Should brands ask the "crowd?"

The SXSW Interactive conference featured more than a dozen different sessions on the topic of crowdsourcing: the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an individual employee or team, to an undefined, large community or group of people.

The SXSW Interactive conference featured more than a dozen different sessions on the topic of crowdsourcing: the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an individual employee or team, to an undefined, large community or group of people. 

Given the success that large brands have had with this approach, from Dell's IdeaStorm to My Starbucks Idea, it's no surprise that others are interested.

One panel really captured my interest by asking the question, “Is crowdsourcing the enemy of innovation?” As companies increasingly turn to the “crowd” for ideas and input, are they losing sight of their strategic visions and letting critical business decisions be made through popularity contests? 

The panelists debated the topic and more or less concluded that there is value in crowdsourcing when it's done right, but companies must know when and how to tap the wisdom of the crowd. 

Based on my own experience and insights from the session, I'd offer the following guidance to brands considering crowdsourcing as a strategy:

Know when to ask the crowd. For crowdsourcing to succeed, you must have a highly engaged audience that wants to join you in co-creation. This isn't the case for all brands. Sometimes, even loyal users of a product or service aren't that passionate about shaping it. In other cases, people expect innovation and problem solving to be the responsibility of the company.

Take BP. Last year, the company posted a form link on its oil spill response website that read, “Do you have ideas to help us?” This sparked an impassioned debate online about whether BP should crowdsource solutions, with many people voicing anger that if BP is the expert, and BP created this mess, they should fix it.

Consider engaging a smaller sub-set of the crowd. It's also important that you engage a crowd with relevant expertise. For Starbucks, its loyal customers are highly qualified to provide ideas about coffee, the in-store experience, and Starbucks' community involvement. But, as one SXSWi audience member remarked, you wouldn't want to crowdsource open heart surgery; you leave that to doctors.

Brands should think carefully about the areas where they wish to drive innovation. They may obtain higher quality ideas by engaging a smaller group of people – perhaps a specific segment of their customer base, their employees, or a community of experts – rather than all customers or the entire world.

It's not enough to say, “We're listening.” Before a company asks the crowd for input, it must commit to seriously considering and acting on their ideas. Crowdsourcing is not a PR play. Beyond commitment, it's important that companies have a structured idea management process in place – a process through which top ideas are evaluated by business leaders, decisions are made, and actions are communicated back to the community. Even if popular ideas cannot be implemented, which is often the case for business reasons, companies earn the trust of the crowd by communicating the reasons why.

Don't underestimate the importance of individual genius and leaders with a clear vision and conviction. While consumers like to be heard, they mostly desire a product or service that meets their needs, or better yet, truly “wows” them. Sometimes, crowdsourcing leads to something greater than any one person could create, but often, remarkable innovations are created through individual genius.  One panelist compared Gap's “I hear you” approach to Apple's “I tell you” approach. Apple fans know what the company stands for, and they trust the geniuses who work there to deliver.

So my response is: no, crowdsourcing is not the enemy of innovation. Crowdsourcing can be a brilliant strategy to drive innovation if approached in a thoughtful manner and not relied upon in isolation to guide all of the brand's decisions.

Brooke Hovey is SVP of digital and MD of Cohn & Wolfe's Austin office. 

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