Crowd Sourcing – The Pros and Very Few Cons

There seems to be a debate about Crowd Sourcing. I don’t understand why. I cannot believe anyone is seriously debating ‘whether’ crowd sourcing a good idea only how best to use it? Of course it is. I first came across crowd sourcing as a team building exercise we used to use with clients. You’d get a group of people and give them a scenario. The one we used was where a plane crashes in the middle of a desert and the survivors are given a choice of options in terms of what they do and what they choose to rescue from the wreckage, in order to maximize their chance of survival and rescue.

First people had to complete the exercise on their own. Then they worked as a group and their collective and individual answers were compared to the advice of ‘Survival Experts’. Not quite sure who these experts were – this was long before Bear Grylls – but the results were always the same. No individual scored as highly as the group – ever. The collective views of the group were always closest to, sometimes spot on with, those of the experts.

Like most people, my appreciation of Crowd Sourcing was given a real kick with the publication in 2004 of “Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki. One of the examples he used made me realize I had been watching Crowd Sourcing in action every week on “Who wants to be a Millionaire”. The lone contestant might struggle, but ask the audience and, collectively, they always get it right.

Actually, maybe I’ve skipped a step in my journey? I seem to remember my mum telling me that, “Two heads are better than one”.  Presumably several thousand heads are better than two? But I think she also told me that “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. Well how many is too many? “Two’s company, three’s a crowd” I definitely remember her telling me that. So let’s try to pull this together – more than two is a crowd, a crowd is generally better than one head, but not for making broth.

I reckon there is no debate about whether Crowd Sourcing is a good thing, a useful tool if you can get your hands on it, but perhaps not for every task or problem.

That last bit is worth a debate. When should you use crowd sourcing, how best should you use it? Hang on – what exactly do we mean by crowd sourcing? Well, for the answer to that I turned to one truly excellent, and I think by now universally approved , form of crowd sourcing – Wikipedia. With just one click I got a very useful explanation of Crowd Sourcing sourced from a crowd. Here it is:-

I could not have written this better and, more to the point, it would have taken days of research to get even close. Right away, here are two major benefits – the wisdom of the crowd and Web 2.0 enabled speed.

The Wiki definition is “the act of outsourcing tasks, normally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large community through an open call”. The term ‘Crowd Sourcing’, Wiki tells me, is a neologism (a new made up word  – thanks Wiki) of crowd and outsourcing.  It goes on to tell me that, as with Wikipedia itself, experts or wannabe experts enjoy helping you solve these outsourced tasks so much they often do it for free or very little reward.

So wise, fast and really cheap. Come on! Who would not use Crowd Sourcing all the time for everything? You can use it to build a living on-line encyclopedia, you can use it to source thousands of designs for, say, T-Shirts and get the same crowd to help select the best. Instead of trying to do all the development work on a piece of computer software and inevitably butting your one or two heads against problems you can’t fix (or didn’t even spot) you can get a prototype or Beta version out there and have an army of willing experts help you perfect it. Brilliant!

I have a marketing bias so let’s look at possible applications for marketing. You could build a platform where any marketer, any time anywhere could post a problem (or opportunity) they are working on and ask a crowd for ideas on how to solve it. It could be anything. Maybe you are a bank and you want ideas for how to persuade the laggards to move to on-line banking. Maybe you need an idea to unite all your disparate sponsorship properties. Maybe you need some new product ideas, a new brand name, a fresh idea for a trade conference, some ideas for on-line brand content (the internet is a hungry beast when it comes to content). Hell, you could even post your latest advertising brief – would that work? Well it’s not unknown for Ad agencies to bring in some extra free-lancers to help solve a brief – this way you could get to thousands of free-lancers, amateur or professional.

To make sure that you attracted the experts most likely to have the best ideas, the professionals or semi-professionals, you probably should offer some kind of reward, a bounty if you like, for the best ideas. Most of these people just love solving problems and get a certain personal benefit from doing so, as well as maybe some professional kudos. But it seems only fair to offer some hard cash in return for the commercial benefit you would get from a great new marketing idea. It would still be cheap and it would, of course, be the wisdom of the crowd at cyber speed.

We could call it “Idea Bounty – the best ideas get paid”. Forget focus groups and consumer workshops – if you have a marketing problem get it on our platform and we’ll guarantee that you get great ideas you can use, all for the cost, as it happens, of less than a couple of focus groups.

This Idea Bounty could be huge – I’ll just check it out on Google, see if anyone else…..Bugger!

Someone has already done it and so far every client has got ideas they both liked and have successfully used.
In fact, I discover, there are loads more crowd sourcing platforms for marketing, design, innovation, all manner of marketing needs.

So is Crowd Sourcing the future? Yes – in fact it is the present, the train has well and truly left the station. This is no fad. It is inconceivable that the genie will get put back in the bottle. More and more people, for more and more things, are going to use Crowd Sourcing. Get with the programme. Who says? – a bunch of geeky on-line nerds? Well the late and very great CK Prahalad based his last ever book on the prediction that crowd sourcing will become the way of doing business – N=1, R=G – and he was one of the most respected Business Strategists on the planet.

I can’t comment on whether T shirts and Computer Software will only ever be designed by a wise crowd. I suspect not. But I do believe strongly that not every marketing problem will.

There are occasions when I would not choose to use crowd sourcing. For me it has limitations and I think there are reasons why a small, closed community can on occasions be better.

1. Let’s start with the obvious. If the marketing brief (problem/opportunity) is highly confidential I don’t think I want to publicize it to a crowd.

2. What if I am not 100% sure of what the problem is? The advantage of working with a small, well motivated, closed community – let’s call it an agency/client team- is that you iterate the brief through working on it together. The brief gets honed, refined and sometimes completely changed. If I am going to give a problem to the crowd I need to be sure I can express it clearly and with confidence.

3. As a close cousin to this, briefs sometimes have nuances, subtleties, constraints, that are only truly appreciated by the small team that are working on them. The crowd needs clarity of purpose and cannot be relied on to wrestle with reams of sub-text.

4. Often you come to trust certain groups of problem solvers. You’ve worked with them before, they have a great track record. If I have a winning team, why do I want to expand it by inviting in the crowd? Would I run the risk of undermining confidence? I like working with people I can see and touch and – as noted above – debate with. Teams perform better with shared purpose built on like and trust that can only come through physical interaction.

5. Last on my list is a back-handed compliment to crowd sourcing. I accept I am going to get hundreds maybe thousands of ideas but how am I going to choose the right one? Out of respect to the community – which is important – every idea has to be given proper consideration. Too much choice is not always a good thing.

These, surely, are valid reasons for not using Crowd Sourcing? Maybe, maybe not.

1.    If you are worried about confidentiality you can disguise the brief.

2.    A great way to get insight on a problem is to throw it out there – use the crowd to help you understand the problem. It’s a lot better than a few focus groups.

3.    Yes there are nuances but at some point there must be clarity – when you can summarize it in 100 words or less then throw it out there. If you can’t, keep working until you can

4.    Teams are very important – it should ideally be a team decision when and how to use crowd sourcing. But if the team are so motivated why would they pass up an opportunity to check whether there might be a better solution?

5.    There is something to the “Paradox of Choice” argument but it is possible to put in place a process to screen and select ideas (Idea Bounty has a range of levels of support for this). Get the team to help, employ some experts. Ask the crowd to help make the selection. Just roll your sleeves up – this is a high quality problem, too many good ideas!

I still conclude that there are reasons and occasions why/when Crowd Sourcing is not optimal. I just think they appear few and far between, or at least I think there are few occasions where at no point in the process of cracking a marketing brief would crowd sourcing not be a useful additional tool.

Too many cooks spoil the making of the broth but the more cooks you have access to, the better the broth recipes you can choose from.

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