Crowdsourcing is an amazing way to put many minds to work in solving tough problems.
By turning to a large group of people for ideas and solutions, crowdsourcing can generate a lot of benefits over internal ideation processes. Not only can businesses get access to great ideas, but they can also drive marketing buzz and engage their customers.
However, crowdsourcing isn’t always a walk in the park. There are also some things you’ll need to manage to make sure things run smoothly, like deciding who owns successful ideas, and who gets to profit from them.
In this post, we’ll outline six great reasons why you should use crowdsourcing to generate ideas:
- Unexpected solutions to tough problems
- Greater diversity of thinking
- Reduced management burden
- More marketing buzz
- Faster problem solving
- Customer-centric data
A quick definition
Put simply, crowdsourcing involves seeking knowledge, goods, or services from a large body of people. It’s a way of looking beyond a business or organization’s internal capacity for ideation, and turning the question over to a wider group of thinkers.
In practice, crowdsourcing takes a few different forms:
- Open innovation: Open innovation is a distributed, participatory approach to innovation recognizing that useful knowledge exists in a number of different places, including both within and outside a business.
- Co-creation: Co-creation involves businesses or organizations working alongside private or public individuals (usually customers or hard-core fans) to develop ideas for new products, services, and systems.
- Ideas portals: A form of open innovation, ideas portals are places for fans and customers (and sometimes employees) to submit their suggestions for products and services, and for solutions to tough problems.
Crowdsourcing sounds a lot like crowdfunding but the concepts are quite different. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and RocketHub provide places for individuals to seek monetary support to develop their projects, whereas crowdsourcing involves requesting ideas and knowledge, not funding.
A few examples of crowdsourcing
Whether you’re talking about space exploration, health policies and solutions or historical preservation, a wide range of businesses and organizations are turning to crowdsourcing to find their next great idea.
For example, in 2017 Mural Arts Philadelphia hosted its Monument Lab, a city-wide project asking residents to submit ideas for monuments to represent the city. This project increased awareness of the city’s history, and also resulted in some great monument proposals.
Then, there’s NASA’s extremely cool Space Robotics Challenge, where teams from around the world work to develop humanoid robots to help astronauts in future space exploration. With this competition, NASA channels expertise from the world’s top experts in robotics.
Finally, there’s the Mayo Clinic’s seizure forecasting project, where hundreds of software developers contribute their time and experience to build and test algorithms to make lives easier for sufferers of epilepsy and other neurological conditions.
So, whether companies or organizations are using social media or crowdsourcing platforms to access an online community of thinkers, these exercises are a great way to access new ideas.
However, new ideas aren’t the only benefit of crowdsourcing. Let’s take a look at the six great benefits of this fantastic ideation technique.
1. Unexpected solutions to tough problems
The most significant benefit of using crowdsourcing is the ability to find unexpected solutions.
When a business or organization considers problems internally, it’s easy to fall into existing modes of thinking. After all, if a company has been doing something a certain way for a long time, it can be hard to break out of this habit.
This kind of status quo inertia is a major problem for all kinds of businesses. It’s one of the reasons why innovation geniuses like Steve Jobs place such a high priority on bringing in experts from outside the business to challenge conventional thinking.
This is why crowdsourcing provides such a huge advantage. By involving a broader group of people in solving a problem, a company can gain access to hundreds or even thousands of different approaches to problem solving.
A great example of the benefit of crowdsourcing is Unilever’s Open Innovation portal. Here, the company asks experts around the world to contribute out-of-the-box solutions to tough problems like sustainable packaging and product cooling technologies, with unexpected results.
2. A greater diversity of thinking
Putting a wider pool of people to work can also unlock a greater diversity of thinking, as well as unexpected ideas.
For many businesses, especially smaller businesses, staffing levels may not provide the level of innovation diversity needed to solve the truly tough problems.
Crowsourcing can change all that. By inviting a broader group of thinkers to participate in a problem solving exercise, a company can get access to a mixture of knowledge, experience, expertise, and contexts it wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
Lego’s Ideas Portal is a great idea of this innovation diversity in action. By asking fans around the world to submit their ideas for new Lego sets, the company gets access to a truly diverse set of thoughts and preferences and ends up with suggestions for amazing new products.
3. A reduced management burden
The management aspect of crowdsourcing isn’t something that’s as well-understood as the other benefits, but it’s a significant advantage.
When businesses innovate internally, there’s often a significant management burden placed on whoever is leading and organizing a project. Thinkers and designers need to be reminded to contribute their ideas, and sometimes need to be encouraged along the way.
With crowdsourcing, a business or organization just sets clear terms and conditions for the exercise, then lets the ideas roll in. This hands-off approach takes less time than traditional ideation processes and can free people up to focus on other more exciting things.
However, this also means there’s less control over the ideation process - more on this to come.
4. More marketing buzz
Because it’s an engaging public spectacle, crowdsourcing can be a great source of marketing buzz.
Rather than just resorting to the same old traditional problem solving processes within a business, crowdsourcing has a communal and competitive aspect to it. This not only helps to build a greater network of fans, but gives people something to talk about, too.
This marketing buzz is why companies like Frito-Lay turn to the public for competitions like their ‘Do Us a Flavor’ contest, asking chip fans to submit their best - and wackiest - ideas for new potato chip flavors.
Here, the snack company not only gets the chance to develop ideas for what may become immensely popular products, but they also get a huge amount of media coverage for their existing products. It’s a win-win.
5. Faster problem solving
Crowdsourcing isn’t just about getting access to the best ideas - it’s also about finding ideas as quickly as possible.
When businesses solve problems internally, they’re constrained by how fast their employees can work. After all, even a company’s superstar innovators can only work so fast.
By inviting a wider pool of people to participate in the process, companies can get great ideas in a far shorter timeframe. For time-sensitive projects like medical research or emergency software patches, this can make all the difference to project success.
A great example here is the Human Genome Project, an international effort to map out the human genetic code in full. This project harnessed the work of scientists across 20 institutions from six different countries and was completed in 2003 after just 13 years of work.
Without crowdsourcing this work across multiple institutions, this project would probably still be stuck in its early stages today. That’s the power of crowdsourcing.
6. A rich source of customer data
Finally, crowdsourcing also offers businesses and organizations a detailed window into their most dedicated fans and customers.
For companies like Starbucks, with its My Starbucks Idea portal, crowdsourcing is much more than just a way to get great new ideas. By collecting and analyzing information about participants, Starbucks can also gather extremely valuable customer profile information.
For example, what are the core demographics of those submitting? Which communication mediums are best for connecting with these individuals? And what do the responses themselves tell you about the tastes and preferences of the company’s most dedicated fans?
This shows that the benefits of crowdsourcing extend beyond just the solutions themselves. Done correctly, crowdsourcing can also generate compelling customer insights.
The disadvantages of crowdsourcing
Obviously, we’re big fans of crowdsourcing as a way for all kinds of businesses to gather new ideas. Even so, it wouldn’t be fair if we only covered the good stuff!
So, now that you’ve heard the pros, here are some of the disadvantages of crowdsourcing you’ll need to keep in mind.
If any of this sounds tough, don’t worry. While you need to consider each of these factors in turn, there’s no reason to be put off completely.
Confidentiality and intellectual property
While turning the question over to external parties creates a lot of benefits, it also has intellectual property implications.
If a participant submits a valuable idea, and the company puts this idea to use, both parties need to be absolutely clear as to who owns the idea, and who should benefit from it.
There’s also the question of confidentiality. When asking people for their solutions, a company may need to share sensitive information to get a solution that will actually work.
For example, if a company is seeking solutions to a product packaging problem, this can be a signal that there is some deficiency in the company’s existing packaging systems.
If a project relies on commercially sensitive information, it may not be appropriate for crowdsourcing. In this case, you’re best to stick with old-fashioned internal ideation.
Less control over the process
As we mentioned earlier, crowdsourcing involves less of a management burden for companies.
While this can be a good thing, it also means that crowdsourcing projects aren’t as easy to manage and control as traditional internal projects. That’s because a company can’t control the behavior of every participant in the process.
For a hilarious example of how this can go wrong, check out the New Zealand government’s attempts to seek public submissions on the design of its new flag, including the classic lazer-eyed kiwi.
Risk of inconsistent outcomes
Crowdsourcing can result in some amazing off-the-wall suggestions. Sometimes these are useful, but sometimes they can be simply inconsistent with the desired outcome.
For example, let’s say a car brand hosted a competition to crowdsource suggestions for a new model of electric car. Without providing clear instructions for the exercise, the company could end up with proposals that were impossible to manufacture. That wouldn’t be much use at all.
That’s why it’s so important for businesses and organizations to set out in clear and specific terms what they expect from participants, and what participants can expect from them in return. This gives everyone certainty about the crowdsourcing exercise.
It doesn't have to be hard
In fact, it can be as simple as asking your fans and customers for their suggestions in whatever medium works for you - Twitter, Facebook, mailing list, or a dedicated crowdsourcing portal.
If done correctly, crowdsourcing can have the following benefits for businesses:
- Unexpected solutions to tough problems
- A greater diversity of thinking
- A reduced management burden
- More marketing buzz
- Faster problem solving
- A rich source of customer data
However, before you race off and start asking the public for input, you need to consider the disadvantages of crowdsourcing, too. These include confidentiality considerations, questions of control over the process, and the risk of inconsistent outcomes.