Sourcing a Crowd

Not all too long ago I referenced “Crowdsourcing” in my introduction of “Wired” magazine’s small business program (http://www.wired.com/wiredsmallbizprogram/video.html?autoplay=0). Crowdsourcing is the title given by Jeff Howe for the recent phenomenon that relies on the services provided by user participation rather than direct employees. Ever since the Internet has become the activity of choice, people can gather without any regard to physical proximity but on the basis of shared interest and intent. Howe demonstrates Crowdsourcing through stock photo services like “Shutterstock” that call on a generalized anyone to provide photographs instead of contracting a particular photographer for a specific contract. Because digital cameras are ubiquitously inexpensive, image editing software is reasonably simple to use and affordable, and the internet makes it possible to distribute these photographs nearly anywhere, the playing field between professional photographers and hobbyists has been more or less eliminated since the qualitative gap between the two is not broad enough to make it valuable. What used to be a stroke of luck that connected the right image with the right buyer requiring handshakes and all the other aspects of human interaction, can now be handled with a quick category search and a purchasing click.
For those interested in Crowdsourcing to better communicate with some of the populations, Jeff Howe offers several points of advice. Picking the right crowd is terribly important. With over 1.3 billion Internet users, only 5,000 users suffice for an accurate “reading” –the catch is that you have find the “right” (read: population group somehow involved in your endeavor) 5,000 users that will benefit your cause.

In order to find those “right” people, you have to in turn find the right incentives. In contrast to direct employment, Crowdsourcing does not necessarily rely on direct payment, though it cannot be discounted altogether, but might involve the opportunity for a user to attain personal glory or to improve their skills and abilities.

The next rule of Crowdsourcing states that you must be sure to gather your information in a way that your whole population group’s results are complete. Even though creative capacity and judgment are always evenly distributed, you cannot count on time and attention to be so. Therefore you must limit the amount of information you gather to the lowest common denominator to ensure it all participants’ input can be accurately  registered.

One last thing to keep in mind; Crowdsourcing will not necessarily save you labor, time, or money, so it is best to evaluate your main objectives before deciding to go through with a project. Howe provided the example of a Heinz Ketchup commercial. In order to use a consumer made 30 second commercial, Heinz had to make a commercial about making a commercial—and so on. This route is less direct than traditional advertising. But then again, the intention should be different as well. If you are positive that you want to create a better product and a more meaningful collaborative relationship with your customers, it should be worth it to you to Crowdsource. A lot of these ventures do not begin as moneymaking ventures, but as services to bring people together in a meaningful collaborative event. Build it, and they will come.

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