Crowdsourcing isn’t a new concept but there’s been more buzz about it recently so I’ll write about it too. Crowdsourcing is two things: 1. a marketing strategy, 2. a way to generate community, to get community-generated enhancements, around a product or service (which is basically a marketing strategy).

Crowdsourcing starts by committing significant resources to engage with your customer base. There are three kinds of content in the digital marketing world, 1. paid (ads), 2. owned (traditional marketing copy), 3. earned (user-generated feedback and chatter, whether on Facebook, LinkedIn, Forums, sidewalks, coffee shops, etc.). Crowdsourcing is a way to leverage the latter type: earned content. You convert your customer base into a community (sounds easy!).

Crowdsourcing stresses inviting customers or potential customers to gather and offer ideas and suggestions, while company moderators keep up very active interaction with customers to keep them engaged. Reaching “earned” customer-generated chatter means strong presence on social media with full-time digital-marketing activity. An easy-to-use interactive website helps attract user participation. CMSs come with increasingly sophisticated social media components that can pave the way, although it’s still a big-ticket item. However you implement community drivers, inviting and collecting customer ideas should be followed with communicating back to the customers, with acknowledgment or with further questions about the suggestions submitted.

The process-cycle of crowdsourcing relies on corporate flexibility to adapt rapidly to its communities ideas and trends. LinkedIn, for example, constantly invites member input for improvements to the user experience. They are not always great at active engagement with customers, but then they have a massive customer base, most of them nonpaying. Nevertheless, you can see user-generated changes implemented on the site so you know they are listening.

Other B2C companies without such an overwhelming customer base communicate more directly and frequently with customers who offer ideas. This builds customer loyalty, good word-of-mouth PR, and more responsive product updates and offerings. The customer feels like the product is more customized to their needs, because it is. Active communication with customers helps your offerings stay relevant, and relevance produces revenue.

I did crowdsourcing before I knew it was called crowdsourcing in the early 2000s with our community-based QA site and its satellite crowdsource-generator STQe-Letter (here is my earlier blog entry referring to STQe-Letter), for which I wrote a column twice a month (here is a best-of collection that my colleagues compiled and published).

This e-letter was constantly changing based on user comments, and stickyminds content was constantly updated based on the e-letter’s invitation to submit ideas. The proof that community efforts worked came at conferences when I always had enthusiastic customers/community-members approaching me at our booths, and attending our special events. We generated high-volume earned content in our early versions of user comment space, forums, and user-contributor areas, which we leveraged in print media and conferences, as well as online.

Whether you have a product like a washing machine or a service like health records management or most any other offering to other people or other businesses, you earned your earned content so leverage this high-value crowdsourcing asset. Converting your customer base into a community can give you a powerful engine for generating solutions that meet the needs of actual people much more closely and effectively. It’s good will and good business.

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