Marketing Mythbusters: Crowdsourcing



In this series, we will take a look at marketing buzzwords, whether they live up to the hype or are the right idea for your business.


There is a delightful story from history whereby a crowd at a fair guessed the weight of a cow more accurately than an assemblage of cattle experts. James Surowiecki explains in his book The Wisdom of Crowds just how effective crowdsourcing can be, even if you’re not interested in cattle futures.


Crowdsourcing as an idea holds a lot of promise: ask a number of people for their opinions or help, free of charge or expectation of compensation, use only the advice which you like, or can easily implement, and then cash in on your success!


Several multinational corporations, including Pepsi and Starbucks, have used crowdsourcing to great effect, but there are downsides to this process – sometimes the information isn’t helpful and sometimes you don’t get an answer.


Crowdsourcing: A definition


Crowdsourcing is simply the act of asking a large group of people for opinions or suggestions. Companies use crowdsourcing to identify trends or problems, and use the insights given to inform strategy.


Best examples


In March of 2008, Starbucks was at an impasse. The company had reached saturation, and they noticed some churn of loyal clients who began to seek out different companies to keep them caffeinated.


In an effort to reinvigorate the brand, and without the traditional step of surveys and focus groups, Starbucks decided to turn the question from “what’s wrong with us?” (which no company ever wants to admit they want to know) to “How Can Starbucks Enhance Your Experience?”


Within one year, more than 70,000 submissions had been sent in to Seattle. Many of those ideas were implemented including the ubiquitous green spill stick.


Have a Starbucks Gold Card? Thank your fellow caffeinophiles. It seems like Starbucks fans are quite wise indeed.


Yet, Starbucks has not released figures on how many false, self-promotional, or unusable suggestions it may have received, and the “free advice” now requires a small team to sort through and escalate the suggestions.


What’s the downside?


With every tool in a marketer’s arsenal, there are pitfalls. These are the most common ones when you engage in crowdsourcing campaigns:


You set up a crowdsourcing initiative, and no one comes. This is the most common for smaller brands or brands with fewer online fans. You will need to spend money to promote this initiative, even if it means sending out an e-mail blast and advertising on your social channels. You may even want to buy low cost ads to help get the ball rolling. If you still have a problem, you should consider sending out personalised request for input to your most dedicated fans.


Your crowdsourcing initiative gets gamed or hijacked. This concern is not an insignificant one. The opposite problem to #1, this happens when companies leave variables out, or don’t leave a “veto” option for the brand. Recently, two examples of this made news. In one, a major retailer asked for suggestions from fans for where to send Pitbull, a famous musician. A group of people set out to make sure that Pitbull was sent to a remote city in Alaska. In another, similar story, another company asked for suggestions for a free Taylor Swift concert, and the winning suggestion, as chosen by a group of pranksters who gamed the system, was a school for the deaf. This type of result is best avoided when you stipulate upfront that the “winning” suggestions are still at the sole discretion of your company. Put limits in your terms to avoid embarrassment later.


You begin to implement a suggestion, but there are barriers. In some cases, this will be inadvertent: If Starbucks has discovered the spill stoppers were being made by a rival coffee chain; they may have not introduced that exact product.


In other cases, there are some crowdsourced ideas which are costly, time-intensive, or have a high risk to reward ratio for your organisation. What do you do in that case? There are two ways to tackle this problem. On one hand, if the idea has merit, but isn’t immediately doable, you may still want to advocate getting it into a product pipeline. If you don’t want to lose momentum, but there are steps which need to be taken by your company first, at least have those conversations and commitments put in place.


The second choice is you can fight for the implementation of this idea. This is a much longer, trickier road, and the first thing you will need is a business case justification. This is not meant to discourage you. Many company structures are inherently reticent to make changes, but if your company is ready for crowdsourcing, they need to put paid to the implementation. You’ll really need to sell your idea.


How to get started


First, you’ll need to frame this entire exercise by determining your end goals. Don’t crowdsource if you’re just looking for confirmation of an idea. Crowdsourcing works best when it’s more open and only if you focus your questions on the solicitation of honest opinions. You’re already biased toward your own ideas, so why would a stranger’s opinion change your mind?


Once you’ve decided on crowdsourcing, and your end goals, you’ll need some place where your suggestions or ideas will be accepted. You do not need to break the bank. You can crowdsource using something as simple as Facebook Polls, or Google Forms. The most important part of a crowdsourcing initiative is moderation. If your crowdsourced ideas are visible, you will a moderator to make sure no suggestions from “Hugh Jass” get posted.


A moderator can also flag interesting ideas and help you test the internal appetite for certain changes. You can find out what people’s pain points are, and build a stronger business case.


A little bit of planning, a lot of diligence, and a company culture willing to experiment are all you need to get your next crowdsourcing initiative off the ground.


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