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In the past few months we have talked a lot about Citizen-Centered Solutions, and particularly the use of online challenges by organizations such as Pepsi, Chase, the Knight Foundation and others; organizations with larger budgets, staffs and resources, and thus the ability to pull off such intensive campaigns. A few weeks ago, however, a new platform called Wowcrowd was put on the market, which allows all organizations to run such contests, without investing huge amounts of time, money or energy.
I recently sat down with Robbie Adler, the Director of Business Development & Strategic Partnerships for Wowcrowd, and chatted with him about his organization's new and innovative platform for online contests, and how this program seeks to revolutionize the industry of online prizes and challenges.
Josh: Thanks again for speaking to us today Robbie. Just to clarify for all of those who might be a bit confused, what exactly is Wowcrowd?
Robbie: Wowcrowd is a social web application that gives organizations the tools to crowdsource the allocation of funds, which helps them engage their stakeholders and surface bright ideas.
The concept is simple. An organization with a Wowcrowd account earmarks a pool of money for a particular mission, and then opens the process to their users - their employees, members, customers, constituents, or the general public. Individual users submit proposed ideas for how the funding could be spent, and then all the users vote to decide which of the proposals will get funded and be realized.
The model is widely applicable. Foundations, businesses, campaigns, nonprofits, schools, clubs, and many other kinds of organizations already engage in funding allocation processes that could be efficiently, effectively, and engagingly administered using a platform like Wowcrowd.
Josh: Wowcrowd is being run by Brighter Planet, which is an environmental organization. How did Brighter Planet get into the industry of online contests and challenges, and how has this led to the creation of Wowcrowd?
Robbie: Brighter Planet's core focus is climate change, and over several years we heard from thousands of individuals and community organizations about their efforts to build a low-carbon economy. The diversity of these efforts amazed us, from work on sustainable transportation and energy efficiency to political activism and climate education. But in all too many cases these efforts were stymied by financial constraints. So in the fall of 2009, we created the Brighter Planet Project Fund, a crowd-powered micro-grant program to help communities turn good ideas into real-world climate solutions.
The Project Fund turned out to be a run-away success. Individuals and organizations from all over the country submitted climate project proposals, and tens of thousands of users signed on to vote for the ideas they thought were best. We saw a huge jump in web traffic, PR, and membership in our online community, and we awarded grants to a diversity of really great projects. In March of 2010, the program was recognized with a Social Innovation Award from JustMeans and The Financial Times for “Most Strategic Philanthropy Program.”
With the ongoing success of the Project Fund, we decided to spin off the technology to create a platform that gives other organizations the same suite of tools to administer their own social grant programs, contests, and challenges - hence Wowcrowd.
Josh: In creating your own platform to run these sorts of challenges, what have you learned are the biggest pitfalls in trying to run a contest by yourself? How does Wowcrowd help in this?
Robbie: Over the last year, we’ve seen a proliferation of online contests and grant programs. The biggest challenge for an organization who wants to enact a program like this ends up being the development cost. Building the software infrastructure to administer a crowdsourced contest often simply isn't cost-effective - the benefits can be substantial, but the time and resources to build a system like the Project Fund would be prohibitive for most organizations. A turn-key application like Wowcrowd creates a shortcut by giving organizations the functionality of custom-built contest software, for a membership cost that's orders of magnitude lower than building their own system from the ground up.
Beyond cost, these programs are in many cases encountering the same challenges we faced with the Project Fund, including voter fraud, balancing administrator control and user freedom, and privacy concerns. We incorporated many of these learnings when designing the Wowcrowd platform. We've allowed fund administrators to add a wide variety of content describing their program, to open forums for discussion among users, and to track voting in real time. We've developed systems to let fund managers identify, track, respond to, and prevent voting fraud. And we've given administrators controls over contest and voting structure, as well as the ability to block unwanted content by screening and approving submissions.
Josh: What are the benefits of challenges and contests like the ones being run on Wowcrowd?
Robbie: A well-run crowdsourced program can provide some very important benefits for an organization. It opens a slice of the decision-making process to their stakeholders, which engages them as active participants in the organization's mission rather than as passive donors or members - and an engaged constituent base clearly offers many advantages.
It can also be a strong PR tool, because as we've learned, contest participants (including proposal submitters and voters) end up devoting their own energy and effort to spreading the word in support of their cause, effectively creating brand ambassadors for the organization. Administered through an online tool like Wowcrowd, these programs can be easily integrated with other social media channels to efficiently promote the fund and the organization.
Of course, another big benefit is the crowdsourced ideas themselves. By tapping into the collective intelligence of their stakeholders, a contest administrator can efficiently surface creative ideas that are diverse and compelling - ideas they likely wouldn't have thought of themselves.
Josh: What other programs or platforms did you consider when you were researching for best practices?
Robbie: We’ve talked with dozens of companies and thought leaders to help inform the development of the Project Fund and Wowcrowd. We had early conversations with the sustainable clothing company Nau, who runs the Grants4Change program and Ashoka Changemakers. The successful use of social media in the Obama campaign to drive civic participation was an early model for how to tap into grassroots energy. We've looked to thought leaders with experience in online social philanthropy, like Beth Kanter, Sean Stannard-Stockton, and of course the Case Foundation.
We have also learned a lot from watching companies and foundations like Chase, Pepsi, Target, Knight Foundation, and Minnesota Community Foundation, all of whom have introduced participatory contests that are authentic and engaging. It's our goal to continue these conversations and apply recommendations and learnings to Wowcrowd's design. We welcome the feedback and discussion. If you have any ideas, please contact us at email@example.com.
Josh: How much control will organizations have over the programs run on Wowcrowd, and how much is inherent in the software?
Robbie: Wowcrowd provides organizations a flexible framework that includes all of the basic features needed in structuring and managing participatory contests. Choosing from four different plans, organizations can enhance the level of customization of their program, controlling everything from design and messaging to voter fraud and the organization of funds. In addition to controlling the underlying functionality, organizations can also custom-skin the web page to make the look and feel consistent with their own website. No matter what plan is chosen, all users are provided a basic set of administrative controls that allow them to customize their crowdsourcing program according to their needs.
Josh: Who are some of your current clients, and how are they utilizing Wowcrowd right now? What types of organizations do you think will benefit most from this type of application?
Robbie: The beta version of Wowcrowd just launched. We are running the Project Fund on Wowcrowd, and later this month 350.org (an international NGO that has met great success with online organizing and social media) will begin using the system for a global action campaign. We expect to announce more partnerships in the near future.
Given the increasing importance of online social media, transparency, and non-traditional marketing tactics, as well as the proven success of the first generation of participatory contests at engaging stakeholders and creating brand ambassadors, we believe a very wide range of organizations could get value out of a platform like Wowcrowd. Initially, we’re targeting grant-giving organizations, political campaigns, and businesses and non-profits running cause marketing campaigns.