Crowdsourcing 101: Assigning your project to the hive mind has its own rewards and frustrations

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // December 8, 2016

Crowdsourcing online is a thing now. If you need a brand name, you can simply submit your request through a website and you can have responses and options in no time. If you need a logo or design or video or copywriting or whatever, just submit your request and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of folks will fulfill your request, and you pay for the one you choose.

Although not quite as ubiquitous as cat memes, crowdsourcing websites are keeping pace with some of the internet’s hottest trends right now. If you haven’t already heard of sites like 99designs.com, freelancer.com or designcrowd.com, you probably will sometime soon, especially if you are a business owner, marketer or a creative agency that might be feeling the pinch.

Like most trends on the web, a novelty that scratches an itch can gain rapid adoption. Eventually, once the initial adoption cools down, products and services that have actual value will survive, while those that do not will fail by the wayside. In the case of crowdsourcing, it’s still on the climbing side of the bell curve, which means it’s still novel enough to draw attention simply because it’s new. However, it has been around just long enough for its weaknesses to become evident. And like most things in life, the right solution for one person may not be the right solution for another. So it’s worth taking a look at the pros and cons of crowdsourcing, who might benefit and who might not.

Crowdsourced solutions are useful… sometimes

Crowdsourced solutions of any kind are useful in proportion to the degree to which you know what you want. Much like when we seek advice from anyone not already familiar with the circumstances, they are limited in the advice they give based on the information we have provided. If the information that we provide is skewed, the advisor’s recommendation is skewed.

We generally present information based on the prism of our perspective, which has already been filtered by what we deem to be important. The difficulty with this is that there may be something important that we don’t communicate because of this. And given that crowdsourced solutions are not inherently collaborative, important factors can be missed. If you know what you are looking for and can put definitive parameters around that request, you can receive useful solutions via crowdsourcing. If not, you will most likely be disappointed by what’s returned.

It comes down to economics

When you take a moment to really think about it, crowdsourced creative solutions are commoditized. Given the fact that only one submission is chosen, that leaves a substantial amount of submissions that are not chosen. The person that created that name or logo just performed work for free, and simple economics will point to the fact that free work is not sustainable in the long term. Therefore, those who contribute to crowdsourcing generally repurpose their previous submissions that were not selected by a previous requestor.

It’s not as if crowdsourcing contributors spend much (if any) dedicated time to their submission for your request. The margins are so slim, it is an economic necessity for them to create generic submissions or repurpose previously created ones. And any time a market has such slim margins (especially when coupled with low dollar value), it will become commoditized. As the crowdsourcing industry approaches the top of the bell curve of user adoption, that commoditization will become more and more evident.

Beware of the risks

On a related note, most of the time, repurposed solutions aren’t a major issue. When an organization is unknown, it won’t be on anyone’s radar if there’s potential (even unintentional) copyright or trademark infringement. Receiving a cease-and-desist isn’t fun, but it’s not the end of the world. If you desist, there’s no further issue. And even if that does become an issue in the future, it can usually be remedied once it becomes known. It’s just something to be mindful of. If you are a small mom-and-pop business, the risk is low and this sort of consideration is not as weighty as it would be for other organizations that might have a larger brand presence.

Generally speaking, the cost of crowdsourced solutions is low. So, if it doesn’t meet your expectations, then you haven’t lost much money. But that age old adage “you get what you pay for” still rings true — even on the web.


Defined:

Crowdsourcing:

The process of soliciting work or funding from a crowd of people, generally through the internet. Wikipedia is one famous example, letting internet users worldwide contribute to the content.