Many entrepreneurs feel like they have to do everything alone – including coming up with new ideas, making customer profiles, marketing and developing new products. The evolution of the internet and digital marketing makes it a lot easier for businesses to get input from others via crowdsourcing. No matter what your cause or need, this method of engaging the public can catapult a start-up to new levels.
What Exactly Is Crowdsourcing?
Let’s start by making a clarification. Crowdsourcing is when a business asks the public for help with just about anything related to their business. They could be looking for services to help them grow, information to help them develop new products, or ideas for future services or events. Crowdfunding is when a business asks for money. Crowdfunding is a form of crowdsourcing, but it is only one item that falls under the much broader crowdsourcing umbrella.
Crowdsourcing in general has been around for hundreds of years. We just never gave it a formal name until the Merriam-Webster dictionary added it in 2006. The original theory is that even though an individual may not have a correct answer or idea to solve a question or puzzle, the collective crowd can come together with an average that produces the desired solution. For example, a British scientist surveyed a group of 700 people, asking them to guess how much an ox at the county fair weighed. While no one person guessed correctly, the average of all of the answers was almost perfect.
Common Examples of Crowdsourcing
Businesses of any size can use crowdsourcing to generate ideas or to outsource tasks; both have unique applications in the right space. While crowdsourcing can save companies money, they also often force the company to give up control over their products.
Here’s an example: OpenOffice, a popular free alternative to traditional office processing suites, is a crowdsourced product that uses open-source concepts to maintain itself and grow. Open-source software allows any programmer to access the code and make changes or upgrades.
Waze is another great example of effective crowdsourcing. Users put the Waze app on their phone and can then report information on traffic jams, road closures, and even gas prices. People are more than willing to share valuable information when they know they will be able to get the same in return when they need it.
Even big brands like Lego are using crowdsourcing techniques to figure out what new design kits they should put out. Think about it — there are literally dozens on store shelves at any given time, ranging from small kits to huge box sets that run hundreds of dollars at a time. Lego lovers can submit design ideas on their website and the company then makes them all available to the public for voting. The best ideas get turned into products and the winning designer even gets a 1 percent cut of the revenue.
Of course, not all crowdsourcing campaigns have had the results the organizations running them have hoped for. Take NASA’s campaign to name a section of the International Space Station, for example. While they were bright enough to anticipate some of other campaign’s issues, they still allowed people to write in their own suggestions. Word got to Stephen Colbert, who told his fans to vote for him. He technically won the vote, but NASA opted to reject the suggestion.
The story of Boaty McBoatface garnered international attention after the UK science ministry opened the polls to the public to name a research vessel. Imagine their surprise when someone submitted the ridiculous name and the public jumped on it. They, again, were smart enough to reserve their rights when naming the boat. The actual polar research vessel is known as the RRS Sir David Attenborough and the Boaty McBoatface name was set aside for future use.
How Start-Ups Can Benefit from Crowdsourcing
Start-up businesses can benefit quite a bit from crowdsourcing, especially in their formative weeks, months, and years. Let’s face it, a lot of start-ups don’t have a ton of money to spend; a limiting factor when it comes to growth. Business owners can use this technique to:
- Find low-cost creatives. It doesn’t matter if you need a writer, video editor, or graphic designer. Sites like Fiverr offer lower-end options while groups like 99Designs allow you to source things like logos and branding materials for varied prices.
- Social media management. New entrepreneurs are busy, so having someone available to help you get your social presence up and running is critical. This task may include not only page management, but the curation of user-generated content as well.
- Brainstorm. Simply putting a question out to the public will give you an idea of what they want or what they expect. Campaigns like this can be run off of your website or off of platforms like Innocentive. Even social media works.
- Problem-solving. Have a real problem that needs to be solved. The public may have great ideas. Not only will they have the right ideas, but they’re often willing to band together to help. A perfect example of this the community response that occurred after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Community groups and churches used crowdsourcing to gather supplies, deliver food and water, and even help with clean-up efforts.
- Customer engagement. Engagement is critical right now. Crowdsourcing is a win in that start-ups get great ideas and information and, if run on the right social platforms, increased engagement at the same time.
A Note About Crowdfunding
While crowdfunding is a form of crowdsourcing, it has limited benefits. That isn’t to say raising money isn’t incredibly important, but any business looking to crowdfund should also find ways to ensure the communities contributing feel as though they have some sort of input. This is why you’ll see a lot of start-ups start with crowdsourcing campaigns for ideas before they launch their fundraisers. Sites like Kickstarter or Patreon even allow start-ups to offer rewards to those who donate or subscribe, giving contributors early-access to the newest products or services.
They key to any crowdsourcing campaign is to maintain control of your brand and how it ultimately appears to the public. Sure, asking people to contribute names is a great idea but only if done in a way that doesn’t pigeonhole your company into sounding silly if things go haywire. That said, the benefits of crowdsourcing far outweigh the risks and the potential for stellar new ideas to be born is definitely worth the effort.