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5 Free Crowdsourcing and Web 2.0 Tools for Small Business.

The term “crowdsourcing”  is widening in definition.  It used to mean sending one particular problem out to the universe.  The amorphous crowd, that undefinable pack of listeners floating around in space, would come up with a solution, either individually or working together and send it in.

Find your crowd.

Find your crowd.

Small businesses aren’t going to be hiring big corporate crowdsourcing services like Innocentive, but they can use Web 2.0 technologies to gather data and have conversations with their customers or potential customer base.  Gathering data and ideas is now considered to be under the umbrella term “crowdsourcing.” Here are 5 FREE ways you can crowdsource for your small business.

1. Start with your immediate, real life crowd. This means ask your own employees, friends or contacts, maybe even your child’s kindergarten class to help you come up with a solution or new ideas.

A particular anecdotal example of this type of private crowdsourcing came from NASA (it was told to me at my former employer, Mars, Inc. when I was a server administrator):

The space shuttle Atlantis was 600 pounds too heavy.  In space flights, even the slightest pounds make a difference.  The NASA engineers had to get rid of exactly 600 pounds or the mission would fail.  The engineers could not figure out where to trim this weight.    They had planned every last detail down to its maximum efficiency.  These highly trained, world-class engineers mulled over the problem for weeks.  Finally someone suggested that they get every single NASA employee in one room and present the problem.  Every employee from the night janitors to the mechanics to the secretaries to the astronauts were called into one big assembly with the engineers in the front on stage.  They explained the problem.  The crowd sat, thinking.

Then one lone voice from the very back of the room called out: “Don’t paint it!”

The voice came from the mechanic whose job it was to paint the fuel tanks white.  The mechanic did the simple math for the engineers.  It takes a number of cans of white paint to cover the tanks, and the weight of paint in those cans probably added up to around 600 pounds.

Someone else did more detailed math.  The paint weighed, you guessed it, exactly 600 pounds.  From then on, the NASA engineers chose function over beauty, and the rusty tanks successfully launched the Atlantis.

[You can see a question and answer referring to the story (but not totally corroborating it) here. Search the page for the term “weight” and you’ll find the Q&A]

Some may debate if this NASA example was true crowdsourcing, but I find it to be a good example of how small business can use their local crowds first to come up with new ideas.  The NASA engineering team was small, their immediate crowd was larger, and one of their own had an answer.

2. Move onto the web. Concentrate on your markets.  Use Web2.0 tools to find new markets and new ideas, but don’t just throw your conundrums out into the darkness.  Refine your search for the perfect crowd.

I have almost 2500 followers on Twitter (which I call my “room”).  My room is mostly made up of early adopters of technology, writers, and gamers.  I resource my crowd all the time.  Most recently, I was having problems finding a Wii to buy for Christmas.  All the stores were sold out.  Within minutes, my followers had sent me about 10 online resources that I could use to find a Wii and a Wii Fit.  I didn’t need to search anywhere else.

Small businesses could build a room on Twitter to use for the same purpose.  Look for the people who have similar interests by checking out the “bio” sections on user homepages.  Involve people in conversation.  Build a crowd.  Send them ideas for their problems and they will send you theirs.  It’s a conversation no small business owner can afford to miss.

Facebook groups are another option.  A small business owner could start using Facebook by joining groups of small business owners, or fans groups of certain related products, or groups with affiliations that may be related to her goals for her business.

3. Find out how to do a proper web search. Repeat after me:  There is a world beyond Google. If you know how to look, you can find very specific data that speak directly to your issues.  Pick up the latest edition of a book called The Extreme Searcher’s Handbook by Randolph Hock.  You’ll find many avenues for data gathering in there.  Also, go to your local library.  The Resource Desk has come into the 21st century.  Those mild mannered librarians can show you how to conduct an article search that is so high-powered you’ll wonder what they do at night.

4. Let the information come to you.  Speaking of Google, there are free tools that Google offers that can be helpful for any small business owner.  I’m a writer.  I use what are called “Google alerts.”  I made a web alert that sends me an email whenever my name or my company’s name (PurpleCar) is mentioned anywhere on the web.  Today I received an alert that I was mentioned in Smartlife.com’s TOP 50 list of Freelance Bloggers.  I was thrilled, and now I can add that credential to my list.  The same thing happened when I was named to ALLTOP’s list of Top Utterli.com users.  These publications don’t notify you when you are honored with a mention, but Google alerts will.

Small business owners should set up Google alerts on keywords that relate to their product or service.  A keyword is any word that is used often when referring to the subject.  Some keywords for “Valentine’s Gifts” would be valentine, gift, chocolate, flowers, cards, jewelry, love, girlfriend, boyfriend, what to get (keywords can be phrases, too!).

5. Last but not least, start reading blogs. There are a lot of great blogs out there for small business owners.  Check out one of our recent podcast guests, Becky McCray.  Becky writes at Small Biz Survival and she will launch any small business owner into the blogosphere and Web2.0 universe.

All of these efforts just take time and an internet connection.  Any small business owner could benefit from the new crowdsourcing options available in this brave, new social web world.  The conversations are happening.  Jump in.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris Cairns 26 January 2009, 10:37 pm

    Great post! I recommend that anyone looking to learn more about crowdsourcing to visit Jeff Howe’s blog: http://crowdsourcing.typepad.com/. I’d also read his book. And, of course, if you’re looking to learn more about how you as an individual can gain by crowdsourcing, check my site out!

  • Becky McCray 26 January 2009, 11:25 pm

    You’ve laid out a strong case for how small businesses can benefit from being connected, far beyond any question of making sales online.

    Thanks for the huge compliment, also. 🙂

    • PurpleCar 26 January 2009, 10:33 pm

      You’re the standard, Becky! Thanks for stopping in.

      And I love your point: It isn’t all about making sales online. You can use these tools to make your brick and mortar business stand out in your own neck of the woods.



  • Thursday Bram 27 January 2009, 11:10 am

    I’d actually like to note that when I started putting together the Freelance Bloggers list, I started by looking at the bloggers I follow — especially on Twitter. It was a great starting point for a project of that magnitude.

    • PurpleCar 27 January 2009, 2:34 pm

      Exactly. Twitter is a great starting point. I just discovered TweepSearch.com today. You can put in any keyword and search all the bios of Twitter.com users. How cool is that? I just stuck in “writer” and a bunch of new people came up. You can do this with anything.

      Thanks for the thumbs up, Thursday and thanks for peeping in.


  • jeremyvaught 29 January 2009, 7:10 pm

    Love the NASA story! And great post Christine! 🙂

    • PurpleCar 29 January 2009, 6:32 pm

      Thanks Jeremy! Yes I love that NASA story. It’s a great example of how to let your people live up to your expectations. Never underestimate! You never know where that next job may come from, that next genius idea. We should always be listening.

      Nice to see you, man. Send me an email and tell me what is up with you.



  • Ron 27 June 2010, 10:14 pm

    This NASA story is totally apocryphal. Partially based on fact, but for the most part completely made up.

    The VAB down at KSC couldn’t hold everyone who works for NASA. (And it’s like, you know, one of the largest buildings in the world?)

    “…the mechanic whose job it was to paint the fuel tanks white”? One little guy, right? One little guy with a couple of buckets of paint… Silly question, but, why would you hire a “mechanic” to paint something in the first place? Seriously, one little guy? I’m guessing NASA didn’t employ anyone to paint those early fuel tanks. I’m guessing they were originally painted by employees of Lockheed Martin, who assembles the tanks in Louisiana. Where all the employees of Lockheed Martin called into this big assembly room too?

    And exactly how many “cans of white paint” does it take to totally coat one of those things?

    Nice little story and I actually remember that first launch with an unpainted tank, (They did indeed stop painting the tanks to save weight), but whomever made this one up is playing it fast and loose with the facts and with history.

    • PurpleCar 28 June 2010, 6:38 am

      OK thanks.

      We could talk forever about stories and their purpose, but I’ll leave
      that conversation for another day. Thanks for laying out the facts as you’ve heard them. I remember watching that launch on TV and remember distinctly that the
      announcer said that the paint guys (or paint guy in charge) told them to save the paint in order to save weight. That is enough fact to make the story useful, if not totally true. Paint guys told NASA scientists
      something that saved the launch.

      Even if the facts are iffy, it’s a good concept. The story reminds us to not underestimate or disregard non-expert ideas, and that asking a crowd for ideas is sometimes appropriate. Social media mavens will brag about the “democratization” of ideas. They would use the derogatory term “Gatekeepers” to describe experts in power. I’m still a big fan of expertise, though. I prefer to think of experts as leaders. Unfortunately, class systems dictate the separation of experts and crowds, and leadership skills aren’t taught along with expert knowledge. Anyway… this story is loved by many who are in the social media crowds because of it’s suggestion of those walls breaking down, giving regular people perhaps not expertise, but worth.

      -PurpleCar Christine Cavalier