One of the most obvious benefits of crowdsourcing is its ability to stimulate creativity and accelerate innovation on a global scale. Leading companies such as Dell, Starbucks or Frito-Lay have pioneered this trend by building platforms (respectively IdeaStorm, MyStarbucksIdea and Doritos Crash The SuperBowl) that connect them to a crowd of passionate individuals. These success-stories paint a very positive picture of crowdsourcing, but the reality is that connecting with the crowd is not as easy as it seems. In this post, we will present the advantages and drawbacks of using crowdsourcing to source creative ideas, and explain how specialized intermediaries can help companies by providing crowds, platforms and experience.

The concept of crowdsourcing is well-documented and (fairly) well-defined. One of its applications is creative crowdsourcing, by which organizations outsource some ideation tasks to an undefined and large crowd via the internet. Today, these creative tasks are very often linked to new product development, product design, or video production, as on eYeka, a company that is leveraging peoples’ everyday and artistic creativity. In a way, even scientific challenges, like those on Innocentive, appeal to peoples’ creativity, that is “scientific creativity”.

Creative crowdsourcing happens when an organization uses the internet to externalize the execution of a creative task to a crowd.

Crowdsourcing has both advantages and drawbacks. Academic research has extensively covered the benefits and the risks of this type of open externalization:

  • Benefits: Accessing a large talent pool at affordable cost, lowering in-house investments, getting fresh ideas from outside, getting fast and authentic insights from individuals, benefiting from the wisdom of the crowd…
  • Risks: Uncertain participation from the crowd, potentially low quality output, divulging internal and/or confidential information, internal resistance against knowledge from outside the organization (“not-invented here” effect), PR-risk associated to reactions from the crowd…

We can see that there are risks in addressing a problem or a task to a crowd. Players in the field are increasingly underlining these risks. Johann Füller recently talked about some of the dangers of crowdsourcing in a blog post, in which he states that crowds can get out of control when they feel the project is unfair, when there is a lack of trust or even manipulation within a community. As Jeff Howe said in 2007…

“90% of everything is crap. If you want something that’s current and what’s hot, [crowdsourcing intermediaries] are good for that.”

In line with Howe’s and Füller’s statements, I think that crowdsourcing intermediaries can play a fundamental role in making a crowdsourcing project a success. Discussions with fellow doctoral colleagues and my personal experience tell me that specialized intermediaries facilitate creative crowdsourcing in three ways: they curate a community, they provide a platform, and they contribute with their experience and know-how. Here is why:

Crowdsourcing intermediaries curate communities

Crowdsourcing creative ideas is basically issuing a creative brief to a crowd of potential participants. But what if no one responds? You fail to stimulate the crowd’s creativity and you end up having invested a lot of money for nothing. To reduce this risk, specialized crowdsourcing intermediaries curate “their own crowds” and stimulate them with a constant stream of challenges. As individuals might be part of several different communities (for example, a designer can participate in different innovation projects on Innocentive, eYeka and Atizo), their experience allows them to assess which of these communities provides most value to them. They also get used to using these platforms over time, thus are motivated and efficient to participate!

Specialized firms invest time and money to build, grow and activate communities (graph derived from data compiled by the author, please comment if there are some inaccuracies.)

Crowdsourcing intermediaries provide platforms

Besides a crowd of potential participants, another asset that crowdsourcing intermediaries provide is a technical platform. For example, in July 2010, Innocentive has released an extensive suite of solutions called Innocentive@Work, that allows companies to crowdsource innovation issues both internally and externally. Another example is NineSigma’s platform NineSights, a social network application that connects innovators to other innovators and companies. Recently, Open Innovation expert Frank Piller described two crowdsourcing intermediaries and used the term Idea Contests as a Service to describe how easy it gets today to launch idea contests. The creative crowdsourcing company eYeka has developped a platform called beYond, which enables client organizations to initiate, discover, manage and share crowdsourcing projects.

For companies, having a reliable platform to manage and share projects is highly valuable. The pictures below illustrate that crowdsourcing is actually two-sided proposition: platforms have to address the needs of the initiating organizations (companies, brands, governments…) and of the participants (creatives, scientists, consumers…).

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An example of a two-sided platform: an interface for companies, on the left, and a for creative participants, on the right (images via eYeka.)

Crowdsourcing intermediaries provide experience

Last but not least, intermediaries come with significant know-how about crowdsourcing project management. The first innovation intermediaries were created a decade ago (Hyve and NineSigma in 2000; Innocentive in 2001), and creative crowdsourcing specialists are more recent (eYeka in 2006, Atizo, Jovoto, OpenIDEO, Poptent and Zooppa in 2007, ChallengePost in 2009). Most of them have managed hundreds of crowdsourcing projects, an experience which is very valuable for companies who start crowdsourcing and who would benefit from accelerating their learning curve. Framing the problem, designing a compelling creative brief, advising on appropriate incentives, moderating incoming submissions, managing intellectual property issues, analyzing the set of entries… their experience can help in various aspects.

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Crowdsourcing intermediaries can help in translating a business problem into an inspiring creative challenge for a community.

It does not interest the crowd that a company is looking to position a product or to refresh a brand identity; the crowd is looking for an outlet to express its creativity.

To stimulate creativity, for example, you have to frame a business issue in an interesting way. It does not interest the crowd that a company is looking to position a product or to refresh a brand identity; the crowd is looking for an outlet to express its creativity. A specialized intermediary will provide help in the formulation of the creative brief. For example, Zooppa gives 3 rules to write a creative brief : be inspiring, challenge the crowd to reflect, and communicate current social conversations. Of course, every crowd and every platform has its specificities. A content analysis of a contest on Zooppa showed that most of the participants came from Italy and the United States, which could be restrictive if a project looks for diversity in viewpoints and ideas. Targeting and crowdsourcing is a tough equation to solve.

Closing thoughts

Creating your own platform and building your own community are undertakings that are rich in learnings. However, if you are looking to reap the full potential of crowdsourcing without reinventing the wheel and without making all the beginners’ mistakes, you should definitely consider the unique experience that crowdsourcing intermediaries provide. They offer a shortcut that minimizes risks, costs and potential setbacks that could reverse your efforts to open-up your organization to a world of fresh ideas. This first step can allows you to gather experience and build know-how to better harness the crowd for your business.

By Yannig Roth

About the author

Yannig Roth is Marketing Manager at eYeka. He holds a PhD in marketing from University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and an MSc in digital marketing from ESSCA School of Management. Yannig regularly blogs at and tweets under @YannigRoth.