4 Real Challenges to Crowdsourcing for Social Good
Geoff Livingston co-founded Zoetica to focus on cause-related work, and released an award-winning book on new media Now is Gone in 2007. For its 40th anniversary, political non-profit Common Cause re-examined its core values and wrote almost 40 theses for the Internet( ) era in the style of The Cluetrain Manifesto. The organization needed to know that these restated values were still in sync with its stake holders and needed its online community to provide feedback. For a month and half the organization tried to socialize the theses, getting lukewarm responses, but receiving thumbs-up on Facebook( ) posts about individual theses, and the occasional comment. Finally, Common Cause turned the feedback exercise into a contest, creating an effort where the best suggestion from the community would become the 40th theses. Over the next two weeks, Common Cause received 1,200 responses to the contest, and the best five were voted on by the community.
Common Cause’s difficulties and eventual success reflect some truths about this harderthan-it-seems social media strategy. Working with a community to produce outcomes requires intense work and labor. While crowdsourcing may be all the rage, many online conversations and literature on the topic fail to delve into the real hardships an organization may face in its effort. Some of the hurdles may seem obvious. You need an active community in place before you can simply thrust your cause’s effort into the public for feedback. Additionally, the crowd has to at least be acknowledged if not rewarded for its participation, if the effort will be sustained for any length of time. Other hurdles require experience. Here’s a look at four areas that can benefit from the best practices: Disclosure: My company Zoetica provided Common Cause a social media strategy.
1. Will the Crowd Care?
Many non-profits assume that their community will automatically care about the cause’s ongoing efforts. And while there is some common interest, to compel a community to act on an issue has to mean something to the individuals participating. The old, “what’s in it for me?” adage comes into play, especially now that contests with prizes are increasingly becoming the norm. Acknowledgment and recognition may not be
enough, and not everyone can afford to offer a large cash prize. So the average crowdsourcing effort has to motivate people with real meaning in their lives. That means an organization not only has to know its purpose, but also has to know where the community’s passions lie so it can strike the right balance. The Extraordinaries, a micro-volunteering network that crowdsources for volunteers, finds many of its participating non-profits struggle because they haven’t written a compelling challenge for their community. That’s when the network’s community manager steps in to resolve these issues so that participants can maximize their exposure. Perhaps the largest crowdsourcing effort in history, Pepsi Refresh, has gone beyond grants to serve the community with topical events like Do Good for the Gulf extension, major league sports integration, and retail marketing programs. “We’ve got a community manager who is constantly dreaming up new weekly challenges … these are short things that you can do each week to volunteer in your spare time,” said Ben Rigby, CTO of The Extraordinaries. “She works with each nonprofit to resolve various issues so that non-profits can maximize their exposure. If all else fails, we do manual routing of challenges to people whom we feel would be most interested in them, on the basis of what they’ve written in their profile.”
2. Crowdsourcing Requires Time
The Extraordinaries example demonstrates another major challenge with crowdsourcing. It takes time to crowdsource effectively. Indeed, although an organization might outsource innovation, it cannot outsource the labor necessary to be successful. Community management involves grassroots customer service. In spite of well-stated and published rules, an organization still needs to provide community management resources if it expects to sustain community interest. If there is a lack of structure, you can expect to invest even more time. The WeCanEndThis crowdsourcing initiative sought to use intellectual group exercises to come up with ways to end hunger at SXSW. Organizers opted for as little structure as possible to empower and inspire people to take on the challenge, and they believed there was real potential for impact. As a result, they spent more time. “When you don’t have systems and structures, and you try to do ambitious things, it takes time,” said Brian Reich, co-founder of WeCanEndThis. “That said, whatever time you spend feels very valuable — so the more you put in, the more you get out. We were breaking new ground every time we talked, put something on paper, engaged another participant. Our job was to harness, clean up, make connections, etc.”
3. Crowdsourcing Needs Structure
In an altruistic world, all goes well. In reality, all hell can break loose. And while not every crowdsourcing effort goes awry, many do. Confusion about what to do can occur, and thus the need for rules and procedures.
While the crowd craves freedom, people need to be told the rules of engagement and how to participate. These rules have to be clear, empowering for the crowd and directive in their end result. The Sunlight Foundation is one of the more experienced non-profits using crowdsourcing. In 2007, Sunlight started examining how Congress could make itself more open and transparent by making some technological upgrades and inviting experts from across the political spectrum to join them. The result was a series of recommendations that was lauded by both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader John Boehner. Since then, Sunlight has been noted for its Apps for America and Design for America contests, and Twitter( ) engagement techniques. “In regards to general app submissions, we assumed too much structure instead of encouraging more open-ended discussion,” said Gabriela Schneider, communications director at Sunlight Foundation. “People are going to use the tools (wikis, mailing lists, code hosting sites, etc.) that they are most comfortable using. Sunlight wants its role in this process to be that of matchmaker and knowledge commons.”
4. Enforcing the Rules
No one wants to police a community, but unfortunately even with rules in place, community management becomes necessary. Rules can be broken, the spirit of a contest can be thwarted, and unforeseen behaviors can necessitate action. If the larger community’s interests are to be encouraged and sustained, then communitycentric behavior needs to be enforced. That means the organization will have to use some of its community management resources to enforce and even build new rules. Pepsi Refresh needed to adjust its official rules in June to address fraudulent voting that was taking place. And now, the project management team continuously monitors the community to ensure that the current rules are being met, quality levels are up to par, and votes are indeed authentic. “Throughout the duration of the program, we’ve worked with a number of organizations that ensure that voting processes adhere to the rules, grants are implemented according to budget and timelines, and we have a team that works each day to respond to consumer inquiries,” said Shiv Singh, head of digital for Pepsi. “In addition, a member of the Pepsi organization reviews every one of the thousand submissions each month to ensure the quality of ideas on the refresheverything.com site.” So you see, crowdsourcing isn’t as easy as it seems. But by identifying potential challenges, you’ll be well on your way to success. Let us know of any challenges you’ve
face when crowdsourcing, or if you can offer any tips to make it easier for others in the comments below.