Crowdsourcing – Part 4 – Crowded Out by the Crowd

August 8, 2011 |  by

Northwestern University Athletics is using Facebook to poll fans on its basketball court redesign. Most of the responding fans are voting for an all-purple court (NU’s colors are purple and white.)  It is hard to imagine traditionalists and players seeing this as an advantage. Viewed on ESPN it would probably seem to many as the visual equivalent of the vuvuzela. Is this a smart way to use social media to engage fans, to generate interest and obtain feedback? On Facebook, the crowd is self-selective. With just 200 “likes” on the Facebook page (out of hundreds of thousands of actual fans and paying spectators), outliers with the largest megaphones can drive buzz and appear to sway opinion, just like one spooked cow can start a stampede.

The advantages of a representative sample are well-known. So how can we crowd-sample? Here are a few firms that find the “right crowd.”

  • Trada builds specialized crowds that help companies create and improve ad campaigns on search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
  • The University of Oxford hired Chaordix to create a custom-made crowd to help them brainstorm ways to reduce maternal mortality in developing countries.
  • To tap expertise outside the company, Medtronic relies on Innocentive, which offers “challenge driven innovation”. Companies anonymously describe technical challenges to which members of a “global community” submit bids. A company then decides whether to option the proffered solution.
  • Big Idea Group’s Insight Clubs are private, online consumer communities of 50 to 300 members focused on uncovering innovation opportunities in products, services and marketing for its clients.

Experiments show the “social influence effect” causes us to adjust our thinking to the feedback of the crowd by mindlessly imitating each other. As we become increasingly networked, the vocal crowd seems to speak for the group, yet may mean less. It is important to know how the “crowd” fits in with the rest of a population or community, or you could end up with a purple people eater.


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