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Basic Challenges of Crowdsourcing

We are pulled toward shiny, new technology baubles, especially ones that promise greater customer intimacy and profits. Crowdsourcing is gaining traction after a couple of years of finding successful case studies (e.g., Threadless) that prove the concept…at least for specific applications.

Historically, other shiny baubles, like early dotcoms and CRM, lost their luster when they failed to live up to expectations. In hindsight, we learned, “This could be a great addition to our tool chest. We should learn how to use it next time.” History will repeat itself.

Crowdsourcing is so new that there are few real experts in it. But, a critical look at the social and business challenges and Web 2.0 technology platforms that support crowdsourcing reveals important clues about how to manage crowdsourcing effectively.

As Donald Trump once said, “If you manage the downside, the upside takes care of itself”. In her post about the challenges of crowdsourcing, Monica Hamburg does us all a great service by stripping the silvery patina off crowdsourcing and looking carefully at the cold gray steel underneath.

Among Monica’s observations, which I’m paraphrasing, are the following:

  • Questionable wisdom. Not all crowd members act in the spirit of crowdsourcing or are well-intended. Just look at the stream of comments following a Youtube video.
  • Limited demographics. The typical web user is white, middle- or upper-class, English speaking, higher educated and with high-speed connections.
  • Myopic understanding. Crowds may not have enough understanding of your industry to make educated decisions.
  • Limited control. Loss of control can result in crowdslapping, where the crowd turns on you and your brand. This may not be avoidable, especially if you want to encourage open dialog, which is the whole point of crowdsourcing.
  • Lower quality. Quality expectations for some tasks should be lower, not higher, depending on the task that you’re asking the crowd to do.
  • Insufficient programming. This is the digital analog to coffee, donuts and engaging events, which, if missing, will result in the crowd moving on.
  • Leadership. Lest your crowd detect they’ve entered a space where anarchy reigns, you’ve got to have a socially astute host who introduces topics, moderates discussions with a light and easy hand and celebrates victory when the crowd takes ground.
  • Exploitation fears. Key contributors expect and deserve rewards for their participation. These need to be spelled out in advance and followed through religiously.

Each of these challenges are overcome with a little forethought and deliberate action. Effective crowdsourcing starts with defining the problem that you’re going to ask the crowd to solve. The assignment needs to be specific, measurable, easily understood, and framed in a way that engages the right crowd.

Threadless is a great example of engaging a crowd to solve attractive new product development problems. The crowd designs t-shirts and votes on the winners. Threadless draws the right crowd, designers who can really design creative, off the wall t-shirts. Their reward system is transparent and straight forward: winning designers get $2,500 in cash and gifts. Their website is fun, engaging and serves as a catalyst for a creative community of talented artists.

Underlying their website is a savvy set of facilitators who change the website each day, posting recently submitted designs for sale and votes. This draws in a global talent pool that the company taps successfully and whom extend Threadless’s idea-generating capacity far beyond the walls of the company.

If your company is considering crowdsourcing, your approach should be equally clear and compelling.

This post only covers the basics of effective crowdsourcing. There will be more to come.

July 8th, 2008

Should Newspapers Lobby for Changes in Digital Copyright Laws?

Perhaps a “legal innovation” in favor of protecting those who actually produce the news, newspapers, is appropriate if not long overdue.

Continue Reading July 23rd, 2007

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