Anjali Puri urges corporates to ensure that their brands use crowdsourcing for the right reasons

As crowdsourcing goes mainstream in the marketing world, there’s been a growing debate about its usefulness over traditional methods of problem-solving, particularly when it comes to crowdsourced creativity for brand development and innovation.

At one level, questions are being raised about the real value and cost-effectiveness of crowdsourced solutions versus those generated by paid experts. On another level, there are concerns about the possibility of crowds misleading and leading to poor outcomes – examples of crowdsourcing disasters having frequently gone viral and shown brands in a poor light.

Both the charges are worrying not because they are incorrect but since they point to the mindset with which we might be approaching crowdsourcing. Using crowds as a source of ideas to solve problems can be extremely rewarding but it is important to be clear about its reasons.

PROBLEM-SOLVING Cost savings may be occasional by-products but the real reason to embrace crowdsourcing as a way of working is that diversity fuels better outcomes when it comes to creative problem-solving.

Indeed, the more individuals that can approach the task from a different perspective to come up with an alternative to the problem, the more likely we are to arrive at a strong solution.

The traditional approach of using a core team of experts within the organisation to work on a problem is far less effective in generating this type of diversity. A well-composed crowd is decentralised and unconstrained by the way of thinking that becomes embedded in closed teams.

These ‘crowds’ consist of individuals with varied skills and experience who have no vested interest in outcomes and less to lose, and are more willing to take risks. Crowdsourcing also provides scale and momentum that are difficult to match even within the largest of organisations due to team structures and resource limitations.

COMPLEMENTARY IDEAS Crowdsourcing shouldn’t be expected to generate complete solutions that replace what expert teams might have produced. Expert teams and crowds create complementary energies rather than competing ones, and the solutions provided by the crowd are best viewed as a starting point on which expert teams can build.

Crowds might occasionally consist of people with a high level of expertise who are capable of reaching fully-thought-through and ready-to-implement solutions but this is an exception. And when we do encounter these individuals, they’re likely to be people that an organisation would benefit from hiring as professionals rather than those with whom they’d engage sporadically in crowdsourcing programmes.

More often than not, crowds will simply provide new direction, open up unexplored territories or provide some ingredients that produce the fuel on which an expert team can build further to reach a complete solution.

There are two important reasons for this…

Firstly, there is unquestionable value in calling on professional skills to solve a problem – and even when crowds are able to stretch our thinking further, the final solution is often a synthesis of many different elements that require an expert to assemble.

Secondly, the very conditions that foster divergent thinking among crowds – i.e. decentralisation, ignorance of organisational constraints, risk-taking and low investment – are likely to work against producing ready-to-implement solutions that are viable from an organisation’s perspective.

Without an expert to pick up the essence of a seemingly impractical idea and turning it into something workable, we could be in danger of discarding potentially brilliant solutions.

UTILISING CROWDS Before approaching a crowd with a problem, it would be useful to consider whether crowdsourcing is the best approach to address the issue at hand.

There is a difference between asking a crowd to come up with a name for a new product or vote on their favourite name, and asking it to design eco-friendly packaging for toothpaste. The latter clearly benefits from diverse perspectives and expertise while in the former the advantages of crowdsourcing are less clear.

Many of the widely quoted crowdsourcing fiascos involve situations where crowds were used as a means of decision-making by popular vote – such as naming a brand, choosing a song to play at an event or selecting a location for a promotional campaign. There is no advantage in turning to crowds for such decisions.

And if indeed a popular perspective is desired as an input into the decision-making process, traditional market research surveys are better-equipped for this.

BUILDING TRUST Finally, an important consideration in embracing crowdsourcing for the right reasons is that people’s expectations of corporations have changed dramatically in recent years. We’ve seen that they want to participate, be consulted and treated as equals.

We’ve seen social media narrow the gap between corporates and individuals not only in terms of people’s ability to ‘talk back’ but in their endorsement of small unknown brands. And we’ve witnessed the growth of the long tail, and rise of artisan brands and independent producers.

Inviting crowd participation is in keeping with the culture of the new-age corporation. It is a way of offering people a voice in and ownership of what they choose to buy. When an organisation asks individuals for help in solving a problem, it makes itself vulnerable and human.

There is bound to be some negative fallout as a result of such vulnerability, as we’ve seen in examples of crowds turning rogue. But the benefits of openness far outweigh the risks of crowdsourcing; and there is much greater value in learning to deal with these risks than keeping the doors shut.

For many organisations, crowdsourcing requires considerable unlearning as it means ceding control and adopting ways of working that are the antithesis of tightly controlled innovation processes of the past. But when this is done in the right spirit (rather than as a cost-saving measure or cursory nod to consumer-centricity), crowdsourcing improves outcomes. It also signals transparency, authenticity and equality.

This process will create long-term brand value and build trust.

Anjali Puri is the Global Head of TNS Qualitative at Kantar TNS