A lot of companies have been embarrassed lately by well-intentioned forays into social media that have gone horribly wrong. Most recently, Mountain Dew’s “Dub the Dew” contest did a great job of showing how immediately and totally out of control these things can go.

On the other hand, crowdsourcing can be very effective at engaging your audience and getting them really invested in a campaign. Doritos scored with their “Crash the Super Bowl” campaign for six years in a row. In addition to the tremendous effort put forth by Doritos’ fans showing their love for the brand by producing actual commercials (some of which were amazingly slick and professional, not to mention clever and funny), the contest has spawned a whole genre of lore like this piece, which tells the entire history of the contest with wiki-worthy detail.

So there’s no question about whether this kind of effort will continue – it will. Not only is it effective, it’s trendy beyond all reason – prompting clients everywhere to push their agencies to come up with new versions of what’s already worked. Which, in turn, will undoubtedly create more disasters.

The key here for marketers is to remember that all this is for your customers. If they’re having fun playing with your brand, it’s all good. Remember, the joke can’t be on you if you’re one of the people laughing at it. Still, you don’t want to give people a platform to be hateful, nor to host nasty comments of any kind. That’s why it’s essential to manage your social media campaigns carefully.

  1. Don’t put the crowdsourcing contest on your own website As 4chan, 9gag and hackers have shown, it’s not that hard to create all kinds of havoc and make it look authentic. However, if you put the call for entries on Twitter or Facebook instead of on your own website, there’s a normal expectation that there will be a lot of inane posts, but it won’t look like you’re endorsing them.
  2. Ask participants to use the @ on Twitter to respond instead of creating a hashtag
    While any Twitter campaign gives everyone – including the grumpy, the jokers and the trolls – a platform to say what they like about you, including some things you’d probably rather not see, if you ask participants to start tweets with your Twitter handle with the @ symbol, the entries will go directly to you. Then you can manage them and show only the best ones on your own site.
  3. Keep in mind that the more creativity you ask from people, the more likely you are to get people who are actually invested in your brand to do creative and interesting things (as opposed to simply suggesting a product name, which opens the door to embarrassment). It doesn’t have to be a full-scale video production – even just asking people to submit a description along with their name, for example, will cut out a lot of the trolls.

The bottom line is, consider the risks and rewards of a social campaign before you start – and be ready to respond fast if things start to go sideways. How you communicate with your customers can do more for your image than a hundred million dollar marketing push.