a professional naming company. Since the legal risks of intellectual property infringement are high with crowdsourcing, legal expenses can mount, too, especially when the process goes awry or hasn't been set up properly to start with. 

You Decide

All in all, you may feel that the lure of free or cheap, fast, eager help outweighs the pitfalls listed above. But if any of the pitfalls caused you to stop and worry as you read, you may be wiser to entrust your naming project to professionals - such as my naming company, Named At Last.

Copyright 2010 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.

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