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3/4/2011
06:06 PM
Kevin Casey
Kevin Casey
Slideshows

10 Crowdsourcing Success Stories

We looked at 10 applications of the crowdsourcing concept for business. They cover the broad disciplines of marketing, advertising, product development, customer service, public relations, human resources, outsourcing, project management, Web development, coding, social media, and quality assurance. In some cases, crowdsourcing is the business. Some companies, such as Netflix, have put a mighty fine price tag on their crowdsourced efforts. Others, like Dell and Starbucks, utilize the concept on




Companies such as Facebook, Google, and Foursquare regularly host events that give developers the keys to the code and let them carve it up, all in hopes of producing innovative new applications for the platform. At Foursquare's February hackathon, for example, 150 developers mixed and mingled with the company's engineers and got their hands dirty with the API. The results, according to Foursquare's blog: 25 pizza and 300 cups of coffee consumed, 15 hours of coding, and 39 new apps. The winner? The Dealio, who turned a suggestion from a Foursquare forum into an app that enables users to leave private messages for friends when they check in at a venue.

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The four-year-old IdeaStorm says the site "was created to give a direct voice to our customers and an avenue to have online 'brainstorm' sessions to allow you the customer to share ideas and collaborate with one another and Dell." Those brainstorms have generated more than 15,000 ideas since the site launched, with categories ranging from products to advertising to small business. Dell says it has implemented 432 ideas developed on the site. Among those it credits to the community: Offering Linux as an operating system on Dell hardware. IdeaStorm even solicits ideas on the ideas, holding a November "Storm Session" to solicit feedback on the site itself.

Crowdsourcing just sounds like a buzzword, doesn't it? It has the classic buzzword etymology: Two words smushed together to form a new one that can then be easily deployed in all manner of marketing, media, tech, and cocktail party contexts. But while the word might be hyped, the concept is quite real, and has spread rapidly through the business world. Widely credited to Wired writer Jeff Howe, the term -- like any buzzword worth its while -- might generate a dozen definitions from as many people. For businesses, it always involves some version of a single company reaching out to the vast masses to fulfill some need.

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Talk about an online superstore: Amazon doesn't stop at books or cloud servers -- they're in the people business, too. Mechanical Turk offers what the company calls "an on-demand, scalable workforce." It's essentially a mix of crowdsourcing and marketplace. Workers sign on to perform "Human Intelligence Tasks," or HITs, and businesses -- or perhaps simply people with time and money to spare -- fund an account and outsource their to-do list. A recent visit to the Mechanical Turk site showed more than 114,000 HITs available. HIT requestors only pay -- and workers only get paid -- when they're satisfied with the results.

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Vitaminwater's approach was a delicious mix of marketing and product development. In 2009, it gave consumers the chance to hack their hydration in on online lab that allowed them to pick the company's next flavor. It also tacked on a $5,000 prize for the person that designed the new beverage's label. Vitaminwater's Facebook page played an integral role -- the "lab" was really just a Facebook app -- and produced a good example of the natural intersection between social media and various deployments of the crowdsourcing concept. The winning flavor, Vitaminwater Connect, was announced in 2010; the label even included the Facebook logo. Social media continues to be a big part of the company's public presence: Today, Vitaminwater's Facebook page serves as its official Web site.

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While some crowdsourcing initiatives are long-term projects, others have specific timelines and goals. And, in the case of the Netflix Prize, a very specific financial reward: $1 million. Netflix put that bounty on its well-known recommendation engine -- in non-technical terms, that thing that suggests movies you might like -- and dared the developer universe to come up with something better. Netflix kicked off the competition in 2006 and said it would last until at least 2011, offering $50,000 "progress prizes" along the way. It didn't make it that far: In 2009, the company awarded the $1 million to an algorithm devised by team "BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos."

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Starbucks often gets credit as an early success story of a big business putting Web-based crowdsourcing into action. Dell's IdeaStorm gives a virtual nod to My Starbucks Idea for inspiring its own ideas site, for example. Based on the force.com platform, the Starbucks site solicits ideas and feedback from its customers. Ideas break down into three categories: Product, Experience, and Involvement. Since the site's launch in 2008, caffeine junkies have ruled the roost: There have been more than 24,000 ideas tagged "Coffee & Espresso" alone, by far the top sub-category. Starbucks adds a social aspect to the mix: Other users vote on submitted ideas; there's even a leader board to keep score. The Ideas In Action section tracks suggestions that the company is taking seriously, from review through launch. A recent example: Starbucks just made Hawaiian Kona coffee available in all its stores as a result of a customer idea.

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To the company's credit, Moderator isn't the first listing in a Google search of "crowdsourcing" -- it doesn't even appear on page one. But Google Moderator is decidedly crowdsource-y -- its slogan is "Helping the world find the best input from an audience of any size." The platform enables users to make suggestions and others to vote on them. Moderator can be embedded on Google Sites pages, and the API is exposed for other uses. There's also a Moderator for Android. But the most interesting integration might be Moderator on YouTube, which applies the same crowd-based wisdom to video submissions. No matter the medium -- text, video, smartphone -- Moderator provides a free, ready-made crowdsourcing platform.

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Armchair inventors and future patent holders of the world, unite! Proctor & Gamble, with its storied history in the broad consumer products industry, launched its "Connect + Develop" portal to develop new products and services outside of the company. Rather than call it crowdsourcing, P&G goes with "open innovation." On the Connect + Develop Web site, chief technology officer Bruce Brown defines open innovation as "the practice of accessing externally developed intellectual property in your own business and allowing your internally developed assets and know-how to be used by others." The company says it has entered more than 1,000 active agreements with partners as a result of the site. Paranoid inventors, take heart: Unlike some open communities in the crowdsourcing vein, you submit your ideas privately through Connect + Develop's secure site.

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Got bugs? The crowdsourcing craze has extended beyond businesses using the concept to become a business unto itself. Witness uTest, which, like Amazon's Mechanical Turk, offers a ready-and-able labor pool, only in this case with a very specific skill set: Software testing. The company offers on-demand QA for applications in the Web, mobile, gaming, and desktop realms. It lists among its clients Google, Microsoft, Intuit, and even the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In a sense, uTest is a hybrid of crowdsourcing and temporary staffing. The company claims a turnkey team of 30,000 testers across 165 countries, with expertise across functional, usability, Agile, and load testing scenarios. Pricing is quote based depending on specific needs.

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You may have noticed a vocabulary trend to this point: Words like social, innovation, idea, and community tend to crop up quite a bit in business applications of crowdsourcing. Napkin Labs has them all covered. Don't believe me? The title tag on their homepage is "social innovation." If it's in the source code, it must be true! Seriously, the startup's OpenLab platform enables companies to apply crowdsourcing and its various related principles -- community building, gaming fundamentals, project management, to name a few -- to Web-based customer outreach. In a sense, Napkin Labs is rephrasing "the customer is always right" adage -- its site says: "Your customers are a lot more than just your customers. They're smart, creative folks with great insights."

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