Crowdsourcing_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

Eric von Hippel, a MIT professor who specializes in innovation management, calls crowdsourcing the biggest paradigm shift in innovation since the Industrial Revolution. The shift toward completing business tasks—both creative and monotonous—on an external rather than in-house basis has been happening for nearly a decade.

Large brands have led the way. Doritos, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, and even political campaigns have allowed outsiders to share knowledge and contribute to their advertising efforts, sometimes with remarkable results. But does crowdsourcing have a small business application?

What is crowdsourcing?

“Crowdsourcing is the idea of pushing work, such as graphic design, content writing, or software testing, to an online community,” says Matt Johnston, chief marketing & strategy officer of uTest, a provider of crowdsourced software and app testing. To be successful, Johnston says crowdsourcing must solve real business problems more effectively and more efficiently than can be accomplished with employees or traditional outsourcing.

“Any time a small business owner has a repetitive task that can be accomplished online,” says Lukas Biewald, CEO of Crowdflower, a provider of crowdsourced labor, “crowdsourcing should be an option.” Let’s say you’re a retailer, and you’ve got thousands of products in your inventory. Every one of those products needs a description for your website. Or you want to find out every time someone’s mentioned your business on social media or in a blog post. These tasks are time consuming, Biewald points out, but don’t require a high level of skill.

Crowdsourcing involves having numerous people working on the task, with each individual doing some small portion of what would otherwise be an overwhelming job. The result: the task is accomplished faster, for a fraction of the cost it would take to have your own employees do it.

Crowdsourcing_PQ.jpgHow it works

“I view crowdsourcing as human automation,” says Chris Campbell, CEO of Review Trackers, which tracks online reviews of multi-location businesses. “Over the years, I’ve used [Amazon’s] Mechanical Turk for many different tasks. When I was working with a digital marketing firm, we had thousands of images we needed sorted into categories – a ‘is this a cat, is this a dog?’ type of thing. We’ve used Mechanical Turk for research, when we needed to find specific e-mail addresses. Another time, we had them write three different variations for sentences we’d use for marketing purposes. You pay a nickel or a dime for each task. It’s a great way to handle menial jobs.”

Using Mechanical Turk, it’s possible for business owners to tap into the power of crowdsourcing on their own, Campbell says. “It takes a little bit of time to set the task up properly, but not nearly as long as it would take you to actually do the task yourself,” he says. To control for quality, Campbell runs a given task multiple times to ensure he’s getting consistent results.

“That’s where places like Crowdflower come in,” Campbell says. “There’s a bit of an art to setting up the tasks so you get the best results.” Crowdsourcing companies such as uTest and Crowdflower provide what is essentially a coordination of services, connecting business owners with legions of workers from all around the world.

“It’s very important to us that we give people an opportunity to work from home,” Biewald says. Crowdflower relies on a global network of workers, which is advantageous since it allows them to offer their services in a number of languages. “If you want to have some or all of your website translated into Spanish, or another language that’s important to your customers, crowdsourcing will provide you with better, more reliable results than a tool like Google Translate.”

The global nature of crowdsourcing also makes for an ideal testing environment, according to Johnston. “In the case of uTest, our community of 100,000 software testers from 200 countries and territories enables our customers to test their web and mobile apps under real-world conditions, across any combination of devices, operating systems, browsers, locations and languages,” he says.

Can you trust crowdsourcing?

Still, Biewald acknowledges that he doesn’t fully trust the wisdom of crowds. “We measure everything, constantly,” he says. He believes this assessment is critical to maintaining the quality of crowdsourced information. “We incentivize our contributors, increasing amounts of compensation we pay contributors who consistently deliver high-quality work, because we know business owners have to be able to rely on this information.”

Crowdsourcing for your small business

“If you’re new to crowdsourcing, start small,” Biewald advises. “Define the task, set a budget, and see if you’re satisfied with the results.” Crowdsourcing campaigns with limited scope can cost less than $100. The best use of the crowd takes advantage of those areas where humans can outthink and outperform computers. “I always say, if you can get a computer to do it, you should,” Biewald notes. “But there are things computers can’t do well. A computer can’t find the home page of every company in your client database. A computer can’t write copy well, and it can’t tag photos efficiently. Computers don’t search the way people do. There are areas where humans consistently deliver higher quality results than computers do. Choose crowdsourcing for those jobs.”

Crowdsourcing does have its limitations. “Don’t use crowdsourcing to ask questions like “How can I improve my business?” or “Which marketing message is better?” Campbell says. “Crowdsourcing is not ideal for anything requiring deeper thought or strategic thinking.  Stick to the simple tasks, and you’ll have a better experience.”