The Dominion Post, August 2010

I might give up writing this column. Maybe I will outsource it to the thousands of willing writers out there on the internet, using a new-fangled trend called ‘crowdsourcing’.

Simply put, crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing a task to a large group of people, a crowd. The ability of the internet to quickly build a community with a huge group has got people excited about its application to marketing.

Here’s an easy question - what globally admired reference source was crowdsourced?

Wikipedia you’d say, and that’s true. It’s also true that in January 1859, the Philological Society of Great Britain made an appeal “to the English and American public to assist in collecting the raw materials for the (dictionary), these materials consisting of quotations illustrating the use of English words by all writers of all ages and senses, each quotation being made on a uniform half sheet of notepaper; that they might in due course be arranged and classified alphabetically and significantly.”

The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was ‘crowdsourced’ almost 200 years ago.

Crowdsourcing circa 2010 comes in many different forms. There is of course the Wikipedia approach, where enthusiastic volunteers create content. There are wikis for all manner of subjects. Wookiepedia for science-fiction fans, Javapedia for Java programmers, Foodista for recipes and many others for travelling, language, collectors, pets etc.

The Stuff website recently entered the world of crowdsourcing, using readers to help trawl the thousands of pages of parliamentary expenses. 16,338 of 17,468 documents had been reviewed at last count. Sounds like torture to me but plenty of people are willing to give a hand.

Wellington company Ponoko has built a business around the crowdsourcing model, bringing product designers together with the people that can turn their dreams into product reality. US magazine Inc called them the ‘future of manufacturing’, writing that “a New Zealand company called Ponoko has reinvented the factory for the 21st century.”

How can the crowdsourcing phenomenon help your marketing?

Companies are using it in a number of ways, particularly in product development. Locally Air New Zealand, one of the country’s smartest users of internet technology, has ventured into crowdsourcing with their recent “Aviation Design Academy.” It was an online initiative seeking help with designing items for their new Boeing 777 aircraft, including in-flight snacks, cocktails and eye masks.

Not exactly rocket science, but a fun way to engage get some inventive ideas and expose your brand. And after all you want people that are qualified doing the real rocket stuff.

In the tech space PC manufacturer Dell has been a major player, using its “Ideastorm” website to gather consumer feedback and product ideas. It was originally created to combat Dell’s poor customer satisfaction levels. Of around 10,000 ideas the company has implemented 400, and positioned themselves as a leader in the ‘listening to customers’ space.

Local companies like Xero use the crowdsourcing concept on a less structured basis. Their blogs appear to be a good source of discussion about feature ideas and new technology.

All this sounds very attractive – you simply listen to what people want, make it and then let the money roll in.

Listening to customers can be problematic though. “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new,” Apple CEO Steve Jobs once said, echoing carmaker Henry Ford’s famous sentiment that if he’d asked people what they wanted it would have been a ‘faster horse’.

Especially in the technology sector, it is a company’s ability to come up with innovative products that delivers competitive advantage. Simply asking the crowd what they want doesn’t seem like a recipe for unique ideas.

Where the ‘crowd’ can be very useful in product development is in helping to define and understand the problem, rather than trying to come up with solutions in the form of products. Give a typical Kiwi engineer a gnarly customer issue and watch them come up with some great product ideas.

Crowdsourcing can be a useful tool, but don’t forget it’s just a fancy term for talking to your market, made easier by the power of the Internet. And that’s something any marketer should be doing as much as possible. Simple little tests like a proposed new pricing approach, a product brand name change or testing a revamped advertising campaign are all useful uses of the ‘crowd’.

The key is to think carefully before you do it, so you gather the right data for the right reasons by asking yourself a few questions:

  1. What marketing decision do you want to make from the information gathered?
  2. What information do you need to gather to make that decision?
  3. Who are the best ‘crowds’ to gather that information from i.e. those that reflect your market?

A simple framework can help you use the wisdom of the crowd to make some smart marketing decisions, rather than just gather a large number of useless ideas. Expecting crowdsourcing to be magical way to dream up ideas or slash costs through cheap labour will be a recipe for disappointment.

For the moment I’ll stick to writing my own columns.

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