We're just about to start experimenting with a variety of new advertising setups here at Techdirt, which means we've been doing a lot of brainstorming about opportunities for creative, interesting campaigns in keeping with our philosophy that good advertising is good content. One thing we've been noticing over and over is that the most innovative online marketing pushes don't just come from the usual suspects (tech companies and online services) but also from unexpected places—like a century-old soup company.
Campbell's is running a very cool campaign called Hack The Kitchen, for which they've developed a full-fledged recipe searching API that pulls data from their Campbell's Kitchen repository.
This is your opportunity to revolutionize dinners everywhere: Develop a breakout idea based on the Campbell's Kitchen API that helps people decide: what’s for dinner tonight?
After seeing all the ideas, we’ll choose up to thirty semi-finalists and give them our API for three weeks to bring their ideas to life.
Up to ten finalists will then be invited to present their projects at Google’s HQ in NYC to compete for the championship and launch their ideas into the world.
It's a fantastic concept, and the API looks genuinely useful. Not only is the contest itself a great marketing opportunity, it's setting Campbell's up for ongoing exposure through the apps that are developed.
But, having said how cool this is from a marketing perspective, it's time for the disclaimer—and it's a big one. The moment you get past the initial idea and into the details, things really start to fall apart from an innovation perspective. Firstly, as you probably noticed, the API is not being opened up to the public—only to the contest semi-finalists. That severely limits the amount of innovation that will happen, and the amount of exposure the company will get as a result—it also limits the number of developers that will even want to participate. Unfortunately, Campbell's reason for this is clear: they intend to take total ownership of anything that comes out of this campaign.
In fact, they are so concerned about this that the fine print states the cash prizes ($25,000 plus a development contract for the winner, $10,000 to runners up) are not prizes at all—they are a fee for your work:
*Paid by Cambell for ownership of all ideas, concepts, code and intellectual property.
Setting aside the fact that you cannot own an "idea", this just stinks. On the one hand, it's not uncommon for creative contests to take ownership of submissions (though that's hardly universal), but it is the complete antithesis of what appears to be the spirit of this campaign: hacking and innovation. This is actually a big problem with corporate-run hackathons and coding contests, which frequently demand total ownership at the end. No smart developer with a truly great app idea would give it away for $25,000 for the copyright plus another $25,000 to build it—a popular app with a long tail can be worth way, way more than that.
There's nothing wrong with Campbell's trying to get an official app or two out of this—but when you look closely, the people who are submitting these ideas don't seem to be getting much in return. They want everyone to submit their best ideas for free, then they want 30 people to actually build those ideas—then Campbell's will plunk down $10k to take total ownership of any that "could be developed by Campbell in the future" (thus stopping all those runners-up from moving forward with their apps independently, and presumably cutting off their API access) and toss $50k to one developer to make their app market-ready. The winner gets an okay deal, while the runners-up pretty much get screwed.
So, for the next time Campbell's or another company tries a genuinely cool and innovative idea like this, I suggest a few tweaks to make the execution less distasteful. Firstly, open the API up to everyone, and leave it open; have sensible limitations like any public API, but let people build what they want. Secondly, give away modest but genuine prizes with no strings, while offering a bounty for ideas that you want to own without making that rights transfer a requirement of the contest. Thirdly, promote the submitted apps in a public gallery, and encourage all developers to move forward with building, deploying and marketing their apps—you'll get a hell of a lot more exposure, and you might even find your API becoming the de facto standard for such development.
In the mean time, to anyone eyeing the contest while an idea ferments in their brain, I suggest letting the Friday deadline for submissions lapse, and looking into some of the free and open recipe APIs to power your app.