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Hitting a poll-ar iceberg: what next for Boaty McBoatface?

On Sunday, the polls closed for the social media competition that has caught the UK’s imagination – to name a £200 million research vessel. The winning entry, RRS Boaty McBoatface, received over 120,000 votes and has generated hundreds of news mentions, as well as its fair share of controversy. The entry’s creator has since publicly apologised and on Monday Jo Johnson, the minister responsible for the new vessel, suggested that the name may be vetoed in preference for a more appropriate title. What the heck happened to this piece of crowdsourcing and PR genius, and what can brands learn from the events that played out?

The National Environment Research Council's newest vessel

The National Environment Research Council’s newest vessel

Social polls and competitions are a tried and tested strategy for generating engagement but on a subject as dry as naming a research boat, it would be unrealistic to expect more than at most a few hundred entries. What happened underlines the impact of strong organic content. With most Twitter posts about the competition generating fewer than 20 likes or retweets, the first reference to the winning entry generated more than 2,500.

Seemingly the juxtaposition between the names of prestigious arctic explorers and the innate silliness of Boaty McBoatface captured the attention of social media users and from there, mainstream media. The rest is history. No other entry stood a chance, with a 90,000 vote gap between first and second place.

The uber successful tweet that launched a ship

The uber successful tweet that launched a ship

In the middle of all of this is one of the least well-known governmental organisations, the National Environment Research Centre (NERC), that has benefited hugely from the exposure. The organisation’s Twitter followers have increased to almost 22,500 and the blanket international coverage has implanted the NERC into the public consciousness. After having generated so much interest, goodwill and amusement the organisation now has to decide what to do with the naming of its vessel. A decision that will be made very much in the public eye.

Whilst conversation around the result has already included some awareness that there might be actually something perverse about a serious research vessel carrying a comical moniker, there is likely to be negative sentiment if the NERC don’t follow through. The likelihood is that the current interest in the ship and its work can be maintained if the organisation can come to a compromise and at deliver a little recognition of the name. The risk is that if not, the NERC will sink to its previous status as an organisation with little public awareness and more than a few sour grapes attached to future social initiatives.

A response to the post from influential Twitter comedian @DaftLimmy

A response to the post from influential Twitter comedian @DaftLimmy

Ultimately, whatever legal terms and conditions were carefully constructed around the competition, social users invested their time and creativity into it and will be justified in feeling hard done by if the name isn’t selected. Whether planning for a low key campaign or total world domination, we should try and prevent a situation where brands are unable to follow through on promises. Would the competition have achieved the same levels of awareness and engagement, had the names been pre-selected? Definitely not, the element of jeopardy is core to its success but brands should only be willing to gamble control that they can afford to lose.

I hope that the NERC and Jo Johnson allow the voice of the crowd to be heard and christen the ship Boaty McBoatface. Whatever their decision, the conversation around the poll has once again underlined the value of a strong social strategy and the investment in quality content.