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.
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.