Crowdsourcing: Cash in on the collective

I’m not a geek. I’m a geek-stalker. I like what digital is doing to the world. I don’t really understand it. But I like it. I like that I can rave about a book on Twitter and get a bashful thank you from the author and four recommendations for other books. I like that I can cruise MySpace and cackle over how boring old whatserface from school has become, since bearing her 13th bambino. But mostly I like the kind of collective, organic, strange creativity that happens in odd corners of the interwebs. The mashups and the memes. The crazy cross-border collaboration. The conversion of ideas into action in the time it takes to put the prototype up.

So why aren’t brands cashing in? Seems to me that there is suddenly the ultimate innovation and insight tool out there, and most brands are just faffing about on Facebook.

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I’m being glib.

There are reams of excellent examples of brands doing sterling work in the online space. Entire terabytes of case studies of awesome campaigns with awesome results. But a lot of it is still ‘listen to me’ rather than ‘let me find out what you think’ or even better ‘let me involve you and your fab ideas on the team’.

Co-creation is what the web is all about. Folk might pooh-pooh group think, but one only has to look at the number of memes infesting the web on any given day to see that one idea can spark a thousand (often better) iterations. The Cheezburger network is raking in the cash just because people like to share their ideas. Another example is P&G’s Connect & Develop programme which has shaved billions of dollars off their innovation funnel and produces more than 35% of the company’s most excellent new ideas.

Crowdsourcing, mass ideation, collaborative creativity – call it what you will – it’s a powerful too. As Yochai Benkler, one of the “leading intellectual[s] of the information age” points out, value creation is now out of the hands of the elite few and into the hands of the people. The combination of technology, intelligence and creativity allows for what he calls “social production” — people coming together to create and innovate. One look at Wikipedia is enough to make the point.

So why should brands be paying attention? What’s the benefit of ‘social production’ for innovation and insight?

It’s happening anyway
Consumers – people – are online talking about your products and services. Tracking and influencing those conversations is going to give you a good view on what people are thinking now. Likewise, you can be sure someone out there is wondering how to make a competitive or better product or service. A faster this or a more usable that. Imagine being able to engage that person in your innovation team.

Vocal and passionate
Your lovers and haters are out there. It doesn’t matter how niche your product or service, there will be a collection of people lurking on the net who will have a strong opinion and who will share it with you if you’re genuinely interested. Listen to the haters particularly. They’ll tell you more about what’s wrong with your offer and how you can get better than the people who love you.

Use the people who are willing to share their thoughts to help you invent, craft and test concepts. Imagine inviting your FaceBook or Twitter followers into a fan space to have a sneak peak of new ideas or to contribute to the decision making.

Do it right; with humility and transparency, and people will tell you what they think for free. But don’t drop them like a hot potato after your little project is over. Keep in touch. Tell them which ideas you used. Give them the first look at the new ad. Ask them if they’ll stick around for the next project. Make sure they know how much you value their engagement and contribution.

Concept development and testing can happen faster and more efficiently. In fact, you can even hand your concept development over to the crowd, like Idea Bounty does for clients’ creative briefs. There will always be a need for rigour in R&D, but as market pressure increases for ‘newer’ and ‘better’, using the ‘always on’ energy of the web can be useful to explore and refine ideas in real time.

Infinity and beyond
The trouble with traditional insight recruiting is that the demographics or attitudinal specifications for recruitment won’t always tell you what people really are. Consider the pin-striped banker who’s a biker on the weekends. Or the ballet dancer who kills orcs online in her spare time.

Tapping into the collective means your next big idea could come from a totally unexpected source, one you might not have included. A guy who’s always had a brilliant idea about tampons, but who’s never had the platform to share it. Or the bus driver who’s got a killer idea for ice cream cones.

There’s only one big watch out: don’t stalk, steal or steamroll. The community has a voice. And they can use it to help or to hurt you. Tramping around in big corporate boots isn’t going to unlock anything of value.

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