Crowdsourcing as a pure concept has been around for a while. In my business, you need look no further than the typical agency review in which a client invites multiple agencies to submit their best thinking and creative ideas (usually for no pay) and then picks the one it believes will do the best job.
The now ubiquitous online forum is another example of crowdsourcing. Have a problem or a question? Float it out there among the online masses and, if you’re lucky, someone will offer up the answer you need.
In the last couple of years, however, crowdsourcing and its counterpart co-creation have started to become business strategies if not actual models. Companies as diverse as Dell, Proctor & Gamble and Starbucks have aggressively pursued ways in which customers can help create or inspire new products (co-creation). And platforms such as Crowdspring have made it easy for companies to put projects from new applications to logo designs out for individual competition (crowdsourcing).
These practices, accelerated by the web and social media, raise all kinds of questions.
Will crowdsourcing and co-creation, by tapping into the talent of many more people, actually increase innovation?
Will they reduce the cost of development and design and along with it the salaries of people who create for a living?
Will they help in solving those large, unsolvable problems; everything from healthcare to education to global warming?
Will they change the traditional relationships between employers and employees?
And finally, are crowdsourcing and co-creation here to stay, or are they simply convenient alternatives to business as usual in a miserable economy.
In early August, I have the privilege of interviewing crowdsourcing advocate and believer John Winsor for the Ad Club of Boston. John is the VP/Executive Director of Strategy and Innovation at Crispin, Porter + Bogusky. He’s also the author of Spark: Be more Innovative through Co-Creation and Beyond the Brand: Why Engaging the Right Customers is Essential to Winning in Business.
John thinks crowdsourcing is here to stay. (In fact right now he’s crowdsourcing the manuscript for his new book Flipped.) In a recent Business Week editorial John argues that even after the global financial crisis comes to an end, the new marketplaces that support crowdsourcing will continue to evolve, offering “a more efficient and creative way for companies to engage with and harness the crowd for help.”
I agree for three reasons.
One: if businesses can find access to more ideas for less they will, down economy or not.
Two: today’s customers and prospects actually want a voice and a say in influencing a brand and its products. So they’re ready and willing to participate.
And three: there’s a huge and growing number of people who are motivated not just by the money, but by the fame and reputation that comes from being an influencer or co-creator.
However, there are at least three big questions that remain.
1. To what degree will companies change their entire models if they are to take full advantage of the crowd as their source of ideas? Will they cut employees and spend more money sourcing the crowd? Will they attempt to become more competitive by paying less for content and products? Will they be forced to work this way if their competitors do?
2. Will all workers have to become entrepreneurs? What if you’re a designer and all of a sudden all design work is solicited this way? Will you compete non-stop for opportunities? Will you be able to get use to the unpredictability of work and income? Will you resist even participating and urge others to do the same?
3. How will we manage collaboration? It’s common to write software this way. But what about projects or campaigns that call for everyone on the team to have a well-oiled working relationship, understanding and respecting each other’s roles, knowing how to seamlessly tap into institutional knowledge? Will crowdsourcing require organizations to learn new ways of encouraging collaboration in an era when everything – idea, design, technology, production – is more connected than ever?
These are some of the questions I’ll be asking John, who knows a lot more about it than I do. But I do know one thing. In the age of crowdsourcing, I’m supposed to ask you, the crowd for ideas. So, got any questions? Ideas? Answers? Please share.
Lots of debate this past week about Free, Chris Anderson’s new book. Anderson claims that no consumer under 30 will pay for content. And why should they? YouTube videos are free. Music can be had for free. Even the venerable NY Times is free.
Yet in a convincing review in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell disputes Anderson’s arguments, pointing out that free hasn’t worked as a business model, at least not for YouTube, one of the examples Anderson uses to prove his point. Emma Duncan, the brilliant Economist editor took a shot as well.
(Knowing that The Long Tail never panned out as predicted, Anderson is a good target).
On the other side of the argument, however, stands Seth Godin. On what might be one of the world’s most popular blogs, Seth gives Malcolm a verbal slap arguing that it’s too late: free is here and media properties like Wired and the New Yorker better start generating digital assets of true value or risk going out of business themselves.
However, two facts strike me of interest. The first is that I didn’t pay for any of the above. And that includes Anderson’s original Wired article that started this whole debate. So as a beneficiary of free, I’ve got no complaints.
The second, however, is that none of these writers/bloggers/critics would ever offer up their services without getting paid. Sure, Seth might bang out his daily blog post and not charge you to read it, but that’s what drives up the asking fee for his next book or speaking engagement. Anderson himself makes a hefty salary writing for Wired and last I checked Amazon was charging for his book.
It strikes me there are two different kinds of free. The free we all want to give away: in blogs, on Slideshare, in webinars. And the free we have to give away: news, music, speculative pitches (in my business). The former we give freely in hopes it will earn us attention, respect, confidence and eventual business. The latter we give reluctantly. But as wiki’s, Twitter and YouTube offer us information, news and entertainment (even though some of it’s crap) from a multitude of sources happy to share without charging, all content becomes devalued. This is, of course, what’s killing newspapers and eventually magazines.
This past Sunday the New York Times, in its lead business story, declared that blogs and Twitter are becoming the primary sources of information distribution for new companies and products, to such a degree that PR professionals don’t even bother with what used to be called mainstream media. They let the digital buzz generate excitement and the mainstream media will then take notice.
Still I’m pretty sure that the editors of Tech Crunch and GigaOM are getting paid, and if they have contributors sending them content for free, such as in the case of Mashable, those contributors are doing so in hopes of themselves earning more money elsewhere, their reputations enhanced by their bylines and visibility.
This, in fact, is one of Anderson’s key arguments. Media needs to find ways to convince contributors to “donate” their content so that the cost of acquiring it shrinks to near nothing. (You can’t give stuff away for free if you have to pay to get it.)
But as more and more traditional media go out of business, won’t the quality of what’s left over be significantly diminished? True, in the case of Iran, Twitter might let us know, but isn’t it the perspective and analysis of the New York Times or the Economist that allows us to understand.
And finally the real question: would we ever get content equal to the writing of Chris Anderson, Malcolm Gladwell, Emma Duncan or even Seth Godin if someone, possibly us, doesn’t pay for it? I have my doubts. What are your thoughts? Is free here to stay? And if it is, will there be more Malcolms and Emmas? Or fewer?