Given the heavy topics I've dealt with lately in this column, writing about VitaminWater's crowdsourcing of its next flavor on Facebook seems pretty prosaic. And yet, as one of my favorite topics -- and yours -- is the role of focus groups in a world where there is much richer data about consumers than ever before, it's worth pondering how successful crowdsourced products will be -- and what the role of crowdsourcing will be in marketing going forward.
Before we begin with our deep thoughts about flavored water, here's a brief rundown of the crowdsourcing program: The brand has added a "flavorcreator" tab to its Facebook page (which currently has almost 475,000 fans), allowing people to vote for the next VitaminWater flavor, the ten finalists having already been determined. (A cloud and a ranking list within the app shows what flavors are currently the most talked about. At this writing, green apple and mint were running one and two.)
A series of games help determine which vitamins people need and most want to be part of the new beverage. There's the obligatory discussion group (which for some reason seems to be mostly devoted to LeBron vs. Kobe, which are not prospective VitaminWater flavors), a section in which people can submit a user-generated label for the beverage, and a widget. In other words, there's not much here we haven't seen before, which isn't meant as criticism. It's more that as apps evolve, there are certain baseline expectations that need to be fulfilled, which the VitaminWater app certainly does. I'm a little confused about why ultimate decision-making goes to 50 Cent (a company investor) and Carrie Underwood. Shouldn't the winner be the one most people voted for?
But I digress. Obviously, the alleged wisdom of the crowd will have the most bearing on what VitaminWater's next flavor is -- so where this gets interesting is when the new flavor hits the shelves. How well will the crowdsourced flavor, and the user-generated label, sell? Will it be of interest only to those who participated in the program, while the rest of us continue to quaff "Dragonfruit" and "Endurance"? Does keeping users informed about what flavor is winning at any given time skew the results?
These questions are where the rubber meets the road on crowdsourcing. Though I firmly believe that social media in some ways will replace focus groups, right now there's an element of trendiness to these initiatives. It's another element in the same continuum that made digital marketers so crazy about Flash at one point, and user-generated commercial contests at another. As valid as some of these programs are, you can also picture marketing execs at a meeting where someone stands up and shouts, "Hey everyone, let's find something to crowdsource!"
It's also hard to figure out whether those using the flavorcreator app mean anything about the brand's broader customer base. As it was with user-generated commercials and Flash, crowdsourcing will find its rightful place in the digital marketing pantheon, though I'd have to believe it will be a more substantive role than some of the more flash-in-the-pan things that have come before. The question here, and one that we should look to VitaminWater to help answer, is how the crowd on the one hand, and the carefully selected focus group on the other, align.
Initiatives such as this will also help us define what exactly crowdsourcing is, and I think that's a work in progress. Some would define it as a completely unfettered opportunity for consumers to put forth their ideas and suggestions (think SXSW Interactive's crowdsourcing of the agenda); others -- and this appears to be what VitaminWater is doing -- are doing it in a more controlled way.
As the contest continues, make sure to watch this app.