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Crowdsourcing – a little bit of theory to catch up with the practise

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5 October 2009

First, can I just say that I really don’t like the term crowdsourcing.

Why? Crowd to me sounds like just more jargon – a bit like oft used tribes. And Source? Well, this a sibling of that other contentious word – outsourcing. Many of the most successful platforms in this area – like Wikipedia – are not commercial in nature at all. “Crowdsourcing” is so much more than just a management strategy to cut costs.

We know “crowdsourcing” is powerful (our logo came via a “crowd”), but how do you fully harness this power? How do you decide what functionality to have to maximise contributions?

We have just been asked to help conceptualise and build a “crowdsourcing” platform. A platform for collective ideas generation. It should produce better creative ‘concepts’ and get the right people to execute them. Importantly – unlike similar solutions out there – it is different in that it would not be open to everybody.

So I’ve been looking at many online examples to see what’s out there in the ‘wild’. That’s important because as an MIT’s Sloan management review study – Decisions 2.0: The Power of Collective Intelligence – acknowledges: practise is still some way ahead of the theory.

Of all these platforms, the ones that have impressed me most for the purpose of what we are building are – in no particular order:

CrowdSpring – Focused on design (graphic, web, product), it already has a big community of designers and people requesting designs. The requester or buyer can interact directly with creatives and picks the winner. Anybody can be a buyer or a creative, and portfolios are public. A whole set of metrics are visibly published so buyers and designers can make decisions based on reputation. This reputation dashboard also serves to regulate behaviour.

Eyeka, a French platform, is a social network for creatives. It also allows brands to run design competitions. Each competition gets its own URL so the creative process and the selection of a winner becomes a marketing exercise in itself. The community picks the winners through a voting system. Anybody can join Eyeka.

InnoCentive is one of the most talked about collective platforms. Here seekers post sophisticated challenges they want solved – like a computational problem. The challenges are public and so are the profiles of the solvers. All challenges have monetary incentives. Anybody can join InnoCentive.

And then there’s the Dell and Starbucks Idea platforms built on top of Saleforce.com platforms. These two have been discussed in many good social media books, from Forrester’s Groundswell to Jeff JarvisWhat would Google do, and many more. For a reason. They are very active and work. Anybody can post an idea and others can comment or vote on it.

There are also some much smaller networks. London is the home of Radar Music Videos, a small social network for video directors, which also allows commercial briefs to be posted. You have to pay a small membership fee to access briefs and post videos. The network seems quite active, but alas it does not have that many briefs.

It is worth noting that there are many platforms out there that look like they are on their last legs, virtual tumble weed is blowing across interfaces barren of users.

I don’t need any convincing about the power of digital media to harness sharing of all kinds of things. So what did I learn?

Incentive is the key issue. People’s motivations as to why they take part in these things will determine the platform’s functionality, its mechanisms. As the above mentioned MIT study says:

“An application that taps into collective intelligence for improved decision making may be simple in concept, but it can be extremely difficult to implement. As with many systems, the devil is definitely in the details.”

The devilish details

The so-called devil’s in the detail. So what are some of these details?

How much control do you exert?

Jeff Jarvis says give up control, the users will take control and run with it – more often than not in a good way.

But do you give your ‘crowd’ the ability to choose winners (for example)? What if you don’t agree? If you manage to build a platform where a number of people have contributed to a creative approach, do you split the rewards between them? How? Do you let them decide? Should brands be able to interact with the community directly? These are just some questions we will have to face shortly.

Diversity vs expertise

You have to get the balance right. If your collective is not open, how do you choose participants? If it’s a small group of experts, how good will they be at evaluation (studies show diverse and large groups are better at evaluation – and I will blog about that tomorrow)? If your members don’t like each other, are they likely to stay?


What motivates people varies wildly – the MIT report explains:

“Incentives such as cash rewards, prizes and other promotions can be effective in stimulating individuals to participate in activities like prediction markets, for which explicit rewards seem to matter greatly. With other applications — for example, submitting T-shirt designs to the Threadless Web site — cash rewards seem to matter less than recognition. Value-driven incentives can also be important. As the open-source movement, Wikipedia and other similar efforts have shown, participation in a community, the desire to transfer knowledge or share experiences, and a sense of civic duty can be powerful motivators.”

Another problem is keeping people engaged over time. And if your users are primarily incentive-driven and there’s too many competing for a limited pool of cash, then what?

So how do you measure success?

Well it obviously depends on the goal of your platform. But there is one important way to measure success. Is it being used?

“Engagement should not to be taken lightly. Indeed, for a large fraction of Decisions 2.0 projects that have flopped, the primary cause of failure appears to be a lack of engagement. Participants expect to be treated in a certain way and, more often than not, they also want the organizers of the application to be engaged as well.”

With a little uncommon sense, a little theory and many examples of what has worked and what not, you should have as solid a start as you can hope for.

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