Paul Dumbowsky of Idea Vibes discussed crowdsourcing for innovation at the Online Research Methods conference in London last week. Why is crowdsourcing important? Paul quoted Yochai Benkler of Harvard: “The world is becoming too fast, too complex and too networked for any organization to have all the answers inside.”

When does crowdsourcing work well?

  • When looking for expertise from a range of sources,” Paul said. Crowdsourcing and social product development open up innovation to internal and external input. Crowdsourcing is especially useful for reaching what Paul calls “the emerging expert”: people outside the organization who know a lot about a particular subject. Such people are often online community leaders, product advocates or heavy contributors to the conversations that happen on social networks, forums, blogs, wikis, news sites, communities and other less expected online sites.
  • When funds and/or time are limited.” Especially when time is limited. For instance, BMW’s Virtual Innovation Agency received over 4,000 submitted ideas for products and designs within its first week.
  • When your target audience is largely online.” Online participation is still less for older age groups, for example.

When it comes to developing product roadmaps, the discovery and exploration phases can be augmented by crowdsourcing and social media research. Some of the benefits:

  • “Surfaces new perspectives”
  • “Invites participation from nontraditional sources”
  • “Infuses energy into the process of ideation”
  • “Empowers people”
  • “Builds engagement and relationships with new audiences”

Paul cited the traditional examples of idea communities – Salesforce IdeaExchange and Dell IdeaStorm – as sources of input for guiding product strategies, delighting existing customers and winning prospects over when they see the openness of the development process.

Paul went on to discuss two organizations that take their product roadmap to the ultimate end, sourcing the products themselves from the crowd. For instance, all the T-shirts on Threadless were designed by contributors—and voted for by the community. Quirky, an all-in-one product development shop for inventors, will take sourced inventions through research and development to manufacture and sales to their community (who votes on which ideas to develop).

Paul suggested the following best practices for using crowdsourcing and social media for innovation:

  • “Research customers and prospects where they live.” Find the conversations that are already happening and join in.
  • “Develop a culture of collaboration.” Employees and the crowd have distinct roles to play – you can’t replace employees with the crowd.
  • “Implement the right social technology to get the job done.” Choices range from social networks like Facebook to proprietary idea communities from a range of vendors.
  • “Offer the right incentive.” Idea communities need to be clear in their terms of service about what compensation will be provided for submitted ideas, if any. Most communities – including Salesforce and Dell – don’t provide any compensation: having better products is the reward for contributors. Both Threadless and Quirky are exceptions, taking the lion’s share of the revenue produced from the ideas they source.
  • “Let conversations happen in the open.” However, don’t be afraid of moderation – monitor contributions to make sure nothing offensive is posted. Be a “benevolent dictator”—let the community self-police.
  • “Be crowd friendly on an ongoing basis.” Make sure to support a diversity of participation and to make “outliers” feel welcome.

Do all this, Paul said, and you will “capitalize on valuable customer and prospect insight.”

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.