Crowdsourcing: a 7+7 Primer (Pt. 1)

We write often about small businesses and startups and lean approaches to marketing and other business functions. Mid- to large-size companies can also benefit from the lean methodology and one way to do so is by actively leveraging crowds of workers: designers, software engineers, testers, writers, customer support people, customers, market researchers, and dozens of other groups via the Internet.

Crowdsourcing, like many business activities had distinct advantages both strategic and economic, but the process also comes with its own set of unique pitfalls and dangers. Careful planning and good management of the process can mitigate the risks, but it is crucial that managers understand some of the issues and challenges involved as well as best practices for successful crowdsourcing. I’ve created a list of 7 big-picture issues that companies should consider as they plan their crowdsourced projects. Next week I will discuss the 7 steps companies can take to ensure a successful outcome for their crowdsourced projects. Here then, 7 “Big Picture” thoughts on how best to crowdsource your next project.

1. Make a choice and determine a venue: The critical first question for a manager considering crowdsourcing is simple and binary: is it the best choice for this project? There are many ways to complete a project, and determining how to do so is not just a choice of economy, or convenience, but also a choice of value delivered. Crowdsourcing can be of substantial economic benefit, but this comes with some trade-offs as well. You must answer the question for yourself: do the benefits of the crowd outweigh the benefits of a more traditional outsourcing, partnering, or in-house approach?

If the answer too this is a ‘yes’ the next step is to determine the venue for your project. There are dozens existing online communities and platforms that managers can leverage for tasks ranging from transcription to translation (Amazon Mechanical Turk), QA to RD (uTest to Innocentive), and coding to composing (TopCoder to musikpitch); these are readily available and easy to use, but some companies have chosen to host their own crowds and develop their own technical capacity. Keep in mind that the existing services have already done a great deal of the heavy lifting and because of that, they can deliver great value to you. It takes time and commitment to build a community of skilled workers in any domain, as well as more time and money to build the underlying technology, infrastructure, policies and protections necessary to the process. A DIY approach to crowdsourcing makes sense for a long-term approach, but many companies will want to experiment and learn before they decide to build their own.

2. Manage the process: Be certain that you don’t simply throw open the doors to your project without thorough preparation, active involvement, and careful oversight. The assumption that, once launched, a project will run itself is a very dangerous expectation and can easily lead to the failure of the project, as well as a likely inability to repeat the experiment going forward. Actively managing a crowdsourced project is no more or less difficult than managing a project executed in-house, but does come with a different set of hazards. Remember the Internets are a wild and scary place populated with creatures rarely seen in your warm conference room, so keep in mind that a crowdsourced project can get out of hand and without your own diligent participation you risk the success of the undertaking.

3. Control quality: The quality of the final work product is a key goal when managing any product, project, or process and crowdsourced projects require your careful oversight to ensure high-quality. Because many crowdsourcing communities are open platforms which have low barriers to participation, the quality of the submitted work can often be subject to great (ahem) variability. The role of the project manager is to act as gatekeeper, curator, editor, and leader and this guidance is vital to the project’s success. Take care to quickly identify the best work being done and the most talented participants, then take the time to communicate directly with those workers. Just as quickly identify the low-quality work and politely (but firmly) discourage those workers from participating further. Some platforms provide tools to assist with this, but often it will be up to the manager to perform this role.

4. Recruit and manage the crowd: Essential to the success of your crowdsourced project is the crowd itself. Established communities have done much of this work for you, but you will have to take the time to recruit the appropriate talent to participate in your project. If using an established community, marketing your project to the community is critical and you should try to promote it however you can: via emails or messages, newsletter inclusion, or by leveraging any features the site may offer such as internal promotion packages and display placement options. If you are going the build-it-yourself approach careful use of social media tools, public relations, and other word-of-mouth tactics can help you to attract the right workers to participate. Keep in mind that established communities typically have their own rules and policies designed to help you succeed: codes of conduct, user agreements, community policing and enforcement protocols are often in place and if you decide to go it on your own, you will want to make sure you have thought these through and are ready to take action to enforce your policies.

5. Engage your audience: Part of the inherent beauty of crowdsourcing is its ability to engage audiences with brands or products and your project has this potential, too. In fact, many brands are leveraging crowdsourcing not just to deliver design assets or other collateral, but to engage their own customers or clients in the process. A great example of this is General Electric which in 2010 launched their Ecomagination challenge develop viable ideas for smart grid technologies. This 10-year project invites consumers. engineers, entrepreneurs, and other GE customers, clients, and vendors to participate in the process, engage with the brand, and add value to the GE community.

6. Train the crowd: Often times some or all of the crowd you recruit may not arrive with the skills required for your particular project. This is largely avoided when you use an established platform or community, but when building your own it is critically important. The first step is to devise a system that helps you to understand a worker’s skills; this can be via a survey, a quiz, or by requiring some other documentation such as a portfolio or resume that demonstrates their abilities. Once you have dome the initial triage, you can implement a training program to help those workers whose skills need improving before they can participate, videos or screencasts can be used to provide training as can written or illustrated materials. Some sites require a rigorous review of worker skills prior to allowing participation – for instance, companies like GeniusRocket and Victors & Spoils do a great job vetting their worker’s abilities before allowing a access to the community.

7. Anticipate pushback: While crowdsourcing is now a well-established business concept, in some quarters there is still strong antipathy towards the model. Traditional providers of services and other incumbents have expressed their concerns about job loss, downward pressure on wages, and other detrimental effects from this new form of competition. In many cases the objectors have protested actively via the social media, often working to organize campaigns against the companies that practice crowdsourcing. Their efforts mirror those of groups who noisily opposed the trend towards outsourcing in the 1990’s and, like the objections made 20 years ago, their arguments have done little  to slow the crowdsourcing trend nor to dissuade companies from using an incredibly powerful business stratagem.

Photo: Clive Power