As crowdsourcing goes mainstream in the marketing world, there has been a growing debate about its usefulness over traditional methods of problem solving – particularly when it comes to crowdsourced creativity for brand development and innovation.
At one level there are questions being raised about the real value and cost-effectiveness of crowdsourced solutions vs. those generated by paid experts. On another level, there are concerns about the possibility of crowds misleading and resulting in poor outcomes – with examples of crowdsourcing disasters having frequently gone viral and shown brands in a poor light.
I find both charges worrying – not because they are incorrect, but because they point to the mindset with which we might be approaching crowdsourcing. Using crowds as a source of ideas to solve problems can be extremely rewarding, but it is important to be clear about the reasons for doing this.
Cost saving vs. diverse perspectives
These may be occasional by-products, but the real reason to embrace crowdsourcing as a way of working is that diversity fuels better outcomes when it comes to creative problem solving. The more individuals that can approach the task from a different perspective and surface a different facet of the problem, the more likely we are to get to a strong solution.
The traditional approach of using a core team of experts within the organisation to work on the problem is far less effective in generating this kind of diversity. A well-composed crowd is decentralised and unconstrained by ways of thinking that become embedded in any closed team. It consists of individuals with varied skills and experience, who have no vested interest in the outcome, have less to lose, and are more willing to take risks. Crowdsourcing also provides scale and momentum that are hard to match even within the largest of organisations, due to team structure and resource limitations. .
Crowdsourcing shouldn’t be expected to generate complete solutions that replace what expert teams might have produced. Expert teams and crowds create complementary energies rather than competing ones, and solutions provided by the crowd are best thought of as starting points that expert teams can build on. Crowds might occasionally consist of people with high levels of expertise who are capable of getting us to a fully thought-through, ready-to-implement solution – but this is an exception, and when we do encounter these individuals, they are likely to be people that an organisation would benefit from hiring as professionals rather than engaging with sporadically in crowdsourcing programmes.
More often than not, crowds will simply provide new direction, open up unexplored territories, or provide some ingredients that create fuel for an expert team to take further into a complete solution. There are two important reasons for this:
- Firstly, there is unquestionable value in bringing professional skills to bear on a problem – and even when crowds are able to stretch our thinking further, the final solution is often a synthesis of many different elements which requires an expert to put together.
- Secondly, the very conditions that foster divergent thinking among crowds – decentralisation, ignorance of organisational constraints, risk taking and low investment in outcomes – are likely to work against producing ready-to-implement solutions that are viable from an organisation’s perspective.
Without an expert to pick up the essence of a seemingly impractical idea, and turning it into something workable, we could be in danger of discarding potentially brilliant solutions.
Decision making vs. problem solving
Before taking a problem to the crowd, it is useful to consider whether crowdsourcing is the best approach to address the issue. There is a difference between asking a crowd to think up a name for a new product, or vote on their favourite name, and asking it to create eco-friendly packaging for toothpaste. The latter clearly benefits from diverse perspectives and expertise, while in the former the advantages of crowdsourcing are less clear.
Many of the widely quoted crowdsourcing fiascos involve situations where crowds were used as a means of decision making by popular vote – such as in naming a brand, choosing a song to play at an event, or picking a location for a promotional campaign. There is no advantage in turning to crowds for decisions such as these, and if indeed a popular perspective is desired as an input into the decision, traditional market research surveys are much better equipped to do this.
Egalitarianism and inclusiveness
Finally, an important consideration in embracing crowdsourcing – and embracing it for the right reasons – is that people’s expectations from corporations have changed dramatically in the last few years. We’ve seen that people want to participate, be consulted, and be treated as equals. We’ve seen social media reduce power distance between corporations and individuals, not just in terms of people’s ability to ‘talk back’ but in their endorsement of small, unknown brands. We’ve seen the growth of the long tail, and the rise of artisan brands and independent producers.
Inviting crowd participation is in keeping with the culture of the new-age corporation. It is a way of giving people a voice in, and ownership of what they choose to buy. When a corporation asks individuals for help in solving a problem, it makes itself vulnerable and human. There are bound to be some negative fallouts of such vulnerability, as we’ve seen in examples of crowds going rogue. However the benefits of openness far outweigh the risks of crowdsourcing, and there is much greater value in learning to deal with these risks than in keeping the doors shut.
For many organisations, crowdsourcing requires considerable unlearning since it means ceding control and adopting ways of working that are the antithesis of tightly-controlled innovation processes of the past. But when done in the right spirit – not as a cost-saving measure or cursory nod to consumer-centricity – crowdsourcing not only improves outcomes, it also signals transparency, authenticity and equality. It creates long-term brand value and ultimately builds trust.