Brainstorm on steroids

Two brains are better than one, but what about hundreds, or thousands? For companies and nonprofits interested in harnessing the power of many brains, “crowdsourcing” may be the answer.

A term coined in 2006 by Harvard grad Jeff Howe, crowdsourcing involves solicitation of ideas from key target audiences, typically in a cost-effective, participatory manner. The concept has been around for years, but the Internet and social media offer unique ways to leverage these virtual brain-storming sessions. Crowdsourcing uses people power through interested and engaged target audiences. Loyal customers and key stakeholders can easily tell an organization how to improve its products, processes or systems.

“My Starbucks Idea,” an online forum that encourages its coffee fans to submit new ideas and vote on them, has proven extremely successful for the company as fans propose new drinks and services. To date, more than 100,000 ideas have been submitted, and hundreds have been put into action after people vote.

Meanwhile, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream uses crowdsourcing to identify new flavor ideas, resurrect a flavor from the past and rate new flavors. And what does the company get? Flavor ideas like Cherry Garcia, Napoleon Dynamite, Fossil Fuel and Maple Blondie.

Crowdsourcing works because it engages an already interested audience that knows its brand, and encourages a healthy exchange of ideas. Social media tools like Twitter and Facebook make crowdsourcing even easier. Progressive companies, nonprofits and innovators can easily leverage these tools and collect a diverse pool of ideas.

But crowdsourcing isn’t for everyone. Organizations need to be ready to listen and respond. Sometimes target audiences may share things a company doesn’t want to hear. Similarly, crowdsourcing can be viewed as self-serving if a company takes it too far and appears to be benefitting at the cost of its fans. Finally, crowdsourcers need to be aware of specific rules in the online world, including Facebook’s limitations on using contests for promotions.

Is crowdsourcing right for your organization? It’s not a dynamic fit for everyone. But if you decide to try it, you better be ready to listen and respond.

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