Although some companies would argue that customers don't have the professional training or market insight to come up with the next big idea, others are finding that their customers have a truer understanding of their own motivators and needs than even the most-qualified chief marketing officer (CMO)—and that an outsider perspective may be just what their organizations need to escape a rut.

It's called crowdsourcing, and it's been around since before it even had a name.

In 1995, for example, Mars Inc. held a contest to determine the new color of M&M's candy. Public opinion gave birth to the blue M&M, and by engaging its customers the brand achieved a revitalization boost.

Since then, users have been brought together to build open-source technology and construct Wikipedia entries, and businesses such as have founded themselves entirely on outsider contributions.

The advent of the Internet and social media have made crowdsourcing all the more feasible, enabling companies of all sizes to turn consumers into consultants, and those consultants into even greater fans and influencers through a new level of personal attachment to the brand.

Intrigued? This article is designed to inspire you with real-world examples and tips for getting started on your own crowdsourcing plan.

Content Development

In 2004, the Beastie Boys made video cameras available to 50 fans during a live concert at Madison Square Garden to capture footage for a documentary called Awesome, I... Shot That.

Several organizations have since taken note and called on outsiders to assist in content production. Here are a few examples:

  • The Star Wars Uncut project is using Vimeo and fan involvement to remake its own version of Star Wars: A New Hope by dividing the movie into 472 15-second scenes, which users can claim, reshoot in their own style, and upload to be sequenced into the final cut.
  • Composer Helen Porter is collecting and compiling submitted tweets for a new score to be performed at Deloitte Ignite 09 at London's Royal Opera House.
  • In January, Google asked its developer community to contribute tutorial videos to its Webmaster Central YouTube channel; so far, 113 videos have been uploaded.

Product Development

MarketingProfs recently reached out via Twitter and Facebook for B2B topic ideas for its Digital Marketing World Virtual Conference in September. Thirty-three submissions and 571 votes later, the Events team is confident that attendees will find the program both useful and exciting.

Other companies, too, are finding they can gain real insight into consumer demand and preferences by incorporating users into the development cycle. Here are a few examples:

  • Local Motors Inc. (of Wareham, Mass.) encourages visitors to upload auto-related designs to its website, where other users can vote on that input and comment on the company's operations and progress as those ideas are incorporated into actual vehicles.
  • Intel and ASUS Computer International (of Fremont, Calif.) launched as a community website where users can submit drawings and descriptions of their dream PCs, select which features are most important to them, and vote on others' ideas.

    More than 6,000 users have registered on the site and submitted thousands of ideas, along with more than 13,000 votes on those ideas. The final product is expected to go to market in 2010; in the meantime, the companies are forging user connections and generating a sense of loyalty toward their products.
  • IBM's "Project Zero" campaign used crowdsourcing to gather requirements for a new Web 2.0 software product; through that process, it introduced more than 1,000 betas for user review. In doing so, company VP Sandy Cater said, IBM was able to achieve the equivalent of a 2.0 release for the initial product launch without elongating the development cycle, thanks to the extensive feedback received.

    To date, the product—which the user community named sMash—is one of the company's most-successful product introductions, and it remains the top growth product and a fantastic revenue generator.

When IBM announced its WebSphere sMash at Impact 2008 and asked the development team to stand up and be recognized for its contributions, more than 1,000 people unexpectedly rose alongside the 13 developers on IBM's team.

But this type of connection, and the loyalty that accompanies it, doesn't have to belong only to those releasing a new product; allowing customers to help in any way, from renaming a product or campaign to improving the user experience, can help fashion that type of bond.

The global nonprofit Nature Conservancy, for example, has asked the public to vote on a moniker for its new remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that will be used in a new type of research project off the California coast. The results of the competition will have little impact on the project itself; however, by involving the public, the Conservancy has found an engaging way to generate public awareness and attachment around its research.

Marketing and Promotion

After sMash's release, IBM received a flood of tweets and other user comments suggesting the company add the product to Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) cloud-based service. IBM complied, and sMash has since become one of the service's most-successful products. Although this level of user assertiveness doesn't typically come unsolicited, it does illustrate some of the benefits that can be derived from getting consumers involved.

The following are additional examples of companies that are leveraging public opinion and talent to determine their marketing approaches and craft their ads:

  • The Doritos "Crash the Super Bowl" contest invited consumers to create their own television commercials for a chance to see theirs aired during the big game. Not only did the contest generate pregame buzz, but the winning submission (the "Free Doritos!" spot featuring a snow globe hurled at a vending machine) earned Doritos the best-liked Super Bowl commercial of 2009, as ranked by Ad Meter.
  • Chicago-based online design studio CrowdSpring, on a tight budget, needed to earn attention. It asked for marketing ideas on its online forum, and one responder suggested a crowdsourced website redesign for a nonprofit, free of charge. Within a matter of months, the project attracted a good share of media coverage, which, in turn, brought a new high-profile client for the company.
  • Best Buy CMO Barry Judge frequently uses his blog to gather feedback on unfinished advertising. He, like CrowdSpring, also invited blog readers and Twitter followers to help write the company's job description for a new-media-marketing expert—a tactic that helped the company reach hundreds of thousands of candidates before the job was even posted.

In an alternate approach, Digg is experimenting with a new platform that enables users to vote on featured ads. The more votes an ad gets, the less the advertiser pays. Time will tell whether the program works as planned, but the intention is for users to eventually be served the ads they prefer, thereby allowing advertisers to make better use of their marketing dollars—and find more reason to invest in Digg.

Five Tips for Getting Started

In truth, crowdsourcing applications are limited only by your imagination. Colgate-Palmolive has used the tactic to help solve research-and-development problems, Netflix is using it to improve its movie-recommendation engine, and Domino's Pizza relied on public involvement to help identify two employees who filmed themselves defiling customer food orders.

Regardless of how you intend to leverage crowdsourcing, here are five tips you'll want to consider:

1. Select the appropriate platform

To obtain input that's representative of your target market, choose the channels that those users are most comfortable with or most likely to frequent. To start, you might survey opinions on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (set up a hashtag to easily track response); on niche forums; or through the company blog. IBM, for example, received most of its responses for its Project Zero campaign via blogs—including those of company executives and lead technologists, as well as the company's own.

Another option is to establish a designated community site, as Intel and ASUS did for the WePC project. Vendors such as UserVoice can also help set up forums where visitors can contribute and vote for ideas directly within your website.

Other services, such as Chaordix, kluster, Poptent (for video production), 99designs (for logo design) and uTest (for usability testing), will host certain crowdsourcing projects for you on their own sites by drawing on the ingenuity of their own members.

2. Spur participation

Social media will also come in handy for generating awareness for your program, particularly if you're conducting the program online and can direct traffic using links.

To help draw in participants, consider offering incentives. Bragging rights are a start, but many companies also incorporate prizes to motivate involvement. Netflix, for example, offered a $1 million award, and Local Motors has held competitions for prizes of up to $10,000. ASUS and Intel chose to grant prize amounts depending on a user's level of involvement in the winning designs, which encouraged users to not only submit ideas but also get involved in the voting and refinement.

ASUS and Intel further spurred participation by enlisting bloggers with strong followings to advocate WePC; similarly, you should incorporate share features and calls to action that encourage participants to spread the word and get others involved.

3. Foster internal buy-in

It isn't only users who may need to be convinced: There's a chance your own team of designers or engineers may feel threatened by amateurs imposing on their work, or they might be intimidated simply by the change in process. It's important, therefore, to ease their concerns from the get-go, perhaps by directly involving them in the evaluation of submittals and other project tasks.

4. Discern the gems from the junk

Although crowdsourcing can certainly lead to new ideas and consumer insights, beware of shortsighted or nonrepresentative input, groupthink, copyright infringement, and competitors who may attempt to derail your project.

Analyze your contributors and their submissions against your own internal research and expertise to ensure they are honorable, mesh well with your understanding of the marketplace, and don't encroach on other companies' designs. You might also complement your online crowdsourcing efforts with traditional focus groups, as IBM does, to compare the types of feedback generated via these different channels.

5. Stake your claim

Protect your rights against potential royalty claims by communicating in your legal disclosures that any and all submissions automatically become your company's intellectual property and that, by submitting ideas, users agree to grant your organization an irrevocable license to use, modify, display, transmit, and sell those ideas.

It's easy to see why gaining real insight into consumer demand and preferences is so important. Tradeshows and conferences are great places to reach out to your customers and get their valuable feedback. Check out Six Steps to Forging Customer Relationships at Tradeshows and Conferences for tips on how to build customer relationships at events. As a Premium Member, you have free access to hundreds of Premium articles, case studies, templates, tools, research, and "how-to" guides to help you rapidly build effective marketing programs.

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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via