Crowd Control: Crowdsourcing Puts Brands in Consumers’ Hands

“Crowdsourcing” has become a standard neologism in modern business dialect. A combination of “outsourcing” and “crowd surfing,” the term means exactly what it implies: outsourcing a task that usually would be performed by an employee or paid third party to an undefined external community or “crowd.”

Not surprisingly, the practice of crowdsourcing was borne from social media’s inherently consumer-driven modus operandi, as these channels are prime real estate for hosting ongoing conversations that executives can then mine for potential business opportunities.

Dell’s Ideastorm was among the first to leverage this technology, and many companies have since followed suit (for more on Ideastorm, see sidebar). Starbucks, for example, launched its social media presence with MyStarbucksIdea, a site that allows users to share, see, discuss and vote on each others’ ideas, some of which are considered for implementation by Starbucks executives.

MyStarbucksIdea fits the definition of crowdsourcing to a tee, but the concept of engaging customers online to ultimately evolve or grow your business can also be applied more broadly. IBM does it through its proprietary Jam Sessions, and eBay with its eBay Ink Blog.

Regardless of the platform, the communications executives behind these initiatives must understand the new rules of engaging these audiences that now play the roles of customer, consultant and inventor simultaneously. To leverage everything from their ideas to their loyalty, executives should consider the following recommendations and best practices.

â–¶ Don’t put the cart before the horse—or, in this case, the technology before the objective. MyStarbucksIdea was a decidedly bold entrée to social media, in that the company’s first online presence was designed to enable users to speak their minds.

However, this wasn’t done on impulse; rather, Starbucks executives thought long and hard about the potential risks and rewards of such open engagement and collaboration. In doing so, they determined that a digital platform for one-way message dissemination wouldn’t achieve their overall objectives.

“Too often, marketers start with a technology or an application first, and they don’t back up and think about strategy, purpose and sustaining that purpose,” says Alexandra Wheeler, director of digital strategy at Starbucks. “Starbucks in its DNA is about relationships, which lends itself naturally to social media. If you’re going to start a corporate blog just to project your voice and not invite people to actually [participate], then you shouldn’t have one.”

â–¶ Make your brand relevant to the conversation in order to keep customers coming back for more. “People don’t really want to engage with a brand,” says Rick Murray, president of Edelman Digital, pointing to the inherent value in using employees to converse with consumers in crowdsourcing-like platforms. “They want to engage with people that have faces, names and personalities.”

Richard Brewer-Hay, chief blogger at eBay, concurs, saying, “Consumers are no longer buying from a faceless company. They’ve got a relationship with that brand. The companies that are most successful right now are selling a lifestyle, not a product.”

To become part of consumers’ lifestyles, executives must initiate engagement strategically with the goal of building sustainable relationships.

“Essentially, I’m like a bartender without beer. Instead of beer, I serve information about the company,” Brewer-Hay says. “[Consumers] could get information from nine other places, but if they like the interaction they have with me, then they’ll come back.”

â–¶ Use social media to meet specific audience needs. Different social media channels enable different interactions, so executives must align objectives accordingly.

“We look at what the zeitgeist is on an individual community, whether it’s our Twitter or Facebook community, or MyStarbucksIdea,” Wheeler says. “Do we go in and talk about every issue that every person in the community wants to [discuss]? No—it would be unreasonable for us to do that.”

â–¶ Be willing to take risks, but have a plan if things go wrong. Crowdsourcing sites like MyStarbucksIdea and Ideastorm are at a considerable risk from a customer engagement standpoint, as are highly interactive corporate blogs like eBay Ink.

To manage the risks presented by these platforms, communications executives must play an active role in shaping corporate policies. Social media guidelines are a starting point, but collaboration with the legal department is a crucial next step. When Brewer-Hay began tweeting eBay’s quarterly earnings, for example, he worked with the legal team to develop the first social media guidelines for corporate disclosure.

“We actually managed to get corporate disclosure into 140 characters or less,” he says, noting that all Twitter disclosure statement link back to eBay Ink, where more detailed guidelines for reporting the company’s financial information can be found.

Once all systems are go, though, an experimental approach that doesn’t strive for perfection is the best bet.

“We’ve experimented our way into a lot of really great things,” Wheeler says. “One of our principles is that perfect is the enemy of great.” PRN


Richard Brewer-Hay,; Rick Murray,