Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Is Crowdsourcing Ready for Prime Time? In Some Cases, Yes

It is easy to understand crowdsourcing's appeal to cash strapped companies: instead of launching a resource-intense internal initiative to advance a brand, or develop a product, for a lower cost it can tap the expertise of an online community. But as the idea gains traction - it was first introduced in a Wired magazine article in 2006 - it is becoming clear that there are limitations to how the model can be used, if the recently launched Republican initiative, America Speak Out, is any indication.

The site encourages visitors to suggest policy initiatives and then vote on the best ideas, writes Politico. The fourth most popular idea for improving national security? "We need to employ some of those invincible black knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail," the paper reports. Another popular suggestion: "all Americans should bathe in Nuclear Waste. This has been shown to be an effective tactic in the past of transforming the human body into something more powerful and superhuman. With a nation of powerful mutants, not only would we prevent ourselves from being invaded, we would have a wildly powerful offense with millions able to fly, shoot lasers from their eyes and take bullets."

Finding That One Good Idea

Clearly some of the posters have a sense of humor - or political inclinations that might not match up with Republican political philosophy and were interested in creating some mischief. Leaving aside the politics, the example does highlight one of crowdsourcing's chief limitations - how to separate the few stellar ideas from the mediocre and downright bad ones. Jez Frampton, CEO of Interbrand tells of a creative director who tried crowdsourcing for a specific campaign and within 48 hours had received hundreds of ideas. (via Forbes). "His office was flooded with ideas. So now he had an even bigger problem than not having the solution in the first place: how to sift through the offerings from the crowd."

The irony, Frampton said, was that the director and his team spent more time sorting through the input than they would have spent simply developing a good idea themselves. "At the end of the exercise they had nothing to add to their existing work on the brief. Much of the work was derivative, off-brief, superficial or just plain inappropriate."

None of this is to say that marketers should avoid crowd sourcing. On the contrary there are a number of uses - many that go beyond tapping customers for ad campaign ideas or user generated videos, according to Mashable.

One is web usability testing - that is, asking people how easy it is to use a website. Startups like UserTesting.com maintain a pool of participants who will offer their user experience within about an hour of a request. Based on demographics, UserTesting.com will find an appropriate and available tester in its pool, and delivers a video of him or her completing the tasks while thinking out loud, as well as his or her answers to specific questions, Mashable writes. The site charges the website designer $29-$39, who gets to keep and share the videos. Another example is Feedback Army, where companies submit questions about their sites, and the pool of testers choose which questions to answer.
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