Today, you are more important than you ever knew. Yes, you are a VIP. Every company seems to want your direct input: Can you create a short film (aka ad) about Bounty paper towels' philosophy of life? What new flavor should Mountain Dew market, and how should the packaging look? Which couple should get married on the Today show, what should they wear, and where should they go on their honeymoon?
Whether or not crowds are truly wise, you're certainly in demand in this era of crowdsourcing. That's especially true in the not-for-profit universe. In the past, we've sought your donor dollars, but now we're also after your support in the form of votes that help us get other donors' dollars. Actor Hugh Jackman announced last year on Twitter that he'd give away $100,000 to a cause suggested by the Twitterverse. (Charity: Water and Operation Hope split the pot.) Major corporations such as PepsiCo, American Express, and JPMorgan Chase have all turned charitable dollars over to public votes. (Full disclosure: I sit on the advisory boards for the Chase Community Giving and Pepsi Refresh contests.) So have small ones; Kind, which makes fruit-and-nut bars, is giving away $25,000, and it's up to people who perform "kind acts" — other than eating fruit-and-nut bars — to decide where that money goes.
You might call this the American Idol-ification of giving. Yeah, these competitions are far from perfect. Beyond the technical glitches — no IT department ever plans for a Justin Bieber tweet that can unleash the voting tsunami of a gazillion 12-year-old girls — merit isn't the main thing, and the charitable equivalents of Sanjaya (no, I won't name names) have a good chance of winning.
It doesn't really matter whether you like this trend, because such contests aren't going away. As far as corporate marketing goes, they're not that expensive — and the companies get a little do-gooder halo. The real and relevant question is: How do you win? Here are some tips from the not-for-profit world that apply to any crowdsourced competition.
1. Choose the right game. Invisible Children won the Chase Community Giving Challenge — and the jackpot of $1 million — in part because it focused on this one competition; it didn't try to win them all. Know your assets, know your skills, and target the setup that maximizes your chances. DoSomething.org went all-in for the Best Buy @15 Challenge last year, because we knew that there were only four organizations competing for $250,000. Those were good odds for us, and we ended up with a big chunk of the prize.
2. Rally your tribe. The biggest tribe doesn't always win. These games are less about mass appeal and loose connections than concerted group effort and tight-knit networks. To succeed in crowdsourcing competitions, you have to rally your base. Invisible Children, which works with kids affected by war in Uganda, didn't have widespread brand recognition — had you ever heard of it? — but it did have a tribe, a group of avid fans, built around a Facebook group. They not only voted but also got their networks to vote, winning Invisible Children the big money.
3. Be tactical. In some contests, you need thousands of people. In others, it's far better to have a few hundred who vote over and over. However the game is set up, play smart and tailor your strategy. For instance, daily voting counts in the Pepsi Refresh competition, so 500 loyalists who vote every day for a month will serve you better than 5,000 who do it only once.
4. Show some love. Danny Bocanegra, who won $50,000 from Pepsi Refresh for his startup, Selfless Tee, suggests offering T-shirts or even cash to evangelists who enlist others to vote. For example, he gave $1,000 (and free drinks) to a girl who persuaded her entire sorority to vote daily.
These commonsense lessons apply far beyond crowdsourced competitions. The reality is that so much of life is structured like high school — a series of popularity contests, some more subtle than others. The good news? Nowadays, even the glee-club kids have a shot at winning, if they play the game right.
Do Something CEO Nancy Lublin is the author of Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business and a big Glee fan.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.