The Pepsi Refresh Contest is the boldest experiment so far of the number of social good contests over the past three years that have used crowdsourcing and social media to encourage innovative social change ideas or to raise money for nonprofits or shine attention on their do good work. For context, please see this guest post by Bonin Bough, The Global Director of Social Media for Pepsi, published earlier this month on my blog.
The New York Times published an article called "Pepsi Trips Over Its Own Submission Rules" which describes what happened:
The tiny charity currently atop the rankings in one category of the contest accidentally got a little help from Pepsi itself.
Materials submitted by the Joyful Heart Foundation, a charity started by Mariska Hargitay, one of the stars of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” to help victims of sexual assault, were updated by the staff at Pepsi after the submission deadline, which is against the contest rules.
That upset some of the contestants who wondered whether Pepsi was doing favors for a celebrity. “I can’t edit my own submission, so how did she do it?” said one contestant, who insisted on anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his chances of winning.
Pepsi has embraced a learning as you go approach when it comes to social media and the art of public learning. Mistakes and stumbles happen and as Chris Brogan recommends you need to apologize and learn. And now we have a real-life example with the Pepsi Refresh Contest making a mistake by not following its own rules, but moving swiftly to acknowledge it, fix it, and move on. This is what Clay Shirky calls failing informatively.
More importantly, we're living in an age of connectedness with all eyes watching. You can't get away with hiding mistakes anymore.
Level Playing Fields?
Ironically, this story broke right before I was going to hit the publish button on a guest post by Katherine Hutt who shared the details of their strategy for a small nonprofit, Generations of Hope, also competing for the $250,000 Pepsi prize, approximately 1/3 its operating budget in 2009. At this point, they are at number 80 on the leaderboard, not bad for an organization that had social media on its to do list for 2010. If they don't win a dollar, at least the contest has helped inspire them to dip their toes in the social media waters.
One interesting point about the design is that Pepsi has attempted to level the playing field by offering different categories for different prize levels so that individuals, nonprofits, and companies can compete. There isn't a distinction by budget size, although for the top category is says "for those that invest a lot of time." Does this make for a level playing field? How does a smaller organization quickly scale up its social media effort?
That's a question I tossed back in forth with my colleagues at Zoetica. Kami Huyse, Zoetica's President, suggested that I invite Katherine Hutt to share some thoughts on these questions and others. Katherine responded with her guest post.
This is why it is so important that Pepsi (and those competing) do so in a fair and honest manner. I know it is nearly impossible to regular human behavior. That's why design is so important or else these contests became a sham.
Can Solving Complex Social Problems Be Done By Popular Vote
I'm skeptical that "Vote for Me" contests are the best strategy for selecting the best solutions or ideas. I wonder if they get in the way of innovation. In an email exchange with Bonin Bough from Pepsi about the New York Times piece, I shared my view. He responded with, "We believe that the democratic process is better than us deciding on our own but only time will tell."
I asked him to elaborate further. "I feel this approach parallels what we are trying to do elsewhere (like on our Dewmocracy program) where we want to involve consumers in our brands and co-create with them, not shout at them."
I understand his perspective. This strategy is more appropriate for selling products, not social change. Let me say this. If brands want to be authentic in their social media for social good effort, they need a fusion approach that balances marketing with social change. I think there is a hybrid option for crowd sourcing - and that there is a need for expertise.
Do you think Pepsi handled its public mistake well? Do you think a contest should be designed in a way that accommodates a level playing field? Finally do you vote for me contests are the best way to identify innovation solutions?
America's Giving Challenge (2007)