two’s company. three’s a crowdsource : a look at audio branding through the crowdsourcing lens

Crowdsourcing has come along way since Jeff Howe coined the term in a 2006 Wired magazine article. It has grown from a problem solving technique to a bona fide business model, forming the foundation for a new breed of service providers who use the power of the internet to benefit from the creativity offered by a hive mind.

Crowdsourced audio assets may be part of an overall strategy. Brands should remember, though, that the goal isn’t to be part of the crowd – but to stand out from it.

The underlying assumption behind crowdsourcing is that by tapping into a virtually limitless pool of creativity, experience and diversity, brands can benefit from a wide variety of creative solutions often at a fraction of the traditional costs. Additionally,when run as an open competition, crowdsourcing offers an opportunity to create brand ambassadors and increase brand awareness by engaging consumers and fans in the act of directly shaping brand identity.

Typically, crowdsourcing seeks to operate on an economy of scale. Projects are sent out in an open call to hundreds of participants. Beyond an initial, simple briefing, participants operate independently without any feedback loops or supervision in a contest style environment. As crowdsourcing continues to evolve, so will the business models and their application. Giant Hydra and Victors and Spoils operate more as agency/crowdsourcing hybrids, combining the power of the crowd with the oversight and collaborative benefits of more traditional team approaches.

Recently, we’ve been seeing an increase in the rise and development of crowdsourced paradigms in the audio branding segment. Getty Images and Indaba Music have joined forces to create a crowdsourced catalog of cheap, easily licensed library tracks. Coca-Cola recently bought a minority share of crowdsourced music provider, Music Dealers, a move that seems congruent with the brand’s new emphasis on content creation/acquisition. Nokia partnered with crowdsourcing company Audio Draft in the creation of new versions of the iconic Nokia audio brand as part of the company’s 2012 product portfolio.

As you might imagine, reaction to the crowdsourcing trend has ranged from glowing accolades to biting criticism (like this recent example from Daniel M. Jackson, author of Sonic Branding: An Introduction.)

Our take is a bit more nuanced.

We recently completed a survey of over 127 audio branding service providers in an attempt to discover emerging best practices in the audio branding industry. The findings are part of a presentation we’ll be sharing at the upcoming 2011 Audio Branding Congress in New York City (and making available later to the general public – stay tuned for more details.) What we discovered was a very clear set of differences between what we call “higher service” and “lower service” providers.

Lower service providers tend to be more event oriented. They concentrate on the execution of audio branding assets (i.e. the creation of audio branding “products” like audio logos, brand themes, advertising music, etc.). Higher service providers, on the other hand, tend to focus more on the process. Execution is important, but is viewed by higher service providers as a function of an entire process that includes strategy, tactics, research and evaluation.

From where we sit, crowdsourcing approaches to audio branding can certainly provide options at the execution stage. But currently, we’ve seen no audio branding initiatives in the crowdsource model that offer the depth of a process offered by higher service providers.

Brands may find crowdsourcing to be a low cost solution to developing audio assets. And certainly, crowdsourcing may be part of an overall process. But viewing crowdsourced audio branding as an end in itself may actually cost a brand in the long run, particularly if there is no strategy or metrics in place that enable a brand to actually own the sonic space in which they’re competing.

Another area of critique is quality of content. While “you get what you pay for” is a cliché, the truth is that the quality of crowdsourced content is only as good as the quality of the individuals who compose the crowd. Take a look at the qualifications/restrictions on crowdsourced sites. Often, in an attempt to keep costs down and make sure there are no issues of copyright infringement, contributors are not allowed to be a member of any performance rights organizations. This will tend to produce a crowd that is amateur in nature. That’s not to say that moments of brilliance can’t be found in such a group. In fact, sometimes inexperience is what drives innovation. But the problem with crowdsourced material is that the sheer volume of content created may make it difficult to find those rare gems.

Which brings us to another consideration: the decision making process. Higher service audio branding providers work to move the decision making process away from subjective judgments of personal preference and towards more objective considerations based on an in depth analysis of brand identity. Crowdsourcing, with its concentration on speed, cost effectiveness and efficiency, foster “rating systems” that are often biased and based on the simplest of audio briefs. In such an environment, measurable parameters such as congruency, distinctiveness, memorability and adaptability are seldom considered.

Finally, since current crowdsourcing models seem to be only concerned with the delivery of an audio asset, brands may miss opportunities to see a bigger picture: the crossmodal nuances of audio branding and opportunities to build awareness and equity with their audio brand. These are issues of process, typically ignored by lower service providers. That’s understandable, as an attention to process would have a direct impact on the crowdsourcing paradigm, potentially having a negative impact on what is typically viewed as a low cost solution.

Crowdsourced audio branding certainly offers some creative options in the development of audio assets. But brands should beware that audio branding isn’t simply an event. Without strategy and measurement, those assets may result in a negative impact on brand identity.

Crowdsourced audio assets may be part of an overall strategy. Brands should remember, though, that the goal isn’t to be part of the crowd – but to stand out from it.

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