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« Flying the Nerd Bird or How I Found Value in FourSquare | Main | Reflections on the Social Media Lab Workshop »


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Jonathan Eyler-Werve

Thanks for this. I am increasingly distressed with using philanthropy-with-strings-attached to lever the social sector into becoming a giant spam cannon aimed at putting as many people as possible on a Pepsico Inc website.

Global Integrity is playing with 'contests' as a way of crowdsourcing the creation of social good (hype: but we're very wary of public votes for the reasons you suggest. They are - at best - only a way of sorting out which orgs are good at mobilizing people online. While that may be important in some settings, given the obvious appeal of having someone else drive traffic to Pepsi to corporate marketing departments, I think we'll see a lot of this, everywhere, and a lot of it will suck because it's not 'corportate giving' as much as 'work-to-win' outsourcing of Pepsico advertising efforts. Like shotgun direct mail fundraising, it might work (sort of), but I'll probably hate the people doing it.

Stephen Downes

Yes. Blow them up. I have *never* liked them.

Andy McRea

Great post - I think if Pepsi doesn't come out publicly with a position (and solution) to these kind of loopholes as they happen, then this contest will quickly go from a 'bold experiment in social good' to a contest of who can creatively skirt the rules the best.

Another problem with these contest are the huge cash awards without many strings or hoops attached. People rob banks for much less quick cash than $250,000. An alternative along the lines you (Beth) have previously suggested with a mix of public vote and professional review. Pepsi could have offered $5,000 rewards to the winners along with an invitation to pitch the idea to a panel of judges who could award the rest of the $20M based on the idea’s merit.
Thanks for keeping them on their toes!

Sara McGuyer

Cause marketing is more authentic when a corporation picks organizations and causes to support that align with their business or core values. These efforts should be driven by passion, not votes. Once the uproar over unfairness subsides, the nonprofits stop rallying for votes and all the dust settles, will any good cause bring Pepsi to mind? Probably not.

As for the nonprofits themselves, they stand to alienate long-time supporters with too frequent messages requesting votes.

I say blow them up!

Bonin Bough

Thanks for brining this to our attention. We’re looking into the matter to ensure that no rules were broken, and at how we can best handle the situation now and in the future.
Bonin Bough
Global Director of Digital & Social Media, PepsiCo


I was voting (and twitter promoting) one idea I thought was cool for the $25K grant. Too far back to make it, I fear.

This kind of thing is pretty discouraging to hear and certainly not expected by me in the contest, although I have heard of these cheats/bots/etc.

These are ideas that we've been throwing around in our little experiment with this. At we've set up a contest that allows people to vote for their 'favourite project' and a portion of 10K goes as a bursary to people from that faculty. Seems innocent enough i think... we're trying to get folks to take a look at our community involvement, and giving our ad. money to students. Now thinking about your comments here with respect to it.

Would love your feedback.

Adnan Mahmud

One thing that we should not forget through all this is the impact of such contests on the actual people who need the help. Sure if you are a winner in these contests then, you can use the money to expand your programs and help more people.

What about the organizations who don't win? Pepsi Refresh takes in 1000 applicants, out of that only 32 are winners. That's 3.2%. Organizations put in a lot of efforts to submit for such contests and then, to garner votes. Garnering votes for a popularity contest is especially hard. If you can't get the votes does that constitute negatively on your project. In any case, nonprofits are forced to try anything to get funding because funding is so tough. That's valuable resources that they are taking away from their programs and directing towards being part of the top 3.2% vote-getters.

I feel we should step back and ask how worthwhile of an effort this is for non-profits.



I worked with a school participating in one of these - I have said it before I will say it again: these contests are really sad. It is like watching a bunch of starving people vying for the same piece of bread. It is social media marketing under the veil of social responsibility. I think the only way to do this is to vote by idea rather than organization.


Good debate. I think the challenge here is less with "crowdsourcing" or "voting" engines and everything about intent. Paint me naive, or cycnical, but the Pepsi effort - and many others - are much less about achieving innovative methods of social problem-solving than they are about marketing. I think its a pretty died in blue formula: associate your brand with things people care about, and give them an incentive to promote it.

On the other hand, philanthropies that care about results are going to care much less about how much the public knows about the "brand" of the funder than they do about the caliber of the solutions being offered. This will lead to many changes, and one of them being the behavior of entrants.

If the invitation is hey, come be a poster child for our brand, than yes all kinds of whacky spillover behavior is going to happen. If the invitation is, share your problem, discuss the context, and propose solutions there will be very different incentive ecology and resulting behavior - on the part of entrants and boosters alike.

Have a look at Beth's example: - as a community portal for information its a great resource, and no doubt community centers provide lasting civic value. But the underlying social innovation and the problem it is intended to solve in a new way is much less clear. TFA was the big winner out of the challenge - is that really the big "social good" innovation of the year? For all their hard work over the years, I don't think so.

Finally, I would say that the greatest shortcoming in many of these efforts - and, for me personally, a significant credibility gap around intent - is that there is absolutely no effort made to support, document, and report on implementation. How have these efforts fared? What ongoing support might they need and how can the huge crowds turned on to them be put to work? Its a big unknown.

Ben Rigby

There's a lot of energy here that all goes to the benefit of Pepsi. But with a little tweak, there could be a lot more value from contests like these that benefits both Pepsi, the participating nonprofits, and the stakeholders. That tweak is to give the money on the basis of an output... or at least on a conditional output.

This is, of course, how "Challenge" models like the Xprize work... where Xprize says "10 million goes to the first group that can produce X,Y&Z." Eg: a spaceship.

As a result of that 10m prize, generated about 100m worth of investment into space technology. There was no wasted energy here. Xprize got the heck promoted out of it. And the investment of time/energy/money by all parties (even the losers) benefited the space technology sector. Genius.

On a smaller scale, NetSquared has been doing something similar. They operate challenges in which competitors' entries are outcomes based projects. Ie: something you are committing to DO with the money - or that you've DONE (and will do more of) as a result of the challenge. The whole focus is about DOing, rather than just voting.

Moreover, given NetSquared's awesome organizing efforts and attitude, even the "losers" have a lot to gain. I for one lost one year, but made a ton of connections and got great advice/input on what was then just a rough idea. The next year the idea got a little less rough and I entered again - this time with a partner who I met as a result of some the previous years' Net2 related activity... and that year we came in 2nd. And the prize money allowed us to bootstrap the much refined idea into something viable.

In sum, vote contests are easy. Sure there are lawyers to protect and all that. But with a little more work and a tweak to contest rules - a tweak that focuses every entry on outputs, the contest/challenge can make a world of difference.

Chris Noble

Let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Blowing up online contests, or scrapping *any* single tactic of cause-related marketing isn't going to help the nonprofit community.
First, disclosure: (as you know, Beth) I’ve got a direct stake in not scrapping the system.

My company runs cause-marketing campaigns under the agency name StudioGood. We ran a piece of the Pepsi Refresh campaign, and we’ve run hundreds of cause-marketing contests, giveaways, dollar matches, auctions, etc. Our core business is in creating and executing these cause/brand partnerships. Our team was the digital agency behind much of Twestival 2010.

Obvious bias noted, I agree we need better, clearer rules, systems that restrict the ability to cheat, and better guidance/direction of funds. I’ll also add that our core advice to companies trying cause marketing for the first time is to pick one thing they care about and go after it hard.

But this whole arena is pretty new – not cause marketing, but doing it through social media – and I think we need to keep experimenting. Scrapping what we have or carping about what’s not perfect are academic, not practical, views.

Let’s praise Pepsi for not spending $20 million on a Superbowl ad, and for trying to do something good with it. And let’s coach them forward on how to do it better next time, or fix it in the middle of a campaign if it’s broken. (Bonin showed earlier today their responsiveness and willingness to do just that)

I think these contests are a viable cause marketing tactic and that the dollars do more good than they would as a pure ad spend.
Can they be made better? Sure. Are they doing some good now? I think so.

Does anyone on the comment stream disagree?

There are a lot of smart, committed, and passionate people who follow your lead Beth. Rather than encouraging them to try and dismantle the system, we should be challenging them to help improve what exists.

Chris Noble

My post just went up and I saw Ben's - agreed, the Xprize is a great example. Also agreed that tweaking, not scrapping is what's required.

Thanks for posing the question, Beth.

Beth Kanter

Chris, thanks for posting! My question was a rheotorical because I thought it might lead to some conversation. Thanks for your sharing your point of view ...

Charles Tsai

These contests will blow themselves up because voter fatigue has already set in. You will need bigger and bigger incentives to get people to vote.

Chris Noble

Thanks for starting the conversation, Beth. You know where I stand ;)

And thanks for the suggestion. I'm going to write up a mini-case study of what works (and what needs to be fixed) in Vote-for-me campaigns.

carol cone

Great commentary Beth and very thoughtful comments. This is a conversation that is needed.

As you state so well, companies need to test and learn and test and learn with their social media efforts. I know the folks at Pepsi, (though I don't work with them) and their heart is in the right place. This is led by their CEO Indra Nooyi whose vision for the company talks about "Performance with Purpose". She recognizes they have distinct responsibilities to all stakeholders regarding their role in society vis what they sell and how they behave. Their journey to accomplish this is complex and Pepsi Refresh is one of many things they are doing to fulfill this vision. They are innovating to bring this and their brand personality to life -- optimism -- in a way that has lasting power. The voting part is only the beginning of this big social/community experiment. We need to give this time. What will be the test, is how the ngo's use their funds to enhance their work and what impacts are made with their communities. Then how does Pepsi use Refresh as part of their ongoing work to enhance society while they engage with their consumers.



Great question. There is starting to be a real push in government toward app contests and although there is some demonstrable success, there are people that are beginning to think more critically about this. Peter Corbett from iStrategy labs (who is responsible for the Apps for Democracy contest among other things) held a discussion this past weekend at the DC Transparency camp meeting entitled "Beyond apps contests - building sustainable civic engagement" (my notes are at One of the core issues discussed was that although there are some good outputs from these contests, they don't really create a sustainable and self supporting model. It may be better to start looking at contests that are geared toward building PLATFORMS instead of specific fixes. Also, there was discussion about looking a different metrics for determining a "winner" - for example, what about uptake of the app by the community 6 months after submissions close (rather than voting when submission close). I would suggest that these two quick examples show that contests might not need to be scrapped but that there may be more complex and creative ways that they can be used which could be more impactful, productive and sustainable in the long run.

Meaghan Edelstein

As the founder of a very small nonprofit with almost no budget (Spirit Jump) I say online cause marketing that requires people to vote for your charity is so important for us little guys. I do have to say I did not enter this Pepsi contest because it is so huge and I felt things like you described in this article would happen. Due to that it was my opinion that our efforts would be best utilized elsewhere. However, we have participated in some really successful campaigns that did win us us money but more importantly raised awareness for our small organization. participated in Name Your Cause, Charity Smack Down, Regift The Fruitcake and the Mashable open web awards Through all of these Vote-For-Me Campaigns we raised funds through our supporters and the companies putting on the contest, we raised awareness of our presence in social media, increased our supporters drastically and increased the number of people requesting our services. We won some of the contests and placed in others but no matter what the outcome we felt we were winners. Money is important but only a small reason why we participated.

Another invaluable thing we gained from participating in these Vote For Me contests was the introduction to other amazing organizations working to better their communities and the world as a whole. Under normal circumstances only the large nonprofits get noticed. With this new playing field we are all introduced to new organizations and in turn passionate people. While we may be competing in these various contests nonprofits do work together to find creative ways to raise money, gain supporters and start new project.

At a quick glance people may find some of the Vote-For-Me contests are easy to cheat at but in the end its not just about the money and cheaters don't always win. I think cause marketing is a great thing and I am so excited that social media has allowed my small nonprofit to flourish!

Ed Messman

Some great discussions here on this post. I agree that the campaigns thus far have been poorly designed and that there is great room for improvement. Agree also that the loopholes should be tightened up to ensure fairness and full transparency. These are some of the very same issues that we saw and experienced in a number of sectors that began using the social web in their strategies. Frankly, these are some of the edges of the internet, not to mention the social internet.

But I don't think "we should throw the baby out with the bath water". There is something rather great about engaging an audience around something good, whether that be voting on a charity and telling your friends or posting and voting on a social idea. So, I think you're right, these campaign need to be better designed and the feedback mechanism needs to be greatly improved to insure accountability, as one posted already here, and tweaking these to have greater focus on output or impact would be awesome. These are things that with a little bit of thoughtful design, can be figured out.

As Chris above posts, we're just beginning to see cause marketing enter the social web. Let's not give up too early. There is great potential and power in tapping into this new generation of do-gooders. There's always going to be the handful of people who try to abuse online campaigns but I think the trade-off of broader engagement around local and global causes far outweighs this. These type of campaigns just need to mature and get better.

Conor Byrne

Wow.....Im not really a fan of them but applauded Pepsi on my own blog for diverting their Super Bowl budget to do some good.

I agree with Sarah when she says that cause marketing needs to be really aligned with the companies core values. I wonder how Pepsi staff feel about this, do they feel engaged or passionate about it? Probably not.

I think its a trend that is set to continue, at least in the short term, so the rules need to be sorted out. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water and I have to ask are they any worse than charities spending weeks & months on applications and presentations to become Charity of the Year for companies and then losing out (main way major corporations support charities in UK & Ireland).

Brian Reich

Yes, please... blow them up. I would add these contests to the list of cause promotions that we should not be pursuing (because there are better approaches that can be created if we are willing to really think differently about it)

Here is what I am talking about:


I participated in the Pepsi "What's Your Pitch?" contest last year, and was really disappointed in the lack of transparency and follow-through associated with it. The voting mechanism was weird - you could essentially just sit there and clickclickclickclickclickclickclick as long as you want, and every click counted as a vote. In theory.

They had announced there would be a "Pepsi-chosen winner" and they would also honor the "popular vote getter," but they never did the latter. They also didn't end the contest when they said they would, or announce the winners when they said they would. It was constantly pushed later and later, and then they never announced vote totals or anything. The whole thing just felt sketchy.

I think there are better ways to handle these sorts of contests, and my experience working for KaBOOM! showed that voting contests - at least in the short run - are a great way to get web traffic and engage new supporters for your cause. But I think "voter fatigue" and the perception of loopholes are two major issues that must be addressed if these sorts of things are going to become institutionalized.

ask a doctor

That's why I never joined such contest..

Account Deleted

Thanks for posting about this. We have been participating this month for 250K -

At first we were really excited but soon realized how much time and effort it was going to take on our part and from our members. Another question to be asked it was are the indirect costs of participating and who are the real winners?

While we appreciate the opportunity to compete, the opportunity costs of not actually delivering on our mission, and being respectful our our members were too high. Especially for a small unfunded operation like ours.



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