Those of you who follow NeighborGoods may have noticed that I've pretty much stopped promoting the Pepsi Refresh Challenge in the past few weeks because it's crazy annoying. It's annoying for you, it's annoying for me. NeighborGoods is a young startup with a very small team and honestly, there are better ways for me to spend my time than sending daily reminders to our friends and supporters to vote. I know our friends and supporters certainly have better things to do with their time. Still, the allure of $50k to support NeighborGoods is difficult to ignore and somehow the contest keeps crawling back into my mind. $50k would do a lot for our growing company. Instead of just calling it quits and moving on, I've spent the majority of this month feeling frustrated and powerless in the face of the dark unknown beast that is the Pepsi Refresh Challenge. Not because we're doing poorly (we are). But because Pepsi did not provide the tools necessary to even play a fair game.
Much has been made lately about the Pepsi Refresh contest and online voting contests in general. Contests like these are thinly-veiled marketing tools for the companies hosting them. Everyone who enters a project in Pepsi Refresh becomes a willing marketing drone to benefit Pepsi at the cost of his/her own social capital. What does Pepsi give in return for that precious social capital?
Zero Planning Time
Applying for Pepsi Refresh is a contest in itself. The website accepts submissions at midnight EST the first day of each month. For three months in a row, I sat hovering over my laptop to submit my completed application at the stroke of midnight. For three months in a row, I received unexplained error messages as I tried to upload and/or the contest filled up before I could click "submit." Finally, on July 1, I got my application in. I received a message that my project was in review and that, if approved, it would be entered into the voting contest starting August 1. I waited eagerly for news that NeighborGoods had been accepted into the contest. As Sloane mentions in her piece,Pepsi Refresh for the Gulf is an Epic Fail and Here's Why, it's almost impossible to win the Refresh Everything challenge unless you get onto the leaderboard in the very beginning of the contest. So planning the first hours of your campaign is essential.
I didn't receive word until 11:24 p.m. on July 31 that my project was approved. Voting began at 6 a.m. the following morning. Without time to plan, it was impossible for me reach out to my networks to ensure I had support early in the voting process. Could you imagine sending an e-mail to everyone in your address book asking for votes as soon as the polls open only to find that your project is not even included?
First thing in the morning, NeighborGoods debuted low on the list -- placed about 170th -- and it hasn't strayed too much from that spot since voting began.
A Broken Website
The Refresh Everything website has been plagued with issues all month. I've received tons of messages from supporters saying they were unable to vote because Facebook wasn't connecting properly. Sadly, this error didn't seem to be consistent so it plagued some projects/voters more than others. Even when it is working, it's difficult to tell when your vote has been accepted due to a confusing multi-click login process. Again, according to Sloane's detailed post, the Gulf projects had even bigger technical problems. Techcrunch noted issues with the website back in January, including a huge security breach.
The lack of transparency in the contest is the cause of biggest concern for me. It's disheartening to spend so much time and energy begging for votes without any immediate feedback. Voters themselves are burnt out by so many requests. The least Pepsi could do for the folks tirelessly clicking is show them that what they are doing makes a difference by sharing vote counts transparently. With rumors of proxy voting even after the contest rules were updated to expressly forbid the practice, Pepsi's lack of transparency feels disrespectful at best and shady at worst. The participants have no way of knowing how many votes they need, which get-the-vote-out tactics are working, or if it's even worth their time to continue with the contest. And I suspect that's why they don't share the numbers. Pepsi wants to keep any potentially shady votes hidden from the public so as not to cast a shadow over the whole contest. Pepsi wants all the folks involved to KEEP PROMOTING at all costs. If you can't see that you need an impossible number of votes to win, maybe you'll keep spamming all your contacts to send them to Pepsi's website instead of turning your energies elsewhere. As Beth Kanter argued in her What Lessons Will Pepsi Learn About Crowdsourcing for Social Good from Chase Bank Contest Fail? blog post, the big problem with contests like Pepsi Refresh is that they waste "many nonprofits' [and small startups'] most valuable resource: their time."
Of course, there's no reason to believe a popularity contest is a viable way to make social change but everyone who enters contests like this agrees to suspend judgment on that in return for the chance to win money. We all know we're entering a popularity contest when we sign up for these things. So barring that conversation for the moment, how could Pepsi have run a similar contest without leaving such a sour taste in the mouths of the participants? Mmmm Pepsi... How could Pepsi have run a voting contest that respects the participation of the projects and the voters?
TRANSPARENCY Sharing the number of votes for each project helps contest participants judge how much time to spend getting out the vote. It also helps them evaluate which tactics work and which tactics are less effective. It gives participants the tools they need to make decisions about how best to spread the word without burning bridges with their social and professional contacts. Transparency also helps contest participants monitor the fairness of the contest they are spending so much time to promote. While this is a risk for Pepsi, fairness should have been priority number one and the contest should not have launched until Pepsi was confident fairness could be guaranteed. Transparency with vote counts is also better for the voters -- the people Pepsi counts on to visit their website every day. It's Community Management 101 to provide immediate feedback for your users.
VOTE ONCE (NOT DAILY) Daily voting is much more vulnerable to unethical voting practices (proxy voting) than a one time voting system would be. Daily voting provides an advantage to folks who have more time and the mental bandwidth to remember to vote every day. Should the votes of CEOs be less valuable than the votes of a Jr. High School student who can more easily vote every day? One time voting provides a better yardstick for measuring the support a particular project has. One time voting allows participants to reach out to their networks without spamming them endlessly. It encourages participants to increase the reach of the projects which is also good for the projects themselves.
BETTER DISCOVERY There are countless ways the website and voting experience could be improved but a big one is discovery. With so many projects in the running, it's difficult to browse and locate projects to support. Unless your project is on the leader board, it's not likely that random visitors to the website will find your project. There is a bit of "If you like this project, here are some similar projects," but again there is little transparency in these recommendations and they are clunky at best. Viewable tags, improved categories and social recommendations based on your friends votes would be helpful here.
There is one week left to vote in this round of the Pepsi Refresh challenge. Then it begins all over again. (Projects carry over from month to month.) I will not be wasting any time next month looking for votes. Instead, I will focus on building my business. If you are so inclined, you can vote for us here. I will not be asking you again.
Thanks to everyone who has voted for us. Pepsi Refresh aside, I appreciate your support more than you know. And for you, we will continue to work to make NeighborGoods awesome.
As Sloane did in her blog post on the subject, I feel that in the interest of full disclosure I need to say that I too know some folks working on the Pepsi Refresh campaign personally. I'm friendly with multiple folks at GOOD Magazine, Pepsi's partner in the project, and I respect them all a great deal. I have no choice but to assume that these issues were beyond their control. I point fingers at no person in particular. I can't even blame PEPSI the brand because the world just doesn't work that way. In truth, this was likely a rushed project plagued with management issues that trickled down to the projects and ultimately the voters themselves. In the end, I hope an open discussion around the Pepsi Refresh Challenge will be useful for those planning similar campaigns in the future.
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This is my organizations 4th month in the Pepsi Refresh Project. We have been involved with many winning teams and alliances, and have learned the process along the way. Pay close attention - and we'll teach you how to win.