How to Boost Company Innovation with Crowdsourcing

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Traditionally, there’s been only one way for businesses to dream up ideas for great new products and services: good old-fashioned internal research & development.

With crowdsourcing, however, you can kick-start your innovation by harnessing the power of a large group of thinkers. Even so, most businesses are still slaving away on their own to find breakthrough ideas and solve problems, mostly through market research.

Instead, why not boost your innovation by letting the market do the research for you? 

In this guide, we’ll show you exactly how crowdsourcing can help. 

What is crowdsourcing? 

Put simply, crowdsourcing involves inviting groups to solve a common problem. Usually, crowdsourcing focuses on an online group of thinkers, but not necessarily.

Whereas traditional business innovation depends on internal talent, crowdsourcing takes a defined problem and turns it over to a wider pool of thinkers. These can be customers, fans, or specific communities of expertise (for example, software coders).

Crowdsourcing can be useful for companies at all stages of growth, including startups, scaleups, or established global businesses. 

To compensate participants, companies can offer payment for successful submissions (as with Lego’s fantastic Ideas Portal), or professional recognition (as with IKEA’s innovation platform). Fans always love the prospect of prizes, so competitions are great ways to attract new ideas.

Ikea Innovation Lab
IKEA’s innovation lab, the home of its crowdsourced product development. Source: Architectural Digest

With the emergence of crowdsourcing platform technology, crowdsourcing has never been easier. Instead of manually processing submissions, companies can now put the word out, wait for the great ideas to roll in, and manage the process at arm’s length.

Crowdsourcing isn’t just a way to find great new products, either – it can also be a way to find solutions to complex and niche processes. 

A great example here is Unilever’s Open Innovation portal, where the company seeks expert input on product freezing processes, transportation system solutions, and much more. 

As Forbes notes, crowdsourcing is a way to sidestep the limitations of traditional innovation, particularly by re-thinking the status quo. With crowdsourcing, companies can get access to ‘curveball’ ideas they might never have thought of otherwise. 

For innovation projects relying on disruptive new ideas, crowdsourcing offers a way to get access to valuable perspectives and experience.   

Why crowdsourcing works

Crowdsourcing allows companies a great way to short-circuit the innovation process. There are a few core reasons for this. 

A greater number of ideas in a shorter amount of time

Because crowdsourcing puts many minds to work in solving a problem, it generates a greater number of ideas than other forms of innovation. Even better, it can do this in a compressed period of time. 

This can be a major advantage for time-sensitive projects. That’s why organizations like NASA use crowdsourcing competitions to speed up the innovation process, such as its Space Robotics Challenge

Nasa Space Robotics
NASA’s Space Robotics Challenge gets great ideas, fast. Source: Robohub

Access to unexpected ideas

With crowdsourcing, companies and organizations can access completely unexpected ideas. Often, these unexpected ideas can contain valuable solutions, uncovering new and better ways of doing things. 

That’s because crowdsourcing relies on a lot of different people contributing their ideas. This dispersed thinking means companies aren’t reliant simply on individuals. Instead, they can sidestep conventional thinking and find ideas that are completely different. 

Idea voting and validation

Crowdsourcing also provides companies with a great way to test the popularity of new products or ideas before they put in the time and resources to develop them. This not only saves money but ensures wider market support before a product is released. 

One of the best examples of this idea validation in practice is the Starbucks ‘My Idea’ platform. Here, Starbucks invites its fans and customers to submit their suggestions for new products, as well as improvements to the company’s systems and processes. 

Within the platform, customers can vote on their favorite ideas, with a leaderboard showing the most popular ideas for each month. This platform has been a huge success for Starbucks, resulting in fan favorites like cake pops, as well as its famous frappuccino happy hour. 

Easier marketing and crowd buzz

Crowdsourcing isn’t just a great way to get access to ideas – it’s also an exciting spectacle for fans and customers. 

Because of the competitive element, crowdsourcing attracts wider public interest. The fact that anyone can submit their solution regardless of professional expertise or experience appeals to those who might have a great idea, but who wouldn’t be listened to otherwise.

The Lego Ideas website is one of the best examples of this kind of marketing buzz at work. Each time Lego rolls out a new crowdsourced product, the product has a list of fans ready and willing to line up to buy it. 

Usually, this kind of marketing would cost a lot to generate, but with crowdsourcing, there’s a community of fans and customers already paying attention.

How to crowdsource innovation 

Crowdsourcing might sound complex, but it doesn’t need to be. 

In practice, crowdsourcing can be broken down into five simple steps.

#1 Design the exercise (and write clear instructions)

The first and most fundamental step with crowdsourcing is to design the exercise and write clear instructions for participants that are easy to understand. 

To do this, you need to answer some basic questions about the process:

  • What are you hoping to achieve with the crowdsourcing? 
  • Are you looking for ideas about new products, processes, or systems?
  • How broad do you want the exercise to be? Is this a niche problem, or are you simply looking for the next ‘anything goes’ product idea? 
  • Who is going to manage the process within your company? 
  • How do you intend to recognize the winning entries or suggestions? 
  • What are the timeframes for the process?

Being clear on all of these questions not only makes it easier for participants to engage in the process – it also makes it easier for you to run it. 

If you can nail down these basics nice and early, you’ll have a better idea of how you want to manage the exercise, who is going to be responsible, and when the process will be finished. 

Being clear on these details also makes it more likely that you’ll end up with the results you need, rather than getting suggestions that don’t meet basic criteria.

#2 Choose a crowdsourcing platform 

Next, you need to decide where and how you’re going to host your crowdsourcing. 

Remember, you can decide to do this via your own company website, or via a social media platform like Twitter or Facebook. You could also decide to use a specific crowdsourcing platform.

When choosing a platform, you should be trying to automate as many of the manual steps as possible. This helps to save time, and also makes the experience consistent for participants. 

#3 Release the task and recruit the crowd

Now, you’re ready to put the task out there and start recruiting people to participate. This is where crowdsourcing starts to get exciting! 

Once your task is open for people to contribute, you need to make sure it’s getting in front of the right people. Think about the best ways to market the exercise, and build a clear and compelling story around it. 

For example, when BMW unveiled its self-driving car crowdsourcing project, it marketed the project to its community of fans, as well as to tech observers and automotive enthusiasts. This ensured the right people were aware of the task and could contribute their best ideas.

Bmw Self Driving Prototype
BMW’s self-driving crowdsourcing project relies on its community of fans. Source: Techcrunch

#4 Manage the process – and listen to participants

Successful crowdsourcing isn’t just about writing a great set of instructions – it’s also about actively managing the process as you go along. 

You need to respond to any questions participants have about the process, and to be clear in communicating any new pieces of important information. For example, if there’s a change in timelines, people need to know. 

Managing a crowdsourcing project also means having a fair and transparent assessment process. This makes it easier for participants to understand why they might not have hit the mark with their ideas, and how they can get it right next time.

#5 Select an idea and get building

Finally, you’ve got a winning idea (or ideas). Now, you’re ready to get building! 

For this stage of the process, communication is crucial. You want to unveil the winning idea in a way that grabs attention for the company, the participant, and the product. 

How exactly you end up building the product (or implementing the new process) will depend on your industry and the nature of your business. You may want to continue to work in collaboration with the winning participant in a co-creation program, or you may decide now’s the time to go it alone. 

Whatever you do, make sure you award due recognition to the winning crowdsourcing participant. This isn’t just the fair thing to do – it also maintains goodwill in your company, meaning future crowdsourcing efforts are more likely to be successful. 

Some common crowdsourcing mistakes to avoid

Now we’ve taken you through the five key steps to successful crowdsourcing, let’s discuss a few common mistakes you’ll want to avoid:

  • Not setting clear guidelines. The ideas you get are only as good as your guidelines and instructions. For example, this Chilean manufacturing outfit could only solve a key transport challenge because of its detailed crowdsourcing problem description.
  • Not being open enough. To truly succeed, crowdsourcing needs to be open to the largest possible group. As these case studies show, crowdsourcing that is too tightly defined can result in a narrow set of responses that don’t work.
  • Not giving participants enough recognition. Crowdsourcing is about recognizing the value of the crowd. Being insufficiently generous to participants (both successful and unsuccessful) can drain the goodwill and trust people have in your company.
  • A blinkered response to proposals. When sifting through the stacks of ideas and proposals, companies can focus too tightly on a single factor, such as cost or design time. This can mean some great ideas are passed over.
  • Using crowdsourcing for commercially sensitive projects. Not every project is suitable for crowdsourcing. If a project involves releasing commercially sensitive information, then consider a different innovation approach.

Put the power of crowd innovation to work 

Crowdsourcing innovation is a radical idea. As many observers have noted, it has the potential to transform business, technology, and even politics.

By crowdsourcing innovation, you can:

  • Speed up your idea generation and problem-solving processes 
  • Get access to unexpected ideas 
  • Validate thinking with voting and crowd responses
  • Make it easier to market products and generate buzz

Crowdsourcing innovation can seem complicated, but really it boils down to five key steps:

  1. Design the exercise (and write clear instructions)
  2. Choose a crowdsourcing platform
  3. Release the task and recruit the crowd
  4. Manage the process – and listen to participants
  5. Select an idea and get building

With these key steps, it’s easy to define your problem and start looking to the crowd for the best ideas. By drawing from the collective intelligence, you could find solutions you could never have dreamed of otherwise.

Think about whether crowdsourcing might be right for your company, and start putting the word out there!