Some Truths About Crowdsourcing

Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) at the Nationals

In today’s online world, the term crowdsourcing gets bandied about quite a bit. It’s the most difficult and visible form of community-based social engagement. For companies and nonprofits alike it has become a nirvana-like state to attain.

Yet, much of today’s conversations deal with fleeting uses of “crowdsourcing,” such as asking questions of Twitter communities. There are also plenty of interesting articles about benefits and the possible impact of sustainable crowdsourcing (as well as the tools to do it) but I find that the pragmatic how-to experience is missing.

The issue with the resulting lack of information is that most folks have no idea how difficult sustained crowdsourcing can be. I’ve had a couple of turns at it myself with major projects, one I would call very successful, the other average. Both required a ton of work and management that afterwards made me feel contemporary thinking can use some more depth.

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Just based on my own experiences, here are some lessons (some obvious) that you don’t see in contemporary discussions about crowdsourcing ideas, innovation and change:

1) The crowd has to care, and they have to be made into heroes. The latter part is well documented (rewarding active community members), but the prior isn’t. In my mind, crowdsourcing is the last stage of a well-thought out social media strategy (UNLESS you are having a contest with a notable purse as a reward).

The managing party must understand its subject matter AND the community’s inherent interest in that topic. The crowdsourced effort serves both parties. Otherwise you will crowdsource little to nothing. Or worse, you’ll be evangelizing to get people to participate.

2) While the crowd craves freedom, it desperately needs structure. People need to be told how to participate and the rules of engagement. These rules have to be clear, empowering of the crowd, and directive in their end result.

Believe me, I’ve tried it the other way, but your crowdsourcing effort needs to be well structured (See Beth Kanter’s discussion of Chase’s Community giving contest design). A recent crowdsourcing effort made me realize how much more simplified our process needed to get for the future.

3) Rules need to be enforced or adapted. Issues come all the time because people invariably do what they want, the rules be damned. The organization needs to either enforce them, or publicly change them and show why they are amending them. Then you have to be ready to deal with the haters.

For citizengulf, I threw out a day-time yoga event because it wondered too far away from the mission/purpose as well as the event style, and it competed with another event in the same city. No was the obvious answer. And as a result, I got plenty of email telling me I was an a-hole. So be it.

4) You’ll need to invest a lot of management resources. If you think social media is time consuming, try crowdsourcing. It involves grassroots customer service and handholding like you cannot imagine (I was amazed). You may publish a lot of information, but you need to be present for your community if you expect them to be present for you. Crowdsourcing innovation does not mean outsourcing human resources, just the innovation. And even then you may end up refining it like Cisco had to with its I-Prize innovation contest.

There are other issues, such as managing the idea market so that popularity doesn’t trump quality. Another is ensuring that while the crowd may want a result, that the business or nonprofit mission maintains its integrity.

I am not the biggest fan of Pepsi Refresh (I still struggle with understanding how this is impacting society and the incredible amount of Vote for Me #pepsirefresh spam it creates). That being said, I admire the hell out of Pepsi Refresh from a communicator’s perspective. It’s incredible that they can maintain interest, and handle the amount of issues that continually come up with their contest. From first hand conversations with their team, it is clear how hard they have worked, and continue to work to keep this contest going and to support their winners. The sustained energy is simply impressive.

The well discussed benefits of crowdsourcing are amazing, but going in with eyes wide open about the task at hand is critical. First hand experience and research about crowdsourcing are also helpful. It’s my intent to continue this conversation with best practices for causes from a tactical management standpoint via a by-lined article on Mashable. Stay tuned.

3 Replies to “Some Truths About Crowdsourcing”

  1. Running a crowdsourced creative agency that develops crowds to pitch and execute on marketing and branding campaigns and strategies I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. The crowds need clear guidelines, direct interaction, and consistent rewards (this can take many forms). Without them they become listless, uninterested and non-responsive.

    Having watched and built our crowds over two years I’ve seen some amazing behaviors but there is also a certain predictability.

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