YouTube contests as a model for participatory incentive prizes

As many of you know, the X PRIZE Foundation has been running a YouTube video contest called Crazy Green Idea. The concept is simple: create a video less than 2 minutes long that outlines your insane idea for changing the field of energy and environment through an incentive prize. Over 130 videos were submitted in the 2 months that the contest was open, and voting is currently underway to determine the winner (from a narrowed-down field of 3 impressive contestants). The winner will receive $25,000.

A similar contest was recently held by the Space Frontier Foundation in conjunction with and our friends at The subject matter here was - no surprise - a little closer to home. The question: "What should the future of American human spaceflight be?" This contest ran for around 5 months (it was extended in order to get more entries), took in 15 video submissions, and recently announced a winner. Top prize: $2,000.

We've learned some very interesting lessons from both of these contests. And while I can only speak directly from my experience with the Crazy Green Idea Contest, quite a bit can be inferred from the data available from the other contest.

These contests show incentive prizes in action, and illustrate many of the concepts that we at X PRIZE have worked hard to develop. Take, for instance, the prize value, a seemingly arbitrary amount, but in reality an extremely important piece of the puzzle. At $25,000, the Crazy Green Idea Contest provides an extremely significant incentive; after all, creating a 2 minute video with a great idea would not require nearly so much investment. As such, it should be no surprise that the contest received a healthy number of submissions. Conversely, the $2000 top prize in the Space Frontier Foundation's contest is significant enough to attract dedicated space geeks, but not enough to gain the attention of the public at large.

But what if we turn the tables? Perhaps $25,000 is too much, especially if the quality of submissions does not warrant it. Fortunately, there were some truly outstanding videos in our contest. And moreover, the attention the contest has received has been outstanding: writeups in the Huffington Post, various green blogs, and other publications have led to nearly 150,000 views of the introductory video, and aggregated views across all videos many thousands above that. But how can we judge that the incentive has led to a reasonable outcome?

The rule of thumb we use at the X PRIZE - a figure that has proven effective historically with incentive prizes for hundreds of years - is that the prize value should lead to nearly 2.5 times as much investment from the competitors. That is to say that a $25,000 prize should cost the contestants $62,500 to win. Clearly this was not the case, and indeed most of the contest entries cost little or nothing to create. But the fundamental difference here is the goal.

Let's be realistic, making movies isn't rocket science (sorry, that joke never gets old). What we were ultimately paying for here was a combination of two very important things: ideas and participation. The cost of developing a full-fledged X PRIZE is not cheap. In fact, we receive large grants for that very purpose. To be sure, we have received a number of extremely viable ideas from the Crazy Green Idea contest, many of which could be turned into X PRIZEs. But certainly none of these 2 minute videos contained $25,000 worth of prize development. And this is where the other half of the equation comes into play.

The most powerful outcome of our contest - and the Space Frontier Foundation's contest - is public participation. At its core, the X PRIZE Foundation is an education organization whose mission is to change the way we think about the methodology and economics of technological breakthroughs. Through this YouTube contest, we have raised more awareness and more understanding of exactly what an X PRIZE is than in many of our previous outings. Compare for instance, our two most watched videos on our YouTube channel: the Crazy Green Idea introduction and Moon 2.0, an introduction to the Google Lunar X PRIZE. If we judge simply by the numbers, the Crazy Green Idea video has been viewed over 50,000 more times than Moon 2.0, a sizable portion, all things considered. But what the Moon 2.0 video has not done is to push people to actually go out and do something. Admittedly there is no call-to-action here, but the point is that Crazy Green Idea has served to motivate, excite, and incentivize a crowd of people to make a difference, even if only through a 2 minute video.

Let's compare this with the Space Frontier Foundation's videos. The winning entry was submitted by Arnie J. Abrahamson:

As Greg Zsidisin points out in his contest post-mortem,

I must admit that I never expected to give my own top vote to such a video, nor to someone who would assert that space—who knew?!—is like lingerie. (Punchline: “It’s only when someone’s in it that it becomes interesting.”) For me at least, Abrahamson’s playful presentation of plans and philosophies was the best entry marrying the video medium with an interesting message to make a really compelling video.

Now hold up just one minute. It's very easy to brush this video off as fluff. After all, sex sells, and putting lingerie-clad models in your space exploration video will probably garner a few extra hits. And what's more, the real message of the video can easily be summed up in a single line: jumpstart private spaceflight for everyone.

Although this message is very near and dear to the X PRIZE Foundation, it begs the question: has this video really stated anything new, or changed the way we think about spaceflight? Well, no.... but that's not the point.

If nothing else, the Space Frontier Foundation's contest has succeeded in getting people involved. The numbers may not be impressive, but a little publicity and marketing would turn that around very quickly (I think it's important to recognize that the Crazy Green Idea contest had ads on the YouTube homepage, as well as a steady campaign of social media outreach). What is impressive is that their contest (and ours) have gotten people to think differently and to transform their own thoughts into ideas.

And ideas are powerful things.

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