If one of our primary goals in content marketing is to increase engagement and interaction between our companies and our customers, crowdsourcing is an appealing and relatively easy to implement option. Sometimes it’s very effective, like with Lay’s “Do Us a Flavor” campaign, which asked consumers to submit ideas for a new flavor of potato chips and then let them vote for which flavor Lay’s should continue to produce. But sometimes, oh sometimes, it goes very very bad, like when the internet en masse decided to vote for Justin Bieber to add a North Korean stop to his My World tour. Now obviously Bieber never went to North Korea and was never really in any danger of doing so, but the incident illustrates just one of the many ways that crowdsourcing can backfire. Here a few tips to ensure your crowdsourcing experience goes as smoothly as early Bieber’s flowing mop.

Know how much control to give up – If there is a single key to successful crowdsourced marketing campaigns, this is it. Customers have to feel like they have enough control that it’s worth the effort to get involved, but as a company you have to maintain enough control that you won’t end up sending a teen pop star to North Korea. The easiest way to do this is to make sure you’ve built a point where someone internally is making a decision into the work flow. In the Lay’s contest, a group of food experts and people within the company sifted through the initial flavor submissions and then customers chose from the small number of flavors they picked. This was a fail safe for them, because they knew that no matter which flavor won the vote, it was one that they were happy with putting into large scale production. The great thing with most crowdsourcing scenarios is that you really only need one such fail safe, and you can insert it into whatever point in the work flow makes sense to you. Let customers vote on a huge variety of options and then you pick which one you like most from the top handful of vote-getters, present customers with a group of a half dozen options you’ve already vetted and go with whichever is the most popular, accept an unlimited number of ideas and then narrow down the finalists yourself for a customer vote — any of these will work because you’ve exerted just enough control on the outcome to be confident in whatever the ultimate choice is, but your customers feel like they’ve had a distinct impact on the decision.

Resist the urge to ask fans to create your content – There are a lot of incredibly talented people out there, and some of them are probably fans of your brand. It’s so tempting to make use of this resource in the form of a design contest or a call for submissions for your next ad campaign or t-shirt line or whatever, but resist. Resist the temptation. You want people to pay for your product or service, and so do all the designers and assorted creatives out there. If you’re crowdsourcing actual content and not just asking customers to help you choose from already determined options, think in general terms instead of specific — headlines, story or product ideas, a name for a new product, or anything that you would feel comfortable asking a potential freelancer for as part of a pitch, not what you would actually contract them for. Even if you’re running a contest with cash prizes, if you ask them to submit finished content to you for consideration, there are hours and hours of work going into every submission that you don’t choose that those people will not be compensated for in any way. Now, there’s nothing preventing you from doing this as long as you appropriately word your contest rules and get whatever the necessary releases are, but when you really think about it, doesn’t it feel at least a little bit like taking advantage of people who care about your company?

Cover your bases, and not just legally – Having the appropriate verbiage in your contest rules and any releases you ask customers to submit if you’re asking for crowdsourced content is an obvious move, but there are considerations beyond legal. You want to be clear from the beginning about how and whether you’ll use any content that is submitted to you, whether it’s ad designs or survey results. Simple phrases like “help us decide” instead of “YOU decide” can go a long way to covering you from a customer backlash if you end up not using the submitted ideas or survey results exactly to the letter. And remember, public acknowledgement of the time and effort customers devoted to your project goes a long way.

Be willing to be surprised – I know I’ve spent much of this piece preaching the value of maintaining a degree of control even when you’re crowdsourcing, but this is the flip side. If you’re going to go to the effort to crowdsource something, go with it! The whole point is to get perspectives from the outside, not just to have variations on your own ideas confirmed. That doesn’t mean you should go with an idea that was popular even if you feel like it’s completely contrary to your vision or your core values, but it does mean not rejecting ideas that surprise you out of hand. This is an opportunity to check your own sense of who and what your company is with what your customers think, and that has huge value regardless of what the marketing campaign is.

Your customers can be a valuable source of ideas and creativity, and crowdsourcing can make use of that. Remember that the project is yours at the end of the day and then let yourself be amazed at what you find out with the help of the public! If you can, take a minute in the comments and share your favorite crowdsourced content. We’re always looking for inspiration!