The wisdom of crowds or groupthink?
This is roughly how the argument for and against crowdsourcing falls. These days crowdsourcing is all the rage, with startups seeking to leverage the phenomenon to solve basic mechanical problems, identify the best content, even create the next revolutionary product.
It seems there’s no solution too big or small that the crowd can’t dream up. But are there in fact limits to crowdsourcing? Are there problems the crowd can’t solve?
Yes, says Peter Fader, marketing professor and co-director of the customer analytics initiative at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. When it comes to the crowd, Fader is a fan of solutions like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. “But the keyword there is mechanical,” he says.
“For truly creative or complex issues such as identifying the next music artist or identifying next music player – forget about it,” Fader told me. Crowdsourcing might work well for producing incremental advancements to existing products, but truly disruptive ideas burst forth from a tightly woven collective of creative experts, he insists. Lady Gaga and the iPod are not discovered by the crowd, but rather by an elite dinner party.
As Fader put it, “Sometimes the crowd will actually take you down a notch in terms of your willingness to take risks and think outside the box.”
The evolution of crowdsourcing itself has been incremental, albeit fast. Diggit sought the approval of the crowd in determining what pieces of content were worth reading. Facebook introduced the “like” button to everything from a brand to an ad to an article. And Q&A sites like Focus and Quora have recently tapped into the world’s collective wisdom to rank whose answers to certain questions contain the greatest nugget of truth.
Other startups are turning to the crowd for product design and R&D. Kickstarter has proven popular for crowdfunding. And there are networks such as Evly, which bills itself as a source for solving everything.
But critics like Fader says the real innovation occurs before you turn to the crowd. A smaller group on internal experts might conceptualize a few ideas or products, then ask the crowd for feedback on what to lose or keep. The “soup to nuts” development process stays close to the vest in this scenario.
There’s another caveat. Crowdsourcing, as a concept, is vague. Many of the crowdsourcing models used today actually touch a relatively small group of early adopters in specified fields. By crowdsourcing do we mean reaching out to fellow connoisseurs, whose variance in experience is nevertheless tied to common practices and education? Or do we mean literally everyone?
Let’s put it this way: Would you turn over your lead management strategy to the crowd? Can the crowd supply marketers with winning content?
I ran across Whinot, a crowdsourcing site for small businesses to brainstorm and develop marketing projects. It’s an intriguing concept for, say, a master cupcake-maker who is launching a business but has no marketing background. But does this have legs? Can crowdsourcing be scaled out to serve marketing teams at enterprise companies? Or are we brushing up against the limits of crowdsourcing?
“Not many companies have bet the farm on crowdsourcing yet,” Fader told me. How about you? Would your company being willing to walk out on that ledge?