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The Zen of Crowd Sourcing

Chris Hambly's picture
Submitted by Chris Hambly on 19 January 2012 - 12:06pm

As a business owner wouldn't it be great to know exactly what your customers or clients want from your product or service? You’d gladly cater to their needs if you could just get inside their heads. However, what appeals to one customer might be disliked by another. In the past you might have relied on focus groups. You’d select a demographic, design the parameters, and then review the data. But you could still miss the mark if any one of those elements doesn’t fit with the current market trends.

In this Web 2.0 environment utilising your network followers for problem solving can be beneficial to not only building your brand but expanding your customer base. Participation in an open call for ideas or product evaluations can make your customers feel valued and they will be more inclined to tell others about your products or services. In a sense it creates buzz for your brand without the overhead of traditional advertising methods and only requires audience participation.
There are a number of ways to implement crowdsourcing be it through interactive contests, voting, Twitter campaigns or perhaps a mobile or facebook app that will draw followers back to your site for additional input. There are literaly thousands of case-studies on the Internet. Crowdsourcing when done properly can shorten the time it would normally take to get a product to market by providing immediate feedback in addition to conventional research and development and testing. In fact it has been said that the new business model of the future is in fact having a product in a permanent state of development - think Google.
Critics of this method feel the amateurs are being exploited as free labor when a company would normally spends thousands to pay professionals for logo design, research and development, and advertising campaigns, etc. Although typically crowdsourcing is not monetarily compensated many companies utilise contests so participants receive some incentive for their efforts. The thing is though is this. We all have opinions, we all love to give feedback about our favourite brands. You only have to look at the way some folk will defend their brands to the death, the more you argue the stronger their belief becomes. A good example of this would be Apple products vs PCs, or Coke vs Pepsi. 
Caution is needed though as there is the potential that it could backfire for your business. Depending on the social or economic environment your company’s reputation could be sullied. A US car company used crowdsourcing to promote one of its more popular SUVs at a time of rising petrol prices and environmental awareness. The end result was a lot of submissions posted to their website and YouTube maligning their product. You don't want bad reputation, you want to carefully plan for good reputation, so it needs smart thinking!
Is it really the crowd that comes up with the solution or a small few within the crowd? It can often be a few "influencers" (not always) that lead the charge. Are you aware of who these are, and more importantly are they on your side? Crowdsourcing must be planned with limitations and boundaries just as any other marketing tool to minimise the potential for abuse. There will always be members of the crowd who just want to throw a spanner in the works and can often influence others to do the same. 
The use of crowdsourcing is only as good as the information it generates. It’s best when utilised for refinement or evolution of a product or idea rather than leaving it up to the crowd to start the creative process.
The basic premise is that people do want to do things, so give your followers things to do, help them, guide them, encourage them and, clear up factual inaccuracy along the way.
I'm quite happy to be part of a beta trial, or a research campaign if I am offering something back, it makes me feel valued.
Suggested crowd sourcing reading: