CrowdsourcingMark Gallagher and Laura Savard
Long Tail Approach or Short-term Gain Leading to Long-term Loss
There’s a delicate balance between encouraging participation and surrendering control. Managing crowdsourced contributions not only takes considerable resources, it’s unlikely that the ideas submitted will be “on strategy” or “on brand”. Engaging consumers has always been paramount to building strong brands, but allowing the crowd to curate your brand is another thing altogether.
Arguably, crowdsourcing has been around for a long time. In fields such as chemistry, astronomy and other sciences, crowdsourcing has made large-scale projects feasible. Over the years many amateurs have made significant contributions to the fields of astronomy and space science. Comets, for example, are often discovered first by non-professionals.
However, in June, 2006 a Wired magazine article sparked a heated debate. In this article Jeff Howe first proposed the idea of “Crowdsourcing.” Whether you believe crowdsourcing is a gimmick or the next big thing, it’s important to note that the idea is still in its early, some would say idealistic, years. How it was proposed and what it may become will be largely based on how it is interpreted.
“I like to use two definitions for crowdsourcing:
The White Paper Version: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”
“The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.”
Crowdsourcing, or community-based design as it is also known, was made viable by the internet, and perhaps more specifically, social media. Each day on twitter we hear both sides of the crowdsourcing argument. What some see as crowdsourcing’s biggest benefit, others sight as the practice’s biggest flaw: an undefined group and uninformed execution. While we lean towards the latter both are true, depending on your application.
Crowdsourcing works well for large-scale initiatives where gathering data would be otherwise impossible. For instance, the vastness of space makes it impossible for a single astrological organization to chart. With so many amateur astronomers pointing their telescopes to the sky the odds of catching an astrological phenomenon greatly increases. And when professionals share their astrological data, the community benefits on a whole.
One would think that applying this same logic to creativity or brand management would yield similar results. However, the challenges are quite different.
Crowdsourcing may reduce the expenditure in gaining insights into how consumers think about a given brand or category by telling us what’s important to them. It may eliminate the leading questions and group dynamics that distort focus groups. It may engage individuals who have a genuine interest in a given brand. However, it is not an all-encompassing solution to any given problem. There may be some advantages to the process, but there is also a dark side to crowdsourcing.
As it is commonly practiced in the marketing world, crowdsourcing forgoes strategy and outsources execution (We touched on the importance of acknowledging the intangibles between theory and practice in an earlier post “Merging Strategy and Execution“). These days, cash-strapped brands are looking for ways to cut costs. A model where the crowd makes the investment of time and labor yet is not compensated for their efforts, may not be sustainable and could cause a backlash. While currently the crowd benefits from the participation and pursuit of recognition, the future might present something far less idealistic—a digital sweatshop where crowd and brand each pays a high price only to see diminishing returns.
We’ve all heard a lot of talk about successful crowdsourced solutions. Personally, we have yet to see what we believe is a successful example of crowdsourced brand management or creative. The crowd is just another committee that produces results that are incredibly average.
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Disclosure: We’ve read Jeff Howe’s Wired magazine article, but have yet to read his book: Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business. However, it is on our list.