SXSW: Crowdsourcing 2.0 Masters the Mob
There's a thin line between a constituency and a mob, and nowhere does that line matter more than in the world of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing, the same mass-input model that runs Wikipedia, has become a major source of input for companies looking to turn their customers into contributors. Unfortunately, an Internet culture that values snark complicates matters, turning those who want to use crowdsourcing into a cross between campaigning politicians and lion tamers.
When crowdsourcing began, companies wondered whether it would work. Now, they wonder if it is working too well, as angry crowds threaten to commandeer brands away from the companies that started them, and groupthink overwhelms individual creativity. Speaking at a panel on March 15 at the South By Southwest music, film and interactive technology conference , some of crowdsourcing's founders looked back at what they hath wrought, and where to go from here.
I think there's a fundamental mind flip going on right now when you ask the question, Where do great ideas come from? We used to live in this world where the job of the leader was to come up with all the answers and all the great ideas," said Polly LaBarre, co-founder of the Management Innovation Exchange. "You have to understand that nobody is smarter than everybody. There's lots of juicy things set up in that space."
Since crowdsourcing became a potent force in design and development five years ago, companies have reacted differently to it, and the results have taught the first generation of crowdsourcing specialists the limitations of the system. Famously, the GAP clothing brand fell victim to a fickle online mob when it went through a number of logo changes that left no one happy. Conversely, Apple has a history of success that comes from using trained specialists to tell the crowd what to want, not the other way around, said Robson Grieve, business director of the marketing agency Creature.
Even worse, the crowd tricked the Australian breakfast spread company Marmite into changing the name of a new product to Marmite 2.0, after corporate executives failed to realize that the people who responded their crowd request were playing a joke on them, said Jeff Howe, founder of crowdsourcing.com.
According to the panelists, all those cases taught the same lesson; namely, that crowdsourcing works only when you build a relationship with your customers. An active back and forth, the presentation of rewards for participation in crowdsourcing endeavors and a sense of humor allow corporate leaders to find the legitimate in even the most vicious trolling.
Trollery is the hate speech, the useless comments. People may be bitching at Starbucks, but taken together, they just saying they want a free drink every once in a while. That's useful to the company," Howe said.
To help generate that trust more quickly, the panelists suggested that the future of crowdsourcing may lie in simply choosing more specialized crowds.
For instance, Eli Lily has a crowdsourcing program, but they exclusively use participants who work in the biological sciences, Howe said. Only about 40 percent of the crowd has Ph.D.s , but the interplay between those with doctorates and those with more general scientific knowledge created a group output of much higher quality than Eli Lily expected from a crowd composed mostly of people with lower degrees.