• November 1, 2012
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

The Wisdom of Crowds

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I was at a conference recently—CRM Evolution, in fact, which should give you some idea of print lag—and the same word kept turning up: crowdsourcing. I'm familiar with it, and so are you—at least the concept of it. It's the idea of turning to a large group of interested individuals (typically customers, in the context of CRM) for inspiration, resources, or labor. The social technology explosion has made crowdsourcing not just a possibility, but a key piece of strategy.

This wasn't an isolated instance. A few months previous, I'd been at another conference (it's what people like me do) where crowdsourcing was a common topic. A few sessions even made it practical, and crowdsourced some small projects as the audience exercises.

We're just in the third paragraph of this column, and you're probably already thinking I'm visiting this topic late. I've already said it's something we're all familiar with, and that it's important to socially aware businesses. That being the case, why on earth am I building a column around it?

The reason is that I feel like some people don't realize how awesome crowdsourcing can be, or how much a part of our lives it was even before it gained currency in the business world. Do you doubt me? (I can't hear you, so I'll pretend you said yes.) Check this out:

Think of classic television programs. I mean really classic, meaning old. The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, My Mother the Car, I don't care. Nearly every one of those shows had at least one episode where a company advertised a contest where viewers/listeners would send in a recipe, a jingle, or something like that. The winner would receive some small award, and the company would get the rights to monetize the winning entry (and presumably the losing ones as well). This classic plot is at least as old as radio. It's crowdsourcing.

Have you ever been inspired? I hope so—there are few feelings that compare to it. When it happened, I'll bet you hadn't just asked some individual to inspire you. No, you unconsciously (or maybe consciously) considered a whole bunch of ideas that originated with the world at large, with people whose opinions you respect, or who would be affected by your efforts. It's not exactly crowdsourcing, but it does make you wonder. All you "self-made" folks out there take note: We are social animals, and our best ideas come from one another.

The only difference between brainstorming and crowdsourcing is scale. (No, this is not a parallel to the difference between butt kissing and brown nosing being depth perception.) It's just a question of how many people you involve. That three-hour meeting you just attended where the boss wanted your team to come up with new ideas for a project? Crowdsourced, but to a much smaller crowd. Yes, that crowd was also focused inward, as part of the business it influences. True crowdsourcing, though, reaches out to customer advocates who may be as committed to your brand and its success as you are.

Turning to the wisdom of crowds isn't a panacea—otherwise, mediocre bands would all play "Freebird" when that jerk in the audience shouts it out—but it's tantamount to an easy button for a number of business processes. You can have product ideas, marketing and advertising campaigns, and technical support practically for free, just by asking. You might feel like you're giving up some brand authority by doing so, but guess what? You don't have as much of it as you think anyway.

Marshall Lager is the founder of social CRM advisory firm Third Idea Consulting, which he came up with all by himself. Get together with him at marshall@3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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