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Crowdsourcing as a Marketing and Research Tool

A chess pawn with a crown is in the center of a chess board, flanked by rows of other pawns

Crowdsourcing is the practice of turning to a large number of people (typically via the Internet) for ideas, work, funding, or other input. Any distributed method of production or problem solving can be regarded as a form of crowdsourcing; it boils down to making an open call for input that would otherwise need to be undertaken by employees or a vendor.

Taking a myriad of forms, crowdsourcing can involve finding fresh approaches to large problems (macrotasking), breaking a large task into many small ones done in parallel (microtasking), gathering opinions or ideas (crowdvoting), fundraising (crowdfunding), and much more.

New Word, Old Idea

A portmanteau of “outsourcing” and “crowd”, as buzzwords go, crowdsourcing is a recent coinage – it originated with Wired magazine editors Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson in 2005 – but the concept itself is certainly not new.

Just a few examples of crowdsourcing that predate the term:

  • Inducement prizes offered for technological innovation (such as the Longitude Prize in 1714 that led to development of spring-regulated chronometers, and the Orteig Prize in 1919 for the first non-stop transatlantic flight) inspired the X Prize Foundation which has spurred technological innovation in fields like spaceflight, automotive efficiency, environmental cleanup, artificial intelligence, and many more since 1995.
  • Open Source Software development allows programmers the free use of existing source code to build upon, with the condition they freely share their changes, refinements, and innovations. This system brought us too many software innovations to count, including Linux, Apache, Mozilla, etc.
  • Distributed computing projects allow volunteers to donate idle computing power to data analysis or complex mathematical problems. One such project called SETI@home has analyzed radio signals in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence since 1999.
  • Wikipedia is a reference compiled by volunteer writers, editors, and moderators, just as the Oxford English Dictionary began as a 19th-century philological society project utilizing the effort of some 800 volunteer lexicographers.
  • Innumerable design competitions, from Planters iconic Mr. Peanut, to the Sydney Opera House.

The advent of Internet-based publishing platforms and social media has radically changed the scale on which this kind of thing can be done; the crowd is bigger, and they can be reached faster.

Crowdsourcing of creative work like graphic design and photography has proliferated on the Internet to the extent that those fields have arguably been devalued. On the other hand, one could also argue there is an attendant drop in overall quality when art is crowdsourced, and the highly talented (and comparatively expensive) graphic designer will always have a market for their skill. Nevertheless, today’s technological ease of crowdsourcing creates ethical implications for the future of work itself.

A person writes in a notebook that has a page that says 'Your Design Here'.

Crowdsourcing as a Marketing Tool

Philosophical questions aside, on a practical basis crowdsourcing is a boon to the fields of marketing, market research, and advertising.

Ben & Jerry’s has long based their ice cream varieties on customer suggestions, and with their Do The World A Flavor competition they raised awareness of not only their brand but fair trade ingredient sourcing as well.

Mattel has used crowdsourcing to gather suggestions on the next career Barbie should have. Meanwhile, the Lego Ideas website is invigorating Lego’s design process by providing a means for fans of the building toy to submit future kit ideas and vote on them.

Lay’s recently crowdsourced ideas for new potato chip flavours, offering large cash prizes for the winners of their Do Us A Flavour contests. The resulting products were met with mixed success (Maple Moose chips were not around long), but million dollar prize payouts notwithstanding, the space leased in the consumer noggin was priceless.

Campaigns like these have benefits way beyond their immediate goals. Tapping your target audience for ideas makes that audience feel like contributors to your business, and news coverage of such a campaign is practically free advertising for the brand.

First Steps

Incorporating some kind of customer insight has become essential to a successful business model. You may want to take a crack at it if you need ideas for products, help with problem-solving, or if you just want a fresh perspective on your customer base; consider it a modern equivalent of the suggestion box, getting access beyond the “mind base” of your own organization.

You might begin with mainstream social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, all three of which incorporate polling features. Ask your customers about their preferences, post updates, and cross-link your posts to a landing page on your own website.

Some tips:

  1. Always use images
  2. Keep questions simple
  3. Ask questions one at a time
  4. Use hashtags to gain more reach
  5. Incentivize with a prize
  6. Cross-promote to other social media and/or advertisements
  7. Be sure to publicize the campaign’s results

Beyond social media, there are many websites dedicated to particular crowdsourcing tasks, especially namesourcing. These are just a few you could check out:

  1. namecontests.com is a framework for creating contests naming anything you can think of; a product, a pet, a band, even sourcing advertising slogans or taglines for your business.
  2. hatchwise.com is another tool for creative contests, but with a bent toward graphic design. Great for company names, product names, domain names, logo design, business card design, slogans, and much more.
  3. namestation.com is a domain name generator that takes your keyword input to create naming options you might not have thought of. It can also determine availability of the names it generates.
  4. namingforce.com is a hosting service of contests for creatively naming a business, product, or website.

Like any innovation, crowdsourcing is not the answer for everything. The quality of responses you get will vary, and sometimes turning to the crowd will just reveal that you actually know better! Don’t compromise, but don’t be afraid to try it either.

Learn more about other market research techniques, or contact us today for assistance.

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About the Author - Richard Erickson
A master of nit-picking and an artful user of words, Richard’s love of language began as a kid. He enjoyed reading (including reading the dictionary!), winning spelling competitions, and analyzing word usage. As senior editor and copywriter at Tenato, his 20+ years in information technology and the performing arts have enhanced both the technical and creative elements of his writing style.