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Five Common Crowdsourcing Mistakes and How To Avoid Them

Rachel Julkowski, Stanford University September 12, 2018

Imagine a suggestion box where anyone, anywhere, with no degree, expertise or employment required, can digitally suggest an idea — that’s crowdsourcing.

“Organizations often need ideas that do not require a specific expertise,” says Henning Piezunka, an assistant professor at INSEAD and graduate of Stanford’s Department of Management Science & Engineering. “It is often about small ideas that help an organization take the perspective of the customer.” So, while NASA has used crowdsourcing to help predict solar storms, organizations can also use crowdsourcing for simple innovations. Think cupholder rather than fusion engine.

Below are five common mistakes that most companies make when launching a crowdsourcing initiative, and five tactics you can use to help your efforts become successful.

Mistake #1: Overlook the crowd entirely

Some organizations fail by not even trying to crowdsource. Yet, Piezunka cautions, “to stay innovative, organizations must maintain a constant flow of new ideas.” Crowdsourcing gathers fresh ideas and suggestions that organizations need to stay competitive.

For startups that have just figured out product-market fit, crowdsourcing can offer ideas for a company or product name and even help select a logo.

For established organizations, employees are often distant from the daily life of customers. Crowdsourcing can offer important insights that help to re-calibrate product-market fit or introduce fresh product ideas that help broaden the customer base.

Tactic #1: Value the insights of the crowd by opening yourself up to suggestions that sit outside of your organization.

Mistake #2: Fail to demonstrate openness

“Many organizations have set up a process for attracting ideas, yet have ended up with little or nothing to show for the effort,” says Piezunka. In a study of nearly 24,000 initiatives, he and Linus Dahlander, an associate professor at ESMT Berlin, found that only a handful of organizations managed to attract ideas. The median performers averaged fewer than one idea per month. And even the crowdsourcing initiatives in the top 99th percentile for attracting ideas only saw about one idea per day during the first year.

Successful organizations demonstrate that they are genuinely open to considering new ideas by sharing their own ideas first. These initial ideas attract ideas from external contributors.

Tactic #2: Signal that you are open to feedback. Start by sharing your ideas first.

Crowdsourcing offers the deepest lessons in outlier responses. Those strange, wild and weird ideas provide an organization with a truly fresh perspective and help drive innovation.

Mistake #3: Ignore contributors

Attention is a valuable currency. Yet, organizations often take too much time to respond to the ideas they receive – or do not respond at all.

Responding to the people who submitted ideas demonstrates that you are invested in their ideas and in having a relationship with them. Yet, Piezunka and Dahlander observed, in their study of 2.6 million ideas across 70,000 organizations, that more than 88% of people who submit an idea do not receive feedback at all.

People want to be acknowledged when they go out of their way to share an idea, especially if they are a newcomer.

Tactic #3: Invest in relationships by paying your contributors with attention. Prior to launching your initiative, prepare template responses and assign staff resources for responding quickly.

Mistake #4: Fear backlash from rejecting ideas

Of course, organizations won’t implement the majority of suggestions. Explicitly rejecting these ideas can actually benefit the organization and deepen the relationships with people who have submitted an idea.

“Rejections have a counterintuitive effect,” says Piezunka. “It leaves people more optimistic about their chances of getting future ideas selected because they are assured that the organization values them, will pay attention to their ideas and is genuinely considering implementing changes.”

The same study of 70,000 organizations demonstrated that rejecting an idea, simply saying no — even with no explanation — made it more likely for a contributor to submit another idea.

Tactic #4: Give direct feedback to your contributors about the ideas you don’t want.

Mistake #5: Get distracted by too many responses

Organizations that succeed in gathering a large pool of diverse ideas often end up being very narrow in the selection of ideas. The more ideas an organization collects, the more capacity is required to meaningfully consider each idea.

Faced with many suggestions, organizations start using tactics to move more quickly through the large quantity of ideas by both reducing the amount of time spent on each individual idea and by tightening the filter for identifying worthy ideas.

“Ideas that represent a departure from the organization’s status quo are at a disadvantage in the free-for-all battle for company attention,” says Piezunka, based on their additional study of nearly 1,000 organizations and more than 105,000 suggestions. Ironically, organizations that start initiatives to gather new insights will also gravitate towards the most familiar ideas during selection.

Crowdsourcing offers the deepest lessons in outlier responses. Those strange, wild and weird ideas provide an organization with a truly fresh perspective and help drive innovation. Rather than striving for volume of ideas, organizations should focus on the value of ideas. Instead of working to generating 10,000 ideas, aim for 100 from a particularly diverse set of contributors.

Tactic #5: Collect fewer suggestions from a more diverse set of contributors. Spend the majority of your time on the suggestions that are most surprising and challenging (that’s the whole point).

And remember, crowdsourcing is most valuable to an organization when it shares a new perspective that challenges your status quo.