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What "American Idol" can teach us about crowdsourcing

by Ken Yeung on May 27, 2009

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If you’ve been living under a rock over the past few days, you may not have known that a new American Idol was crowned. But we’re not here to debate whether the right contestant won. Rather, the focus is on the example this show has on the power of crowdsourcing. Just what is crowdsourcing? According to Wikipedia, crowdsourcing is

A neologism for the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call.

Basically it means rather than looking at your internal teams for assistance, you can delve into the use of social media or web 2.0 technologies to have the general population offer you ideas. Using sites like Twitter, FriendFeed, or putting your thoughts on a blog are all means to crowdsource information. Interestingly enough, there is a site that people use to solicit creative ideas for their own brand and “creative” people are willing to provide their design & others can vote and offer feedback – and I use the word “creative” loosely as there are some discussions as to whether this site is helpful to the design industry or not.

So what important lesson can we learn from American Idol? Well have you seen the process that show goes through? Every week hundreds of millions of votes are cast for the contestants that America wants to remain on the show – the lowest vote-getter is eliminated. Granted the votes are often duplicated since people can vote multiple times, but the finale of each season is where the lesson is at. During this past season’s finale, the host Ryan Seacrest mentioned that over 100 million votes were cast to determine which of the final two would be crowned the next American Idol. Historically, when a winner is named, their first single & subsequent records hit the top of the charts and they become really popular celebrities – along with the runner up. Just look at who has succeeded out of the series: Kelly Clarkson, Rueben Studdard, David Cook, Jordin Sparks, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken, and perhaps others. The point is that crowdsourcing made this happen. The producers of American Idol felt that if they wanted to create a true sensation that would generate huge hits (and money), they would bend to the will of the people. So they created the show and filtered out who they thought had talent and then offered the vote to the viewers. The winner would have the majority of the popularity contest and many would think that he/she was the most talented and there you have an instant winner. That’s crowdsourcing.

If you handle crowdsourcing correctly, it can be a very powerful tool to help drive insight and meaning behind your projects. You’ll know what will succeed and what won’t. I’m sure that there is some scientific methodology to make sure there is as much validity in the data as possible so don’t think that by simply pouring it out there on Twitter and getting three responses constitutes you crowdsourcing. By all meaning, yes, you have, but there needs to be some formal sample that you should achieve.

Looking for help on how to implement a campaign? If you’ve built up a good enough rapport or influence amongst your peers and those you connect with online, then make use of crowdsourcing by sending a request for help. You might be surprised at what you get. Don’t think that you’re all by yourself because people online want to help you. I’m not advocating giving away state secrets or anything like that – because you shouldn’t. But if you want to validate some thoughts like whether or not your company should be targeting folks on Myspace instead of using email blasts, then that might be something noteworthy. Or, you could boil it down to as simple as “How can I get my business noticed on Twitter?” and put it out there on message boards, LinkedIn, Facebook groups or even Twitter.

The power behind crowdsourcing is extremely powerful. But you must build up a trust and relationship with the people you want help from. American Idol has done really well because they have the judges telling the contestants and viewers what they think and they’re being as transparent & authentic as they possibly could be. It seems that the majority of the eliminations that happen on the show agree with what Simon Cowell says the night before – he can be really harsh and doesn’t filter out his opinions, but that’s what Americans are probably looking for and put some trust in his judgement. So if you want to succeed in crowdsourcing, you better be honest, transparent, and understanding. Don’t make the mistake thinking that you can put out your request for help and assume people will be knocking down your door with advice. You’ll need to give some insights as well. Give & receive is a good motto here: when others are asking for help, give it and they will offer it back in return, if they can. That’s true crowdsourcing.

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