Got a Problem? There’s a Crowd for That

Written by Megan Samuels

Need a centuries old mathematical theorem solved or a consumer-generated commercial for a product? No problem, there’s a crowd for that.

What’s Crowdsourcing? Crowdsourcing is like outsourcing, but different. Instead of hiring an outside firm to, say make shoes or iPads, crowdsourcing relies on non-specific volunteers all over the world to perform the task via the Internet. The volunteers are not usually paid for their efforts, but projects are often incentivized with cash, prizes and/or recognition.

The term, “Crowdsourcing” was coined by Jeff Howe in Wired magazine in 2006, but it’s actually not a completely modern concept. In the 1870s, an Oxford philologist by the name of James Murray had a little project he needed help with so he took out ads in newspapers for assistance. The task? Only to index and find quotations of usage for every single known word in the English language. No biggie–and in just 60 or so years, it was finished, becoming what is now known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Obviously, things get done much faster over the Internet! There’s a modern version of the OED project that nearly everyone who goes on the Internet unknowingly participates in. Did you realize that every time you prove you’re human by entering a CAPTCHA code, it’s more than likely you are transcribing text from old books that optical character recognition was unable to pick up? It’s called “ReCAPTCHA”, a crowdsourcing project developed at Carnegie Mellon University.

Crowdsourcing for Fun and for Free: Many of our favorite online resources only exist because of Crowdsourcing. Wikipedia anyone? I don’t know about my fellow students in the MCM Program, but I have at least 10 Wikipedia references in my research papers. Granted there’s probably a fair amount of inaccuracies, but topics often include references with links, and those links lead to even more information on the subject you seek. It’s a good thing.

So is there a marketing potential for crowdsourcing? Ask the Doritos people about the Crash the Super Bowl campaign A Google search for this campaign receives around 6 million hits. Also referred to as “participatory marketing” the campaign has continued for the past five years and has garnered publicity and buzz way beyond any marketing budget could have hoped for. The $25,000 prize for winning is a mere pittance compared to the brand equity Frito-Lay has been able to bank. And as Frito-Lay Chief Marketing Officer Ann Mukherjee puts it, “I have 25,000 ads in the can…and they’re free!” Click here to watch a few. They’re pretty funny:

Doritos DIY Ads

In a similar campaign, this one through Facebook, Harley-Davidson launched the “Fan Machine” where fans can submit ideas based on a brief generated by the agency Victor & Spoils.

Crowdsourcing has its detractors, especially ad agencies and graphic design firms as the ad campaigns. Crowdsourcing sites like allow businesses to hold contests to see who comes up with the best logo from a pool of designers from all over the world. The payout to designers is pretty low and agencies feel that it is taking business away from them.

Since it looks like Crowdsourcing isn’t going anywhere, you may want to acquaint yourself with some of the finer details of what defines it. There are certain characteristics that define Crowdsourcing with corresponding examples of sites that meet some or all of the criteria:

a) There is a clearly defined crowd
b) There exists a task with a clear goal
c) The recompense received by the crowd is clear
d) The crowdsourcer is clearly identified
e) The compensation to be received by the crowdsourcer is clearly defined
f) It is an online assigned process of participative type
g) It uses an open call of variable extent
h) It uses the internet

In Conclusion: Not that this subject is anywhere near over, but this blog is. Crowdsourcing is here to stay and that doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing, especially when you consider that the concept has evolved into more benevolent channels. “Crowdfunding”, where people from all over the world donate sums from tiny to huge, can fund such endeavors as small businesses in the developing world (, equipment and supplies for cash-strapped public schools ( and creative projects (

Burstein, D.D. (2011). 5 lessons in participatory marketing from Doritos’ “Crash the Super Bowl” and CMO Ann Mukherjee.

Estellés-Arolas, E and González-Ladrón-de-Guevara, F. (2012). Towards an integrated crowdsourcing definition. Journal of Information Science (38) 138. pp. 189-200. Blog



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5 Responses to Got a Problem? There’s a Crowd for That

  1. Megan,
    I’ve always had an interest in crowdsourcing ever since I learned about it a couple years ago. I think it can be an interesting way to brainstorm and find new ideas, but also think that there is still a need to lead projects and people through a process. As an example, it is fairly easy to do a project by yourself, a group of 6 to 8 people working together is ideal, but once you get a group into the teens or larger working together on a single project, it can become cumbersome unless you have someone that is facilitating the process.

    I think one of the things that was a kind of a fad in organizational books recently is the idea of the leaderless organization. I think it is a concept that might be lumped in with crowdsourcing at times. There are a number of books that came out a couple years ago that were all the rage – Braufman’s The Starfish and the Spider being one of them. Almost all of these books had the ‘bumper sticker’ of a leaderless organization, a group-run organization, etc, but when if you actually read the books as opposed to reader the highlights of the books, they all seemed to indicate somewhere in them that there had to be someone who served as a faciliator or a guide. Brafman called it a ‘catalyst’ which, as I was reading the book I was saying to myself the whole time ‘this is a leader.’ You dont necessarily have to be vocal, out in front, squashing everyone elses ideas to lead – you can lead from the front, the side or behind, but it can still be leading.

    So crowdsourcing is interesting to me, but like the ‘leaderless organization’, I think it also takes some one who can do a bit of organization and guiding to make it most effective.


    • Megan Samuels says:

      Hi Mike,

      How interesting, I had to enter a CAPTCHA code to leave this response. Anyway, while I would agree with you in principle about I have to disagree with you about the effectiveness. Last semester I wrote about the Occupy movement as an adhocracy. There’s no central organization or really any organization, but the many Occupy movements around the word have not only resonated with the public in general, but changed the conversation. The movement even created a significant brand “We are the 99%”. As the movement could be considered a type of Crowdsourcing, I think that it can be very successful as is. Granted it rare, but it happens. There’s another journal article about Alcoholics Anonymous as a successful ‘unorganized’ organization, so it does happen. Another example would be Linux and other open source operating systems. The Polymath and other similar projects offers up complex and occasionally unsolved mathematical problems for anyone interested to try to solve. Obviously, you’re not going to see a lot of people capable of even giving it a shot, but for the mathematicians about the world, it would be something to consider, especially when there’s prize money and/or international recognition.

      The type of crowdsourcing I refer to in my entry is about engagement. Obviously, there’s a central entity that puts the call out for responses, whether that’s the marketing firm, the university or a clever website. I can’t see where any of these projects need leadership, all anyone needs is an invitation.


  2. Cathryn Lottier says:


    Thanks for your great post on crowdsourcing. I actually knew about the idea of crowdsourcing, but never knew the accurate term for it. It seems that with the internet, crowdsourcing has been growing and will continue to grow at a rapid rate. By using free volunteers to contribute ideas and messages, it would be difficult to go wrong. Yes, as you mentioned, there will be inaccurate information (for example, my friend once made up a completely bogus entry in Wikipedia about my hometown calling it California’s fertile valley…it’s not), but overall, there will be a wealth a real information (for example, your mention of the viewers choice of Superbowl commercial). As to Mike’s point, it is not something that one would use for completing projects, but it is useful when attempting to extract information from large groups.

  3. Aaron Fowles says:


    Very interesting post about crowdsourcing. While this concept is not new, it is definitely unique. I have seen all sorts of examples of this — there are online “work from home” groups that do surveys or even write ads for the internet. The concept of doing something on your own that contributes to a larger purpose or project probably has some innate psychological need that it is filling, and thus the participation from others.

    I believe the internet has been able to see the concept expanded exponentially. The reason is that it has revolutionized the way we communicate, opening channels where they never existed before. You could join a club that makes specialized bicycle equipment or a civil war re-enactment group. You could meet up with other “Trekkies” and run simulations as if you were on a real starship (only without seeing your fellow crew members — wait, they could now with apps like ooVoo). Taking the concept a little further and engaging potential customers in your brand is an amazingly clever way to leverage this new communication medium for your own success.

    If you think about it, network marketing, companies like Amway and NuSkin, may be considered crowdsourcing. A bunch of people that have a similar interest in products and money come together and work out how to best sell a product, and the companies making the products are then able to skip out almost entirely on the standard retail model. Each of the agents/distributors/associates take on a marketing role, and become evangelists for the brand and products, all while contributing their own experience, time, and money to build it up.

    To Mike’s point, crowdsourcing can indeed appear leaderless or be difficult to manage, but from my experience, the ones that are serious about something stick it out and don’t usually hold the others back — as also evidenced by your mentioning of the “occupy” movements.

    Crowdsourcing may serve small brands best in helping to bring them to the level of awareness, but as with other marketing tools, it really should be integrated into a bigger strategy for further, sustainable growth. After all, if it worked so well on its own, more people would have Linux on their computers (how many people in the consumer world actually have this besides me?), as well as joined the other social movements.

    Thank you for pointing this out — I had not thought about crowdsourcing as a part of IMC, but I can see how it fits and could even be another useful tool if used correctly.



  4. Felipe Camacho says:

    Hi Megan,

    I came across the concept of crowd-sourcing not too long ago, when I first started using Wiki’s. It is a great tool, one that can serve a twofold function. The first, of course, is to enlist the help of more proficient minds on a given task. This is such a popular concept that information resources, such as WikiPedia, are built upon it and would likely not exist otherwise (we’d still be buying updated volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica). WikiPedia, and other collaborative forums, are the more mature forms of crowd-sourcing these days with social media and mobile technology helping to keep it fresh. Now you can tap into the collective wherever you are because “there’s an App for that”.

    One very specific app for crowd-sourcing your problems is Problem Halved. This app was the brain child of Rob Shoesmith who thought that there should be a way to get help from the mass of social media users on his mobile device (Wapner & Schaeffer, 2009) . His story, albeit not unique anymore, of a regular guy dreaming up a hit app is an interesting one which you can follow on his website at

    The second function crowd-sourcing serves is word of mouth advertising; think of reviews. As you know, these are consumer generated reviews of products available on Amazon’s website. Amazon enlists the help of its large consumer base to generate reviews for the benefit of other shoppers. The way crowd-sourcing works here, in reality, is for the benefit of Amazon who can promote products on it site without spending more on creative copy. Positively framed user generated reviews, by virtue of their peer-to-peer status, are an effective way of marketing products in a manner that doesn’t come off as advertising and avoids the common barriers (Young, 2010). Additionally, outside of, there’s Yelp, which is simply a business directory built with the help of consumers who populate the database and rate the merchants they list. Again, the pitch is that the consumer benefits from the unbiased information, though, in reality, the site reaps the revenues.

    The great thing about new media, and the evermore powerful technology that supports it, is that it can take concepts, like crowd-sourcing, and give them new life. In this case, we now have peer-to-peer access to opinions, insights, and even pep-talks from people whose only interest is social-interaction (though it be anonymously). All of this with the help of micro-computing devices.


    Young, A. (2010). Brand media strategy: Integrated communications planning in the digital era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Wapner, S. (Reporter), Schaeffer, C. (Executive Producer). (2009). Planet of the Apps: A hand-held revolution! [Television series episode]. Kurtis Productions, CNBC Originals. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: MSNBC.