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.