March of Dimes launches video contest; advice for engaging in your own

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The formula seems easy enough to the lay person: announce a contest encouraging people to make their own commercials about your cause or product and submit them via YouTube.  Offer a modest prize ($5,000) and sit back and wait for the great ideas to roll in.

For the right organization or cause it’s a brilliant idea, only it’s not that simple.  Here are some pitfalls you have to watch out for.  Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a strategy worth pursuing, but this is why you shouldn’t automatically write a check to an enthusiastic 21 year old consultant who tells you a YouTube contest is exactly what you need.

What if nobody really cares about your cause or product?
Heinz ketchup found this out the hard way.  In the wake of the Dorito’s Superbowl campaign commercial success, Heinz ran a copyat contest that had an under-whelming response.  (See NYT "The High Price of Creating Free Ads")  Most of the ads are awful and as Heinz discovered, there apparently aren’t passionate ketchup lovers out there.  As anyone who lived in a college dorm knows, Doritos lovers can become violent when their supply is threatened, but nobody kills over ketchup.

Some people really care about your cause or product.  And not in a good way.
Heinz rejected several ads that they deemed inappropriate.  These ads got posted to YouTube by the authors and gathered an audience, exactly what Heinz didn’t want to do.  SUV parody ads end up online constantly, sometimes with the exact original video.  This Chevy Tahoe parody from 2006 is one of the best examples of this.  Nowadays people have many outlets to use for their parody ads.  If you are running an ad contest you’re just going to help raise their profile.

Some of those script, lighting, sound, and editing people get paid for a good reason.
One of the earliest user-generated commercial video contests was the one MoveOn ran for the "Bush in 30 Seconds" campaign in 2003 and 2004.  The brilliant winning commercial, "Child’s Pay", underscored the issue of the growing debt we were leaving to the next generation.  The ad looks professional…because it is.  The creator, Charlie Fisher, is an ad executive in Denver, hardly an outsider.  The ad itself is of professional broadcast quality and though such ads are now cheaper to produce because of technology, it’s hardly something likely to be created by Mac Guy in iLife. The recent Pew study about online video underscored this, showing that American Internet users notice and gravitate towards professional quality videos.  The time for shaky hand held guerilla style videos is all but over.

The March of Dimes user-generated video campaign won’t fail.  Why?  Because:

  • they have a strong, well-developed supporter base of passionate parents and relatives of children touched by the March of Dimes,
  • there is no well-developed opposition to the March of Dimes, and
  • even the worst produced submissions will possess that passionate spark.  Badly produced videos will be salvageable with minimal work.

If you are planning a user-submitted creative campaign I urge you to consider these factors.

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