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What’s Being Ignored in the Crowdsourcing Debate

power-of-the-crowdThe debate around crowdsourcing – the outsourcing of a job or problem to a large and open group of people – is heating up again as an increasing number of brands are gaining headlines by launching design and ad creation contests.

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On one side of the debate are those who argue that crowdsourcing is nothing more than outsourcing cheap labor and a temporary fad, while on the other are those who believe that involving large, undefined groups of people can increase creativity and productivity at lower costs.

Critics of crowdsourcing, usually people with an Ad Agency or a professional design background, are quick to point out that crowdsourcing is just a fashionable term for something that’s existed for ages; call it freelancing, outsourcing, competitions or spec-work. The latter, I’ve learned, is somewhat of an insult in the design industry which has even taken an official position on the subject through AIGA. Probably the strongest point I’ve encountered though, is regarding the sustainability of a model where many spend the time to produce work but only one gets paid for it.

Notwithstanding these points – crowdsourcing has had a growing number of success stories and media exploits recently: Unilever dropping its agency Lowe to pursue a crowdsourcing ad campaign for their Pepperami brand. Netflix announcing the $1M winner in its long-running call to improve its recommendation algorithms. The impressive growth of services like Crowdspring and Innocentive. Mofilm crowdsourcing video ads for large brands and linking these to the major film festivals worldwide. The self-proclaimed first crowdsourcing Ad Agency, Victors & Spoils. Across the board, participation in these crowdsourcing campaigns has been strong, with businesses and brands expressing satisfaction with the final creative products received.

What both sides of the debate are ignoring, at least in the advertising space, is the potential impact of the Real Time Web on the future of crowdsourcing. With so many available tools that facilitate online conversation and collaboration, there can be as much value (if not more) in the crowdsourcing process as there is in the end result. The experts call this Engagement. In other words, while the ROI for most of the crowdsourcing activities to date has come from the cheaper creative result (and the press coverage that came with it) – by treating the process as an interactive and potentially viral campaign, crowdsourcing ROI could come from both Engagement and the creative result.

What drove me to contribute the millionth opinion on the subject is my surprise at history repeating itself once again – the reluctance of most Agencies to embrace a new model in its early stages. After all, who is in a better place to generate the kind of value described above than those who are experts at client brand strategy, campaign planning and insight? The case for Agencies to embrace real-time web crowdsourcing seems pretty straight forward:

  • The strength of a Client proposition that combines the Agency’s partnership, strategy and direction with the benefits (Engagement, creative and cost) of crowdsourcing.
  • Being able to generate more value from the individual creative contributions resulting from crowdsourcing by recognizing broader trends or individual brilliance.
  • Extending the life of a creative team on a single client account (one of the issues behind the broken model of agencies)

Looking ahead:

Crowdsourcing in the real time web is in its early stages and as such, is bound to evolve from its current state. For it to become a sustainable model, there needs to be a way to improve the current “many work one gets paid” issue. As the software world has been able to teach us with open-source communities, recognition, reputation and reward (both monetary and non) are an important factor. In applying the open-source principles to an Agency-driven model, I can imagine a platform that allows agencies and advertisers to rate contributors (reputation & recognition) and assign a share of the profits to those who had the most impact on overall ROI.

I for one am enjoying the debate and look forward to its evolution.