Ask five people what crowdsourcing is and you’ll generally get the same reply: soliciting input from a lot of people. Ask the same five people about the benefits of crowdsourcing and you will likely get five very different, yet highly emotional, responses: “Crowdsourcing is the future of our business.” “Crowdsourcing is an attack on the craft of advertising.” “Crowdsourcing is an amazing new business tool.”
How do I know this? I crowdsourced my Facebook friends.
Of course, crowdsourcing has been around for centuries. The Romans called it the Senate, the Catholic Church calls it the Bishops, and in more recent decades marketers have called them focus groups. Modern technology has enabled the term to earn a vaunted space on the corporate bingo card.
At its best, crowdsourcing can be magical. When used strategically, it can endear a brand to a community. But it really depends how clearly you define the purpose, and even the definition of crowdsourcing. In my opinion, the more loosely we define crowdsourcing, the better the application.
For example, crowdsourcing is generally better at bringing people together than asking people to create something. When Microsoft crowdsourced Section 140, which was essentially enabling sports fans to talk about a game in real time through chat, everyone benefited. Research said that the fans loved it, the fans gave credit to the brand, and the fans left with higher regard for Microsoft. Score one for crowdsourcing.
On the other hand, when crowdsourcing is used because it has “panache” in a deck, it’s often doomed. Crowdsourcing creative may save a client a lot of money in the short term (and generate a lot of press, as in Doritos’ SuperBowl ad) but cost per risk ratio is very high, as is the cost per energy ratio. For every Doritos spot, how many crowdsourced ideas are sitting in trash heaps?
At the risk of sounding extremely elementary, here are some thoughts on how to frame crowdsourcing in your world.
- It depends on the crowd. If you are crowdsourcing how to build a rocket, and your source crowd is 150 nuclear engineers, I’d say you have a pretty good pool of knowledge for the project. In the same way, if you are asking Pauly Public to help produce ideas for a digital campaign, you may get an interesting nugget or two, but someone or some team is going to spend hours and hours sifting through a lot of sand. More like crowd mining.
- It depends on what you want to do. Of course, strategy must come into play. If crowdsourcing is its own line item on your marketing worksheet, it’s probably a forced idea. Crowdsourcing is a way to do something. Crowdsourcing needs to support a bigger vision. So you need to consider what you are trying to get at (new ideas, amplification of a benefit, enhancing a valuable community) and then see if crowdsourcing is a method that makes sense. Don’t force crowdsourcing just because it’s buzzworthy.
- It depends on how well you brief the crowd. This is the critical bit. As in our business, the ideas are generally only as good as the brief. If you have identified the right crowd and you have articulated the strategic role, you must be prepared to share, in inspiring and humans terms, exactly what you expect of the crowd.
So can crowdsourcing be a magic bullet? Yes. Can crowdsourcing be horribly mismanaged? Yes. Crowdsourcing represents a fantastic opportunity for our business, but as always, it all comes back to the basics of finding and defining a strategic, compelling role before lobbing the question “what if we crowdsource” into a crowded room.