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Crowdsourcing: Those that are willing to test & learn will be those that will win

01 Mar 2011  |  Neil Perkin 
Neil Perkin

Neil Perkin, founder of Only Dead Fish, says engaging audiences is arguably more important than it has ever been - an engaged audience interact more, come back more often, and are more likely to pass your content on. An engaged audience commands higher yields from advertisers. And all of that has pound notes attached to it...

Crowdsourcing is rapidly becoming something of an overused word, which probably indicates that it's somewhere near the peak of inflated expectations on the hype cycle.

But before the cynicism really kicks in and we slide headlong into the trough of disillusionment, it's worth considering what the long-term plateau of productivity might look like. Because one thing is for sure: the value that can be derived from more informed forms of collaboration with customers is here to stay.

Saneel Radia, director of innovation at BBH in New York recently gave a talk in which he drew a delineation between the different new forms of organisational model, which involve the active participation and collaboration of customers.

From crowdsourcing in its purest sense, where business goals are achieved through an open call for customers to submit ideas to improve products and services, and characterised by well worn examples such as Dell's Ideastorm and MyStarbucksIdea.

Through so-called 'group acheivement' models that facilitate collaborative accomplishment of goals - the best known examples of which include group buying models like Groupon, initiatives like Pepsi's Refresh project and crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.

To what you might call genuine Open Innovation, where organisational attention is often focused on facilitating a community of collaborators and customers that work with the company in co-creating products and services and then sharing the value that that process generates. Examples of this approach include the design community focused T-Shirt retailer Threadless and the disruptive community-based US car manufacturer Local Motors.

It's an important distinction because it expresses the many different types of value creation that are possible, facilitated by new technology, through more involved forms of collaboration with the people who were formerly known as your audience. The point is that with the relentless digitisation of media, the shift toward digital product development at agencies, and the way in which participative culture continues to become ever more entwined in the media ecosystem, the idea of what Saneel calls "serving as a scaffolding for customers to engage with brands beyond transactions" is a huge opportunity for agencies.

I'd argue that a similarly compelling opportunity exists for media owners. Clay Shirky once said: "Media is less and less often about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals, and more and more often a way of creating an environment for convening and supporting groups".

Media owners continue to seek new ways to engage audiences. This is arguably more important than it has ever been. An engaged audience interact more, come back more often, and are more likely to pass your content on. An engaged audience commands higher yields from advertisers. And all of that has pound notes attached to it.

The opportunity here for media owners is a form of interaction and participation that goes beyond commenting, rating, user-generated content and even reviewing. I'm talking about ways to involve audiences in the fabric of what you do.

The poster children for this new way of working have come from enlightened organisations that recognise the potential value of experimenting with new models and innovative ways of involving audiences in the very process of creating great content.The Guardian Open Platform for example. Or their collaborative project to investigate MPs' expenses that has seen over 27,000 people review over 220,000 pages of documentation to dig out stories in a way in which The Guardian editorial team couldn't possibly have had the resource to do.

Or the utilisation by several media owners including The Guardian and the BBC of Ushahidi, a non-profit crowdsourcing and visualisation platform that grew out of the need to map and record political unrest in Africa, to facilitate new forms of information gathering and citizen journalism. Or approaches that create stories from the audience themselves like those deployed by the New York Times including the development of data visualisations of audience activity, conversation and opinion, stories created from the curation of user-generated content, and the combination of different forms of curation, professional and social.

Of course it's inevitable that before we reach that plateau of productivity on the hype cycle that there will be a few speed bumps along the way: brands getting it wrong; the inevitable poor examples of consumer engagement; the failures. But it's interesting that one of the originators of a true community-driven crowdsourcing model Threadless, now more than a decade in existence, is now partnering up with other businesses and has set up a crowdsourcing platform so that other organisations and non-profits might benefit from its expertise in community-based design to further their own objectives and causes. It's another landmark in the development of a concept that has the potential to genuinely change the way in which we do things.

So I'd suggest that we have barely scratched the surface of what's possible. Social technologies have facilitated a huge opportunity for content producers of all kinds to establish new and mutually productive relationships with their audiences and I, for one, would welcome more experimentation. Those that are willing to test and learn will be those that will win.

Click here to read Neil Perkin's Blog or to follow him on Twitter

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