Nicola Watts
Crowdsourcing Lessons From Boaty McBoatface

It might just be me, but I still find the story of Boaty McBoatface laugh out loud funny. In fact, pretty much anyone who uses the template Blanky McBlankface brings a smile to my face.

For those of you who managed to miss what was arguably the only funny voting story of 2016, here it is. The UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) had the bright idea to ask the public to name their new £200 million polar Royal Research ship (RSS); the largest and most advanced in the world.

NERC asked the public to submit inspirational names that reflected the “spirit of scientific endeavour” from within the field of environmental and polar science, then to vote online for their favourite entry. Their intent was to increase public interest in their work. This they achieved in spades, but not quite in the way they expected.

Trusting the UK population to select a dignified name that befits its status, they were soon to be sorely disappointed. What they got was a large portion of the public using the contest as an opportunity to amuse not only themselves but everyone else, once it went viral and became a social media sensation with the website periodically crashing due to unusually high volumes of traffic!

RRS Boaty McBoatface received 124,109 votes – three times more than any other contender. Second was RSS Poppy-Mai with 34,371 votes, followed by RRS Henry Worsley (a British explorer) with 15,231, RRS It’s bloody cold here with 10,679 and RRS David Attenborough (British broadcaster and naturalist) with 10,284 votes.

Expectations smashed, NERC then reneged on the vote and opted for a “respectable” name chosen by a panel of experts instead, naming the ship RRS David Attenborough. This led to the predictable outrage on Twitter on the apparent collapse of democracy. However, showing a sense of humour as well as fair play, NERC named an Autosub Long Range unmanned submarine Boaty McBoatface instead. The yellow submarine Boaty set sail for Antartica on March 17, on her first mission to collect data on how global warming is changing our oceans.

A year later, Boaty McBoatface has its own active Twitter account and hashtag and sites selling branded merchandise! While this is a rather hilarious example of the public hijacking an online poll, other brands have not been quite so fortunate.

The Mountain Dew “Dub The Dew” campaign, intended as a crowd-sourcing opportunity for fans to name its new green apple flavored soda in 2012, was hacked by an online ‘pranks’ website. It quickly became a competition instead to see who could submit the most offensive suggestions. Inappropriate names such as ‘Hitler Did Nothing Wrong’ and ‘Diabeetus’ appeared in the top 10, and ended the campaign over night with the company admiting that they had “lost to the Internet!”

In 2009, Kraft Australia decided to crowdsource the name of its new flavor of Vegemite. 50,000 people voted, but the name that won was “iSnack 2.0!” Kraft then launched it. Unsurprisingly, consumers protested at what they saw as poor judgement and decision-making, and Kraft dropped the name four days later. This resulted in a second crowdsourced naming campaign, and the more “appropriate” Cheesybite name won.

And in 2012, a Walmart competition to sponsor a concert by the American rapper Pitbull at the Walmart franchise that received the most Likes on the Facebook page, ended up in Kodiak, Alaska – the most remote store in the US, after being hijacked by a comedy website!

So, what went wrong? What lessons can we take from these examples of how not to do it?

Firstly, it’s clear from these examples that the public didn’t see them as important or even meaningful enough to take seriously. So, if you’re going to ask them to help you name something, or for that matter consult them on their opinions, then you really should only be asking people who have a vested interest, where the outcome actually matters to them. Otherwise, plan on getting facetious answers and a general mickey take! Target the right audience with the right message. Create a vested interest and you will get a higher level of commitment.

Secondly, the problem with asking people what they think is that you may not like the answer. You then have three choices:

  1. Accept the outcome graciously and go ahead and use the humorous crowdsourced name.
  2. Use the name but, not quite as originally intended, e.g. the submarine versus the ship.
  3. Refuse to use the name, and use something else entirely.

Plan upfront on the route you’re prepared to take, and give yourself an appropriate “get out” clause that doesn’t undermine your brand. Identify any potential outcomes that could clearly harm your business or image and plan accordingly.

Thirdly, whilst an attempt at providing some direction was given, running a random contest will get you random answers! Give clear direction to contestants and provide feedback on whether they are on the right track or not; this gives you an opportunity to interact, increasing commitment and interest and establishing a relationship!

Fourthly, own what happens next. NERC generated a shedload of publicity, the value of which is incalcuable, and made themselves a household name overnight. If the Government had been canny it should have harnessed this popularity and made the most out of it. But, by rejecting the vote they arguably rejected the opportunity to engage consumers in the adventures and discoveries of “RSS Boaty McBoatface” in the future.

Lastly, South West Trains with “Trainy McTrainface” and Aer Lingus with “Planey McPlaneface”  both cashed in on the viral sensation to promote their own offers. Look for opportunities to do the same, but to be authentic, only when it provides a good brand fit!

The big question you need to ask yourself is how much control over your brand can you trust the public with? Before you answer this question, note that research advocates that one of the most effective ways to motivate people to trust you is to tell them that they are trusted!

A year on from Boaty McBoatface, and have the lessons even registered? Well, the San Diego Soccer Team are the latest victim.

In March, San Diego soccer fans were asked to name the city’s new Major League Soccer team. Guess what – Footy McFootyface won the Facebook poll! The poll’s rules allowed any user anywhere, not just residents of San Diego, to cast one vote per day for their preferred name. Carnage resulted when the vote was hijacked by fans from competing teams in Los Angeles – LA Galaxy and Los Angeles Football Club. But, how they handled it is priceless.

    We'd love to hear from you.