By robert pratten, November 13th, 2009

This post looks at crowdsourcing from the perspective of the independent filmmaker and presents some considerations when asking an audience or fan base to create content. There’s a range of things an indie might do to engage an audience but this post looks specifically at crowdsourcing.

It’s worth noting up front that getting an audience to post a comment or a review on a blog is tough enough so know that the audience that creates content is in short supply.  To be successful, you will need to align your goals to your crowd and set their reward mindfully.

Crowdsourcing vs Collaboration?

Crowdsourcing as implemented in commercial sites like,, or tend primarily to be a client pitching a problem in the form of a winner-takes-all competition with the winner receiving a prize, usually a small cash payment. I’d argue that there’s not much conversation going on here. Sure, the client asks a question and the crowd shouts back its answers but the crowd doesn’t get to influence the requirements or bend the goals towards their needs.

Collaboration to me is more of a free-flowing exchange of ideas wherein the collaborator is able to influence the requirements; which for creative people importantly means a greater opportunity for self-expression. It’s the reason why experienced crew might work for less on an independent production: a collaborator feels more like a creative partner than a work-for-hire.

The problem with “collaboration” is that it’s more time-consuming to manage and there are issues of maintaining editorial control while still motivating collaborators. It’s like directing actors: you have to know what you want without dictating how you get it. Collaboration is not for micro-managers.

But the fact that collaboration is more time-consuming actually works to the advantage of the independent filmmaker who is usually time-rich and cash-poor. Hollywood pays big bucks and they get to decide what happens when and how. Independents should be thinking laterally and using collaboration to leverage what little cash they have rather than struggle to find bigger budgets.

In the UK, the filmmaking community at Shooting People understands this. Filmmakers shout out for unpaid or low paid help and the community responds. In the US it doesn’t work so well and I have my own suspicions about this but I won’t go into them here.

However, using a community like Shooting People doesn’t really represent audience participation. And this post is about involving the audience… using crowdsourcing.

Why Bother?

Here are the reasons I hear most for involving the audience (“the crowd”) in the creative process:

  • the crowd will spread awareness for you by word-of-mouth (i.e. social media) or through the “viral” nature of the task (i.e. getting their friends to vote or comment on uploaded videos, images, mashups etc.) [NB: always much easier said than done and the worst offenders are so disingenuous that they're nothing more that distributed spam generators]
  • the crowd (i.e. many people) will produce better or comparable results for less money
  • crowdsourcing is still sexy enough that simply using the approach will generate traditional publicity
  • the crowd will produce new insights and being allowed to share their insights will increase their loyalty.

Opinions are divided on whether any or all of this is true; or whether it’s ethical; or worth the investment;  or worth the risk (perceived or real) of giving the crowd tools to participate only to have them used against you. Plus “professional” creative people argue that amateurs can’t be expected to do what they do.

Those for and against can both present evidence in their defence but it seems to me that realising the potential of crowdsourcing or fan participation is all about framing the participation correctly. And this depends on your objectives and on the crowd: both have to be aligned.

Right Crowd, Right Goal, Right Mind

The diagram below presents a framework for structuring your thoughts about what you might ask the crowd to do, what’s in it for them and where you might find them.

Crowdsourcing Matrix

The axes I’ve chosen are:

  • Experience. How skilled or knowledgeable does someone have to be to contribute something of value to you?
  • Reward. What’s the incentive or motivation for someone to take part?

If you think of this as “your requirements” vs “their requirements” then success ought to be where the requirements meet.

In the diagram, experience ranges from “novice” to “expert”. What exactly constitutes a novice or an expert depends on the task and on your crowd. If you ask an established fan community to tell you which character ought to be killed off then it’s probably safe to assume that they’ll all be experts. But if you have no fan base to speak of, then even though you’re asking the same question you need to assume they’re novices.

As a participant, thinking of yourself as a “novice” or an “expert” is important because it determines how you perceive the complexity of the task you’re being asked to do. Asking someone with no knowledge of After Effects to blur out a car licence plate is a big ask. To someone with even a rudimentary knowledge of AE, it’s child’s play. Hence it’s important to know your crowd.

Here’s another example. What if you ask the same fan community to design a new logo for a starship? It’s likely that within the crowd there’s going to be a spread of abilities and some submissions are sure to be disappointing.  Does it matter that some of the crowd will submit amateurish or poor logos? I guess not if you get one usable logo you like – it only matters if no logos are useable and if you promised to use one of their designs!

With this logo design example, for audience involvement (crowdsourcing) to work you have two options:

  • include as part of the prize the prospect of having the fan’s logo realized by a professional graphic designer. This would mean that you’re more concerned with the process of engagement rather than the actual quality of submissions. It’ll make more people feel like experts and hence more are able to contribute
  • invite a different crowd – like the one at 99designs – where there’s a higher probability of getting a usable design. But don’t expect to see significant audience building and retention.

My point here is what’s your objective? Is it to get a new logo? Or is it to engage or build a fan base?

Determining the reward

The second axis in the diagram is the reward. You might think that this ranges from “paid” to “unpaid” but that would be a little too simplistic.

Many people take part in crowdsourcing for higher motivational reasons such getting the bragging rights to say they won, getting a kick from others appreciating their work or maybe because they’re building a portfolio or a resume. Perhaps it’s just the fun of creating or taking part in something.  Hence the upper range on the reward axis recognizes that the motivation to participate is more than the prospect of being paid: there are ancillary or intangible benefits to be gained. They might also be incentivized by the prospect of winning a cash prize but the motivation to spend a rainy weekend making a video comes not from the prize itself but from other intangible rewards.

The effect of increasing the cash or making the prize bigger is almost certain to result in more submissions. But increasing the ancillary or intangible rewards will also increase the submissions. If the prize is to have your video shown during the Super Bowl or on Saturday Night Live, then the kudos that bestows is more than having it air on an unknown small business website. Or having a commercial for Sony or Verizon in your portfolio is worth more in terms of enhanced reputation than… a commercial for an unknown small business.

You’ll also get more submissions if you’re asking the crowd to do less: because now there’s a lower bar to clear and more of the crowd will feel capable enough to take part.  It makes more of the crowd feel like an expert. But note that what you ask of the crowd is more than just to perform the task itself. It’s also how much they are expected to read or agree to before they can contribute and what rights they give up with their submission.

Note too that it’s important to balance what you ask of the crowd with the size of the possible reward. Ask too much for too little and not only is it unlikely to produce the desired results but it’ll also look like exploitation.

A Comparison of Two Sites

I’d like to finish by comparing two sites that seek to harness the power of the crowd:  Brickfish and Filmaka.

Brickfish asks people with indeterminate skills to do very easy tasks – often as simple as uploading a photo. But they also make the process seem fun and that’s because, it seems to me at least, that it’s the process of engagement with consumers that’s important here and not necessarily the end result. I wonder if Brickfish even considers itself to be a crowdsourcing site? Most campaigns are clearly geared more towards empowering advocates or generating views than delivering usable assets. Check out this competition to design a shoe for Steve Madden and you decide.

Filmaka on the other hand sets the bar much higher. In this Snickers competition, members are being asked to… well… we’re told it’s not a commercial but it’s a HD (viral) video suitable for TV. I’m sure lots of Filmaka members do eat Snickers bars but the crowd here is an expert one, not the average sweet-toothed convenience store crowd. So here it’s the end result that’s important, not so much the engagement. This looks more like a route to making cheaper adverts than empowering advocates.


To come back to my “crowdsourcing matrix” as given in the diagram above, maybe the best pitch to the crowd is one that scores in all four quadrants? After all, how homogenous is any crowd? Among a crowd of graphic designers there’s a range of abilities so a “novice” on 99designs could well be an “expert” among a film fan crowd.

To score in all quadrants would take a pitch that offered a cash incentive with additional ancillary benefits for both the novice and expert.

However, always remember that payment alone might not be enough to motivate the best. If the best – the experts – make a day-to-day living without crowdsourcing then attention has to be given to what will motivate these people to take part. Maybe the people you want to take part are those who aren’t motivated by money and perhaps offering payment will distort the crowd and hence the bias the submissions?

Use the diagram as a tool to structure your thoughts before throwing yourself to the crowd. Use it to design your pitch, refine your objectives and identify the crowd you need.


  • Share/Bookmark

Posted in cross-media crowdsourcing

robert pratten Robert Pratten is CEO and Founder of Transmedia Storyteller Ltd, an audience engagement company and provider of Conducttr, an pervasive entertainment platform. He has more than 20 years experience as an international marketing consultant and has established himself as a thought-leader in the field of transmedia storytelling. He is author of the first practical book transmedia storytelling: Getting Started in Transmedia Storytelling: A Practical Guide for Beginners.


  • Another great post, thanks Rob.

    What I find odd about businesses who miss their mark in the social media area, is that where they employ smart strategies in traditional media, they often just whack a half baked notion out to crowd sourcing without thinking through their goals properly.

    Recently in Australia Toyota had a "short film" competition backfire ( First thing I query is whether their competition is the right type to engage their target audience.

    Second issue was that, while it was meant to be a competition to engage the public, the advertising company behind it sent out an email to production houses they knew inviting them to pass on the word to their contacts - as a result they got a bunch of highly polished "short films" that looked like ads from professionals wanting to showcase their own creativity. This created a backlash because it wasn't a flat playing ground for the public.

    There was thirdly a question over the winning "film" which looked like a highly polished ad but with the difference that it could be deemed highly sexist, in poor taste, and of more amusement to young men than the young female target audience of this particular car.

    When it comes to indie filmmakers, I note that part of the success of The Age of Stupid came down to them smartly targeted crowdfunding from the very same people who would be interested in the topic matter of their film. Many other crowdfunding & crowdsourcing attempts are chasing other indie filmmakers for dollars, rather than thinking about who is their actual audience for the film.

    And, in the case of crowdsourcing, there are frequently blurry lines about whether they are trying to gain quality input or audience participation. Thank you for this article addressing the topic.

  • You might also want to check out by the guys who did Star Wreck.

  • Great post. I think the issue in terms of the offer is not just on a reward vs skill matrix but also breaks down into the 1,9,90 model as you need to take the 1% and 9% users and create a different offer for them across this matrix.

    By the way - Shooting People is also US based and has a massive New York community so I don't think it's a UK vs US thing! :)

  • hi James,
    Thanks for correcting me regards Shooting People - delighted its thriving in New York. It's such an important resource in the UK so it's great to hear it's working in parts of the US too.

    With reference to the 1:9:90 model - you're saying that when it comes to engaging fans, make sure there's a range of opportunities for contribution & reward: something that will appeal to the "hardcore" 1% and something that will appeal to the less active/less confident/less able so that they're not left out. I agree completely. In fact if the engagement is seen as a continuing process (as it should for an indie project) rather than a one-off activity or competition then you're looking to get the audience to move up levels of engagement - from the observer to the contributor to the advocate.
    Good point, thank you.

  • Nick

    Fantastic post, Rob. Now, may I push you a little more to explore those US vs UK differences?

blog comments powered by Disqus
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • delicious
  • youtube
  • vimeo

Join the WorkBook Project mailing list - enter your email below...


There are no events to show at this time.

Powered by Lifestream.

Podcast Archive