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Step by Step: The Incremental Approach to Crowdsourcing

1 Apr

Do you like electronic music? If so, listen to this new Avicii song, “X You”:

As you may have guessed, crowdsourcing produced this song. Avicii spent the last three months collecting musical samples from his fans, evaluating them, and presenting the best ones back to the crowd for them to pick their favorite. Bit by bit, from bassline to breakdown, his fans created one of the first crowdsourced pieces of music.

I’m calling this method the incremental approach to crowdsourcing; it involves a time-consuming but vigorous process of polling, discussion, and idea submission, with each cycle adding a tiny bit to the final product. It’s not the easiest or most resource-conservative way to crowdsource, but when the planets align and the controlling entity jumps into it with both feet, it can provide truly dazzling results.

Take Wizards of the Coast (WotC), for example, the company that makes the popular trading card game Magic: The Gathering. They recently started the fourth iteration of their “You Make The Card” campaign, which allows fans to help them create a card that will appear in a future release. We’ve also seen this approach utilized by Nissan, who used the help of their Facebook fans to build a limited-release performance racing vehicle. In both campaigns, the company built something great by letting their fans choose what went into it with a multi-step process that took several months.

How It Works

All three of these campaigns followed a shockingly uniform series of steps. The contest begins with the most general parts of the project and moves to the specific. For Avicii, the beginning was the song’s melody; WotC started with the card type, and Nissan first asked for an exhaust system that would do justice for the car’s engine. The crowd voices their opinion on which of several options should go onto the next round, and then the next piece is selected to be added on. More discussion, more voting, more submissions; rinse and repeat until you have a complete product.

It’s important to note here the distinction between incremental and iterative development. Both consist of several periods of discussion, voting, and designing; the main difference is what is produced at each step. Incremental development adds a new thing to the project each time; a new sound effect to a song, or a new ability on a card, or a new set of tires on a car. Iterative development, by contrast, would design the entire product at once, and then make it a little bit better better with each progressive pass. This is sometimes the method used to create Wikipedia pages, in which a heap of information is dumped onto a blank page and slowly pared down, edited, formatted, and given citations in the coming days.

What Makes It Great

The incremental approach isn’t for everyone; you need a ready-built fanbase that is not only numerous, but dedicated. Avicii is one of the most popular DJs in the world, Nissan is a multi-billion-dollar auto-industry leader, and Magic: The Gathering players have been dutifully flipping cardboard for the last 20 years. Because of this, these entities can afford to hold a contest that stretches out over months, where those less popular may find their crowds losing steam after the first few weeks.

Additionally, when designing a product where every piece of it needs to work well with every other piece, the incremental approach ensures that the crowd doesn’t get ahead of itself and the work is easy enough to swallow. If WotC had attacked this project using the iterative approach, they would have faced the tremendously difficult task of sorting through several thousand card submissions, some of which likely being completely unusable. By instead uniting its crowd on each consecutive step, WotC streamlines the conversation surrounding its project and focuses its audience on the task at hand, while not losing sight of the upcoming steps and the end goal.

Compare this to a project where each piece is designed individually. It’s been said (but never concretely attributed) that a camel is a horse designed by committee. This brings to mind a product that is designed simultaneously by several entities that have conflicting interests in the final outcome; some may want it to have functionality or features that the other groups aren’t interested in or actively oppose. In this manner, parallel design by many sub-groups of a crowd can create a product that while unique and novel, doesn’t really accomplish any one goal to a satisfactory degree.

It also helps that all three of the entities I am using for examples show great adhesion to the three tenets of successful crowdsourcing, as I’ve mentioned before with WotC and Nissan. Avicii also hits all the marks of incentive, barrier to entry, and compartmentalization; his fans are more than willing to put in the effort for the chance to hear something they created get blasted on the radio or through nightclub speakers, the submission process for samples was simple and available on social media channels Avicii’s fans frequented, and the incremental approach ensured that each new piece of music was carefully planned and fit with everything before it.

The Juice is Worth The Squeeze

I would love to see more companies use this approach in the future to replace the standard “contest” model of crowdsourcing that really only allows input from one creative mind. The incremental approach is truly the right choice for entities that want to tap into the collective knowledge of their entire crowd, with an added bonus of collecting market research as they go. Even if Nissan doesn’t end up using Exhaust System C, they will still know what their fans think of it after the contest is completed. WotC’s You Make The Card not only gave them the final product, but also inspired entire mechanics that went on to become very well-loved.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve seen a company use this approach to achieve great (or not-so-great) results, or if there’s someone who you think would benefit from changing their approach to this one.

Gaming, Porn, and LEGO: The Common Thread (Part 2 of 2)

25 Jun

Last week, I highlighted three companies that, for one reason or another, have welcomed the emergence of crowdsourcing with open arms. Video game mods allow players to add their own content, LEGO’s CUUSOO brings fan-created models to store shelves, and amateur pornography… well, enough said.

I promised you then, dear readers, to soon reveal what makes these companies so right for crowdsourcing. And so I come to you today to present the two key traits that these companies share.

The first trait is intrinsic, meaning that it has to do with the very nature of an industry; either they have it or they don’t. This trait is the fact that these industries all represent pastimes that are typically enjoyed alone.

  • Lengthy single-player games like Half-Life and Skyrim can’t really be enjoyed in a large group; add to this the “geek” stigma still surrounding video gaming, and you get a hobby that tends to be solitary.
  • It’s fine for kids to play with LEGO, but when it’s full-grown adults we again see a stigma preventing mass public acceptance.
  • Porn? Figure it out yourself.

If you’re getting ahead of me, you’re calling BS at this point. “That’s nonsense!” you cry, “I go to LAN parties and arcades, there are a million local LEGO groups, and there’s even such a thing as adult movie theaters and kink communities…”

“Ah but you see,” I’d say in response, “those groups are specifically designed for enthusiasts.” Unless you’re a big fan of the aforementioned activity, you wouldn’t seek out these groups. And these aren’t universal interests like art, movies, or music; if you can’t find a special group with which to share your passion, you’re stuck going it alone.

This is the key element that makes these industries ripe for crowdsourcing. They have a highly passionate user base who unfortunately is largely unable to share their passion. But given a platform on which to present and the guarantee of a similarly eager audience, enthusiasts are more than willing to show the world what they’ve created.

Furthermore, we’re seeing some crowdsourcing efforts fail for the movies, music, and art industries specifically because they are so popular and universally  accepted. Businesses pick up on the fact that vast amounts of money can be made, and it becomes a game based around competition instead of shared passion. Keeping the subject matter specialized guarantees that the only people who will seek it out are the truly interested.

This segues nicely into the second trait, which is less intrinsic and more reactionary. It is this: LEGO, gaming, and porn all noticed that people were getting into their products enough to want to create their own. So they let them. It’s so simple it’s hard to tell if it’s the effect or the cause. But often the only thing an industry needs to make crowdsourcing work for them is to simply let the people who want to help do so.

Let’s not be unreasonable, of course; you should still definitely make money off them. Crowdsource a LEGO set design, but sell it retail or on the official website. Allow game mods, but not without buying the “vanilla” copy of the original game. And (by all means!) solicit amateur porn, but put it on a website that’s absolutely dripping with paid ads. Profits soar, you toss the original creators a (tiny) cut of the earnings, and everyone walks away happy because they have inexpensive, high-quality new content.

After these pieces came into place for me, I had to look back and check to see how many other campaigns grew from typically insular activities that were given a chance for public recognition. It didn’t take long to find several. It would seem this is the real deal, so if you’re hoping to take advantage of crowdsourcing, here’s your bottom line. Tap into previously silenced interest groups, and simply let them help. Control the process, but if you give a passionate person the ability to enact some real positive change, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised every time.

Gaming, Porn, and LEGO: Bachelor Weekend or Key To Crowdsourcing? (Part 1 of 2)

19 Jun

I started this blog with the intention of bringing crowdsourcing to the masses. To do so, I knew I would have to uncover real-world examples of it that most people had interacted with. Today, I write to you because I have realized this goal; I found amateur pornography, PC gaming, and LEGO bricks.

Porn was a topic I wanted to discuss at one point or another on this blog, because I recognized that it was an industry that had whole-heartedly accepted crowdsourcing as Copyright 2008 The Weinstein Companyone of their methods of production. Non-professional or amateur porn has been around almost as long as videography itself, and recently received a huge boon in the form of camera phones and user-uploaded content (“tube”) sites.  This industry was quick to accept crowdsourcing as a form of content creation, when so many others have dragged their feet or actively resisted. Now, they enjoy the fact that they have tube sites like these to generate heaps of content at no personal cost, which helps offset their recent losses in DVD sales.

I sought other entities that had accepted crowdsourcing in the same way, and found the brick-building toy LEGO. Their integration was to a lesser degree, to be certain, but Copyright 2008-2012 CUUSOO SYSTEMnonetheless multifaceted; their websites solicits pictures, ideas, and full-on schematics of any custom model their users have built. They even go so far as to have implemented the CUUSOO program, which takes popular user-created models and packages them as actual retail items that can be bought from the website or a real-world toy store. LEGO understands that even though they are primarily a children’s toy, they still have a not-insignificant portion of adult users who want to show off their creations. And so like porn, LEGO has recognized a need and made steps to fill it by utilizing user content.

And finally we have video games, who take on crowdsourcing in a limited, but more profound way. User-generated content is again the key here, this time in the form of “mods”. Mods are custom modifications that a user may make to a game they own that Copyright 2011 Dread Father & XFrostbitechange the graphics, gameplay, maps, items, or just about any other aspect of the game. These mods are typically collected, shared, rated, and downloaded on community sites that are wholly or partly supported by the game publishers themselves. Games like Half-Life and Skyrim enjoy a massive community of modders, which not only adds to the game’s content but ensures that people will continue to buy it long into the future. Add to this the fact that there are other communities that simply program and release their own games to play, some of which are good enough to make it onto professional retail platforms like Steam or the Apple store. All in all, the gaming industry is one that is largely on-board with user-generated content.

So what is it about these industries that makes them so apt to bring their users into the fold, when so many others have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the world of crowdsourcing? The answer, which I will reveal next week, has implications that could mean a whole new approach to discovering which industries are ready to implement crowdsourcing. More importantly, it may reveal industries that are doomed to crowdsourcing failure before they even start. Tune in next week for Part 2: The Common Thread!

It Would Have Been a Great Story

14 Jun

I was supposed to have a great, full-length post for all of you today, but it turns out I was taken for a ride and my source was fake.

© 2005 Marvin Harrell ~ stock.xchng

It’s a true shame; it was a story about a major company (unnamed; they’re probably catching enough flack for this already) who launched a campaign asking users of their website to design a print ad for the chance to win a trip. Whoever developed this prank, or whatever it is, set up an entire site for submitting, viewing, and voting on these ads.

But as the submissions trickled it, it was clear that they weren’t going in the direction they were supposed to. This unnamed company has some pretty shady business practices, and the vast majority of the submitted ads called these practices into question in ways that wouldn’t be considered “kind” or “not heavy-handed”.

It would have been brutal if it was true. Imagine a company blindly launching a campaign without being aware of the general populace’s opinion of them. And imagine the campaign entirely involved having people plaster whatever message they want on a professional-looking ad with your company’s name and logo. It would have been a fiasco.

Unfortunately, the campaign was created not by the company, but by some outside force that opposed their politics. Further digging into the website proved it was all subtly tongue-in-cheek,  designed in such a way that it would only reveal itself as fake if you gave it more than a cursory glance.

So why was I taken in at first? Because this company wouldn’t have been the first one to make a mistake like this. A big aspect of crowdsourcing that continues to keep some companies away is the lack of control and privacy. When you host a contest like this, it does indeed become exceedingly important what the public’s opinion of your company is. If your company is controversial, crowdsourcing will provide you with messages that promote both sides of the issue. Unfortunately, there is usually one side that yells louder, and that’s the dissenters.

So is there a lesson we can learn from this? Crowdsourcing is best suited to companies that already have a large positive following. Will it completely stop situations like this? No, but a lot of consumers on your side certainly helps support the messages you’re actually trying to promote. Conversely, if your company is afraid of what the populace has to say about them… well, maybe they should reconsider how clean their hands are.

The Thing About Spec Work

21 May

I’ve noticed a phenomenon in crowdsourcing that has plagued many a campaign. Spec work is its name, and after seeing it so often I thought it would be a good idea to share my thoughts on the matter.

To start off, spec (speculative) work is any work where you are expected to put forth a commitment to your time and resources without the guarantee of getting paid. A good example of this is the contest model of crowdsourcing, where several hundred teams of creatives may put forward a product only to have one of them selected to receive payment.

I’ll admit, it seems bad. For an amateur artist, time and resources may be in short supply. To lend them out without the guarantee of compensation may be too risky for some. I myself see it as falling under the “Incentive” tenet of crowdsourcing, so let me see if I can’t justify it a bit.

The thing I feel drives a lot of people to spec work is that for them, it’s not primarily about the money. Much spec work is done by non-professionals who are simply looking for an opportunity to hone their craft. After all, spec work is almost always voluntary. Who else would sign up but people passionate enough about their work to do it potentially for free? A lot of contest-model sites embrace this notion, offering their members educational materials or access to other members for learning purposes. Money is a bonus, but simply a secondary concern.

There is something else I didn’t realize until I spoke to a friend of mine who had entered a shady poetry contest in his formative years. He didn’t find out it was a scam until later, and although he was disappointed, he was still glad that he had gotten the chance to show off his work. He told me that the “spec work” aspect of it didn’t bother him so much;  almost all artists start out doing entirely spec work to help them make a name for themselves. It’s part of the game, he told me, and I happen to agree. If you’re trying to get by on creative talent, it’s practically accepted that getting paid for it is not going to happen right away.

So we have the amateur and part-time creatives finding things to enjoy about the spec work model. That leaves the full-timers, the creative professionals, a group I could definitely see having a problem with the concept because they’re accustomed to guaranteed payment for their efforts. But as I mentioned, spec work is both voluntary and primarily not about the money. Full-timers would be wise to mostly avoid the spec work market, leaving it to the amateurs and part-timers. This ensures that companies will still turn to professionals for their highest-quality creative needs.

Voila, spec work in a nutshell. If you’re a non-pro, spec work is a great way to hone your craft and get your name up. If you’re a pro, it’s probably not what you’re looking for. Overall, I’m a fan of the idea; after all, spec work forms the basis of a ton of creative crowdsourcing efforts. What’s your experience with spec work been like? Enchant us with your tale in the comments.

The Three Tenets of Successful Crowdsourcing

20 Mar

The Three Tenets of Successful Crowdsourcing

Even in my so-far small experience with crowdsourcing, I’ve noticed that many campaigns succeed or fail based on the presence or absence of three criteria. I’d like to share them today, and get some feedback on how essential my readers believe these principles to actually be.

  1. Incentive. I just got done reading a post by fellow blogger VisualBloke about the relations between human behavior and the social web, and it mentioned incentive as being influenced by tones of self-interest. Meaning, make it personally worth it for your participants. Most CS’ing campaigns have this built-in, offering participants the opportunity to contribute to something that would normally be out of their sphere of influence. Nissan’s Project 370Z is a good example of this; how many people have ever had the chance to design a mass-market automobile? Kickstarter offers a more clear-cut incentive system, with different levels of monetary contribution translating to “rewards”, extra influence, or early access to the final project. No matter how you slice it, participants need more incentive than “we need help”.
  2. Barrier to Entry. How easy or difficult is it to join your crowdsourced work force? The right answer to this question depends on the level of talent you need from the people comprising your crowd, but the bottom line is to make your barriers low enough as not to deter any sufficiently motivated individual, but high enough to ensure quality. This seems complicated; let me explain. OpenStudy.com, as a resource to all students, wants to set its barrier low for entry because everyone from elementary schoolers to graduate students and beyond needs to easily access the site. They accomplish this with simple design layout and a no-frills registration process, making it simple for any student to get involved. By contrast, the aforementioned Project 370Z demands gearheads and performance experts. Hiding the project on the performance-dedicated subsection of their Facebook page was a move that may have seemed less than prudent at first, but actually succeeds in weeding out the less-than-desirable opinions without resorting to a dedicated moderator, simply by virtue of them being absent.
  3. Compartmentalization. Present a crowd with a big problem, and you get a million less-than-helpful answers. This is the principle that rules overwhelmingly in the comments sections of political news sites. Break the problem down into manageable chunks for maximum crowd effectiveness. I hate to pick on Project 370Z again, but damn it, it’s such a good example of successful crowdsourcing. Had they presented their crowd with the simple directive of “help us build a car”, they would have gotten a hodge-podge of vastly different ideas, opinions, and (unfortunately) misinformation. Instead, they break the process down into parts, and then further into individual questions. “Help us build a car” becomes “which of the following three wheels best fits the Metalloy design?” Give people a manageable problem instead of an open-ended question, and you get more focused and relevant answers.

There are probably many more aspects of effective crowdsourcing, and even more that will guarantee failure, but I’ve noticed these three present in every successful attempt I’ve seen. Have you observed any crowdsourcing patterns worth noting?

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