Don’t let Boaty McBoatface put you off: The lessons to learn around crowdsourcing content

Henry Clifford-Jones
Sourcing content and ideas from your audiences is inherently unpredictable (Source: Getty)

Unless you were hiding under a rock last week, you will be aware that a certain boat, due to be named Boaty McBoatface, has caught the media’s attention again. In any case, here’s a quick summary of the story so far.

In an effort to raise awareness of its new vessel and research work, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) launched a competition inviting the general public to help name their new boat. Then came a suggestion of Boaty McBoatface from a former BBC radio presenter. By the time the ballot had closed last Saturday, this suggestion had 124,109 votes – almost four times that of the next most popular choice. Cue talk of intervention and accusations of the end of democracy.

It would be easy to draw the wrong conclusion from the Boaty McBoatface saga about crowdsourcing content and ideas – namely, that it’s far riskier than it’s worth.

In my view, we should be drawing two very different lessons from the episode, and neither of them involves holding back from being more collaborative with your audiences.

Be relevant

The real weakness in the NERC strategy wasn’t that they asked people to pick a name for their boat, but that they asked any, and everybody to get superficially involved with a project that they had little real connection with.

If your audiences have nothing personally invested in what your brand stands for, or don’t understand what you are doing, it’s unrealistic to expect their motivations to align automatically with your own. You are inviting people to hijack the co-creation opportunity.

Targeting the right audiences, and thinking about the mindset they are in when you engage them, has never been so important.

Be genuine

At the same time, the behaviour of brands has never been under so much scrutiny. Audiences are looking to buy from, follow, and work with businesses that demonstrate purpose and are genuine. That means sticking to your word.

To reject the Boaty McBoatface name is to look out of touch and aloof. Painting it on will at least give the public a sense of ownership. And its first voyage and subsequent activity will no doubt drum up more interest from the public, which was presumably the objective all along.

Staying true to your word, and sometimes being able to laugh at yourself, is vital when it comes to campaigns like this.

The thing about sourcing content and ideas from your audiences is that it is inherently unpredictable. But it can also be immensely powerful when directed in the right way. Marketers had best start figuring out what that direction looks like for them.