Organizations strive to tap into the potential of crowdsourcing by asking people around the world to come up with ideas. But what makes crowdsourcing work? We conducted a large-scale research project to understand why some organizations succeed to attract crowds and others fail.
Efforts to leverage the knowledge of external contributors have been used for centuries. For instance, the British Parliament used crowdsourcing to find the solution to the longitude problem that was one of the most pressing scientific problems of the 18th century. Similarly, Napoleon struggled to supply nutritious food for his troops who fighting wars far from home and turned to crowdsourcing to find a solution.
Much more recent, the internet has led to crowdsourcing’s widespread adoption and renaissance. Some organizations have successfully mined its potential. Netflix, for example, has used crowdsourcing to improve its recommendation engine by 10%, attracting over 44,000 submissions. Starbucks launched MyStarbucksIdea.com, in 2008, to get ideas from consumers, and has so far received more than 100,000 submissions from consumers around the world.
These examples are not rocket science, so let’s turn to one that is: NASA successfully used crowdsourcing to reduce exposure to cosmic rays on the International Space Station. More than 1,000 people offered potential solutions, and four received a monetary award for their creative ideas. These examples illustrate that many organizations have translated crowdsourcing into a rich flow of ideas, helping them improve their products and services.
But not all organizations succeed in attracting crowds. Take, for example, Germany’s Pirate Party (yes, that is a real German political party). In 2012 the party decided that it would crowdsource its platform instead of determining it internally. The party was just six years old at the time, having swept onto the nation’s multiparty political stage as a protest of Germany’s traditional political forms and an embrace of the digital revolution. It decided to elicit feedback on Germany’s controversial, heatedly debated ban on circumcision. Of those targeted for their survey — specifically the population of North Rhine-Westphalia, a region with 18 million inhabitants, in which the party had garnered 7.8% of the votes cast in the last local election — only 20 people responded. Twenty. The German magazine Der Spiegel did not pull its punch: “It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up.”
Our research, recently published in a paper, was conducted in collaboration with the company UserVoice. This company supports product managers to source and prioritize ideas; we studied the crowdsourcing efforts of over 20,000 represented organizations.
Our research reveals that whether organizations succeed or fail in crowdsourcing can be explained by the actions they take. Our research specifically shows that managers whose organizations succeed in crowdsourcing take two types of actions.
Proactive Attention: Give to Get
Instead of waiting for ideas to be submitted, successful organizations post ideas themselves and invite people to discuss these ideas. This proactive attention provides valuable information to external contributors by showing them the types of ideas the organizations are interested in. It also engenders trust because organizations grant contributors a glimpse into their potential innovation trajectories. Finally, it empowers external contributors to evaluate the organizations’ ideas. Proactive attention thus helps to establish a reciprocal communication style and drives knowledge sharing. Contributors are more motivated to submit their own ideas.
Encouraging contributors to share their own ideas is particularly critical at the beginning of crowdsourcing. No contributor wants to be the first to submit a suggestion, so organizations should put out their own ideas for discussion early on. In fact, our research clearly shows that once the organization has succeeded in attracting contributors, the effect of contributing the organization’s own ideas tapers off.
Reactive Attention: Show You Care
Our research also shows that organizations that respond publicly to submitted suggestions (reactive attention) receive significantly more suggestions from external contributors than those that do not. This validates external contributors, motivating further contributions. It also indicates what types of suggestions the organization values, even clarifying what is appropriate for others who did not make the original suggestion.
Attending to newcomers in particular yields impressive outcomes. Newcomers do not yet know whether the organization will listen to their ideas. If they learn, through the organization’s response, that the organization cares, they make full use of their fresh perspective and share numerous ideas.
Taking these results together, we found that managers who pursue the right actions can increase the odds of success substantially. A bit of proactive and reactive attention may be all that it takes to ensure that their crowdsourcing succeeds.
A Word of Caution
These effective actions seem straightforward, yet they often go against an organization’s natural inclination. While organizations may expect to receive ideas before they are willing to share their own, our research suggests that sharing ideas before receiving them increases the odds of success. Our research also shows that organizations prefer to focus on established contributors, ones with whom they have already interacted — but they should focus on new contributors instead.
It is the role of managers to make crowdsourcing successful by fighting these tendencies. In the same way that priming a pump before sourcing water may seem counterintuitive, organizations must pay attention to the crowd before the crowd will submit ideas.