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As the director of the IdeaScale Crowd community, I recently had the opportunity to share some insights and best practices for innovators who are new to crowdsourcing, and may not have conducted their first campaign yet. We discussed five questions to ask as you prepare for your first campaign, why those questions are important, and some examples of good and bad answers to those questions.

If you have launched a campaign or two already, I hope that this article can be a helpful roadmap for ways you might like to improve your future challenges, help them run smoothly, and get the types of interaction and participation you’re hoping for.

We will talk about these five points in this post – click on a title to skip to that section:

  1. What’s my reason for running a crowdsourcing campaign?
  2. How do I want to break down my challenge?
  3. Who is my crowd?
  4. What is the incentive for participation?
  5. What is the criteria for a promising idea?

1: What’s My Reason for Running a Crowdsourcing Campaign?

The first question to ask when you’re new to crowdsourcing is, “What’s my reason for running a crowdsourcing campaign?”

What’s the problem you’re trying to solve, and why do you want to get the crowd involved?

In addition to basic brainstorming, there are many reasons to engage the crowd! A few being:

  • Idea validation: Does an idea that you’re developing solve a real problem? Are there things you aren’t thinking of that should be considered?
  • New product or service development: What aren’t you offering customers that they’d like to see?
  • Improvements to existing products or services: What are some pain points your customers encounter with your products or services, and how can they be improved?
  • Expanding uses of your products or services: Are there new markets you could be tapping into? Are there ways people have been using your products or services that you didn’t know about, that could be explored?

As you think through your reason for getting the crowd involved in a project, consider the stages of development. An open community can be incredibly helpful in the first stages of development for a new product or service, particularly with recommending new ideas. A couple of examples:

  • What are some new products that you’d like to see in Target’s dorm room line this season?
  • What are some new McDonald’s breakfast menu items that you’d like to see?

But that shouldn’t necessarily be where crowdsourcing begins and ends with your project.

If you’ve ever found yourself writing and editing something, and looking at it over and over until you start to miss obvious mistakes, you know how important it is to have a fresh set of eyes on it. The same goes with product and service development – you may have a smart, creative, complimentary, and hardworking team, but maybe you’ll find it valuable to get feedback from elsewhere at various stages of your development process. It’s easy to fall into an echo chamber, and getting insights from the crowd is an excellent way to escape it and to think differently about the problem you’re trying to solve.

As you start to think through your reason for running a crowdsourcing campaign, consider these points:

  • How much do I want from the crowd? Do you want to stop at brainstorming, or do you want to pull the thread on some of the top ideas generated from your campaign, and get the crowd engaged in idea refinement, to development, and ultimately launch?
  • At what point do I want to involve the crowd? As mentioned, there are ways to crowdsource at all stages of development – at which stage (or stages) do you want to get crowd participation?
  • What ultimately do I want to achieve with this campaign? Do you want to collect ideas to bring to your team for refinement? Do you want the crowd to help refine those ideas? Do you want to circle back later and ask that same crowd to test a new product you’ve developed based on their recommendations?

Example of a Bad Answer:

“I don’t know / let’s keep it open-ended.”

You’ll set yourself up for failure as you start to gather and evaluate ideas. What do you want to do with the ideas that you’ve gathered – what is the purpose of conducting a campaign? If you don’t know, you’re going to be overwhelmed once the ideas start coming in, and you may be disappointed if the ideas don’t get to the heart of what you’re trying to figure out. You may not collect the exact information you’re looking for, or you may not know what to do with the information you’ve received.

Example of a Good Answer:

“I am a food supplier for a large coffee chain, and I want to get as many ideas as possible about new bakery items people would like to see from them. I will then look for trends in the ideas submitted (such as whether there is interest in certain pastries based on location, age, purchase frequency, or other data), and develop a proposal to present to this coffee chain with recommendations for new bakery items, and what we can offer as a vendor.”

This is a great answer because there’s a specific goal in mind for the challenge – from what information should be collected, at which point in the development process the crowd should be approached, and what ultimately should be done with the insights received.

This sets you up for success from the beginning, and allows you to think through all stages of your campaign, from developing the prompt, all the way to evaluating ideas and bringing them to development and launch.

2: How Do I Want to Break Down My Challenge?

Building onto your first question, you should now ask yourself how you want to break down the challenge statement. That is – how much do you want the crowd to answer?

The most successful campaigns we’ve seen on IdeaScale Crowd have had two types of questions for our community:

First: What are some new products that you’d like to see offered by this brand?

For example, Target asked our community what new products they’d like to see in their dorm room collection. The question focused on one particular section of the store (and actually a smaller subset within the larger home furnishings section), which helped narrow the focus to a single department. At the same time, it gave people the opportunity to think creatively about the many products they’d love to see offered for students to use in their dorm rooms. Answers ranged from peel and stick decals for mirrors and chalkboards, to microfiber bed sheets with storage pockets, and lots more. Based on those ideas, Target launched seven new products to add to their collection that season. The answers didn’t even have to be very detailed – but they did need to be actionable, and the activity during the campaign (such as upvotes and discussion) helped narrow down the most promising products.

Second: How would you improve this product, service, or activity – or what would encourage you to purchase this product, service, or activity?

For example, last summer, we ran a campaign for a coworking space that began losing members when COVID hit. They asked our community for ideas on what would encourage them to be part of a coworking space once things were a bit safer. They also wanted to learn:

  • What people liked and disliked about working from home or in an office
  • Whether they had experience with coworking spaces and what they’d improve about them in general
  • What types of activities they’d want to engage in with a coworking space
  • What they’d like to see in terms of cleanliness and sanitation practices

Our crowd posted thoughtful, detailed responses covering all of those questions, outlining their fears and hopes, and discussing how their work life will fundamentally change. They even posted links to actual products they’d like to see (such as foot-operated door handles).

The thing that both of these successful problem statements have in common is that they’re concrete, and they have an end in mind. The first challenge asked users for products they’d like to see in a specific department – it was an easy and accessible question that still allowed for creativity, discussion, and recommendations. The second challenge was more in-depth, but still gave participants some guidelines and jumping-off points for discussion and reflection.

Example of a Bad Answer:

Keeping your question too broad, or not giving enough for the community to work with.

While you don’t necessarily want to lead people in a specific direction (say, force a yes on an assumed premise, rather than gathering other potential perspectives), giving some things to think about, and even examples, can be very helpful. This can be especially important if the problem you’re trying to solve is something that requires a little research.

Example of a Good Answer:

A recent campaign asked our crowd what insurance industry products and services they would like to see that would help mitigate risks to vulnerable populations. The sponsor asked our community to think about seven different points, and even gave a completely out-of-the-box sample idea following those points, so that the crowd could think beyond insurance products and services they already use, or that are ubiquitous. Insurance isn’t something your average person knows the ins and outs of – giving some guidelines and a sample idea helped the crowd to think creatively. This resulted in ideas ranging from water scarcity, to underemployment, to digital identity theft, and lots more.

As a result, nearly every one of the 60 different ideas posted in that campaign covered all seven points in detail, and the sponsor was able to immediately identify several that they wanted to explore further.

Each of these customers asked realistic questions with a known goal in mind. They were able to take the insights learned from the community and develop them into new products, services, and offerings.

3: Who Is My Crowd?

As you’re developing your problem statement and goals for your campaign, consider who’s in your crowd. Do you want your campaign to be internal – say, open only to employees of your company? Or do you want it to be external, and available to the public? Furthermore, do you want to segment your audience, maybe geographically, or by areas of interest or expertise?

Depending on the campaign you want to run, you may want to segment your audience.

  • If you’re looking for employee feedback – say for internal process improvement, or to learn how different departments manage projects, and to collaborate on best practices – it makes more sense to crowdsource internally, rather than externally.
  • If you’re looking for in-depth proposals – for example, a set RFP process – you may want to do some targeted outreach to networks with specific backgrounds and skill sets.

The beauty of the community I manage on IdeaScale Crowd is in its diversity – and that’s been incredibly important for gathering creative and insightful ideas for campaigns on a wide variety of topics, and for companies and organizations large and small.

Almost all of our campaigns are open to anybody who would like to participate, and they’re self-selecting. That is, if a person doesn’t think they have something to contribute to a particular challenge, or if they’re just not interested, they’re not going to participate. And alternatively, we’ve run campaigns where people who’ve never participated come out of the woodwork to share thoughtful, detailed ideas because this is the one challenge where they really think they can shine.

Here’s an example of a challenge with a specific need, but that benefited from a diverse community of solvers:

A partner of the Nature Conservancy wanted to gather ideas on how to demarcate Tanzania’s Lake Tanganyika, one of the largest lakes in the world, and which is home to hundreds of unique and protected species. To protect this ecosystem, the Tanzanian government established a national park that extends about a mile offshore in a virtual boundary to restrict fishing. And with fishing being a major source of income for the communities around the lake, it was difficult to enforce the boundary.

Our community was asked for ideas on how to more clearly mark the boundary, while still allowing fishing in areas close to it. This was a challenge open to anybody in our general crowd – even though this challenge was specific to Lake Tanganyika, the sponsor was open to ideas from people outside of Tanzania, and who didn’t necessarily work for a national park or other environmental service. We gathered 90 ideas within one month, with recommendations for technologies being employed by other communities and governments, and creative uses of existing products that aren’t necessarily being used at that scale, but that could.

Example of a Bad Answer:

While this is kind of a case-by-case basis and there’s not necessarily a “bad answer” here, I would encourage you to think about the wealth of knowledge that comes from a diverse community. Is it completely necessary to lock your challenge down to people who have firsthand knowledge of your industry or niche – or who live in a particular area, or who fit into some other demographic?

Instead, Think This Way:

The best answers can come from anywhere. If you’re looking for ideas in new products, ways to improve a service, or new ways to encourage people to take an action, open your challenge to people outside of your comfort zone or your known (or assumed) network. There are so many examples of cross-industry collaboration in areas you may never have considered.

A couple of them being:

  • The freezers used to store Dippin’ Dots are very similar to the ones used to store and distribute vaccines – and in fact some actual Dippin’ Dots freezers have been used for that exact purpose.
  • McDonald’s split drive-thru lanes are based on the principles of a Formula-1 pit stop.

And an example from one of our own crowdsourcing campaigns: Sterilite wanted ideas for how to improve their storage containers. And it seems like such a broad question – how do you innovate a box? They asked our community for some ideas, and within one week, our crowd posted 146 different thoughts – and after narrowing down the most promising ideas, Sterilite took one to development, which eventually resulted in a patent. You can now purchase their Fresh Scent box, which comes with a vent for a dryer sheet in its lid, allowing you to store clothing long-term without it getting that musty storage smell. That idea came from our general community.

Good to Note:

You may still want to collect information from participants if it helps you learn more about their background and purchasing habits, and if it helps you to narrow down a promising or winning idea. As you’re building your campaign, this is something you can ask – perhaps as a short survey along with the idea submission process.

Let’s move on to our fourth question to ask as you develop your first crowdsourcing campaign.

#4: What is the Incentive for Participation?

As you’re building your campaign and learning about who’s in your crowd, you should consider the incentives for participation. That is – why should people share ideas at all? What’s their reason for taking part in your campaign?

You can get creative with incentives as well – a few that come to mind:

  • Monetary incentives: This is super common, and the one we usually use with IdeaScale Crowd. You can, for example, pay $1,000 for the top idea and $500 for a few runner-up ideas. Or if you’re looking for as much participation from as many people as possible, you can incentivize per idea – $10 per actionable, relevant, and detailed-enough idea.
  • Recognition incentives: The person who posts a winning idea can pitch it to leadership. Or they can be featured on your website and communications materials with your new product launch, or any other type of recognition you can think of.
  • Social incentives: This is great for encouraging teamwork – if you’re running a team-based challenge within your company, the group who develops a winning idea can, for example, get tickets to a baseball game, or take the next couple of Fridays off, and so on.

Try to tie your incentive to the goal. The most basic way to break this down is quality vs. quantity.

Quality: If you’re looking for detailed, well-thought-out ideas, then offering a really solid prize for the top idea (or ideas) encourages the community to put more consideration and effort into each entry.

The coworking space campaign I discussed earlier had multiple points for participants to think through, such as preferences working at home or in an office, community engagement opportunities, and more. They didn’t have to answer every single question in the challenge, but they were encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas about what they could relate to. This campaign had a grand prize and several runner-up prizes, and we found that within two weeks, our crowd had shared thoughtful, multi-page ideas that the coworking space was able to work with both for short- and long-term solutions.

The second basic way to break down incentives is by quantity: I’m not saying you’re looking for low-effort ideas, but if your goal is to get the most participation possible, from as many people as possible – for example, if your challenge is more survey- or feedback-based – you may want to incentivize per entry, within reason.

For example, a company wanted to get feedback from our community on how they cook with ground turkey, their favorite recipes, which brands of ground turkey they were familiar with or preferred, and other information. They offered $10 per relevant idea, and had some criteria for what qualified as “relevant” to help encourage the most participation possible, while also discouraging obviously low-effort idea submission. Within one week, they received over 160 ideas, all of which they were able to use to learn about purchasing habits, trends, and more.

“Participation” alone isn’t compelling enough for someone to take the time to consider your challenge and offer a thoughtful response. Think about the creative ways you can encourage the community to participate, and have this in place before you launch your campaign.

#5: What is the Criteria for a Promising Idea?

The final point here ties back to the very first question asked, which is, “What is your reason for conducting a crowdsourcing campaign?”

A few basic ways to consider ideas:

  • Activity from the community: How many upvotes did they receive (or how controversial were they)? Are some getting more views than others, and are there comments and discussion on those ideas?
  • Does your campaign have multiple points to consider, and do you want top ideas to cover all or any of those points?
  • Do you want to reward participants who submit multiple ideas?
  • Do you want to give greater consideration to ideas from users in a particular demographic – for example, if you’re launching a new product on the West Coast, do you want to highlight ideas from people who say they live on the West Coast?
  • Do you want completely out-of-the-box ideas – something your team hasn’t considered before?
  • Internal constraints: scope, cost, and time?

Example of a Bad Answer:

Again, not knowing, or keeping it completely open-ended. You do need to have somewhat of an idea of what you’re looking for in the most promising submissions, even at a very basic level. Actively following the campaign as people share their ideas will help you get acquainted with trends that will emerge throughout the challenge, and – this is especially important if you’re asking for in-depth answers to a question – you’ll be able to read and digest the ideas a bit more easily than reading dozens or hundreds of pages of submissions at the end.

Example of a Good Answer:

You should be open to being surprised! You may find during the course of your campaign that in addition to the ideas you thought you’d get (or some very cool, out-of-the-box, creative ones), you may find a trend you hadn’t thought of, and that could be very important for your product, or even your industry.

For example, in the insurance industry products and services campaign to help vulnerable populations – while the campaign sponsor did find several ideas that they could immediately take to their working group, they also found that there was a gap in participants’ understanding of what services are readily available. In a follow-up call to evaluate ideas, the sponsor said they’d be interested not only in developing new products and services based on ideas generated by our community, but also exploring better communication to the public about what’s already there for them.

Knowing your idea evaluation criteria will help you at all points of your campaign. It will help you develop your campaign brief and incentives, and keep from becoming overwhelmed as ideas start rolling in.

Wrapping Up

To recap, the five major questions to ask when launching your first crowdsourcing campaign are:

  1. What’s my reason for running a crowdsourcing campaign?
  2. How do I want to break down my challenge?
  3. Who is my crowd?
  4. What is the incentive for participation?
  5. What is the criteria for a promising idea?

Knowing all of these will help set you up for success! And if you need any help with any or all of those questions, we are here for you.

About IdeaScale Crowd

IdeaScale Crowd is IdeaScale’s public, turnkey crowdsourcing community, and has worked with companies and organizations large and small to develop new products and services, provide consumer insights data, and help with creative problem solving and idea validation. It’s a wonderful solution if you don’t have the time or resources to build and maintain a community of your own, and if you want to spin up a crowdsourcing campaign quickly without needing to learn how to use the IdeaScale software. With more than 30,000 problem solvers and creative thinkers, we’ve worked with companies like Target, Hyundai, 3M, and many more. We’ve also worked with IdeaScale customers who already have their own communities, but who want to jump over to a new one for a one-off campaign outside of their own network. On IdeaScale Crowd, we help you with all steps of your crowdsourcing campaign, so it’s as hands-off as possible for you – from planning, to actively running the campaign (including all of the outreach to the community), to gathering all the ideas submitted during the challenge, and developing an in-depth report with guidance to help evaluate your ideas.

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Watch the presentation on the five questions you need to answer before crowdsourcing.

About the Author

Sarah Vandenberg is the director and managing editor of InnovationManagement.se, and the director of IdeaScale Crowd. With a background in communication and business development, she works as a consultant with a variety of SMBs and startups. In her free time, she serves as the managing editor of Frayed Passport.

If you are interested in contributing an article to InnovationManagement or have any questions about this website, please email [email protected] – and feel free to connect with Sarah on LinkedIn.

Featured image via Pixabay.