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Jim Fowler

Crowdsourcing: The New Model for Collecting Business Information

Jim Fowler
Crowdsourcing: The New Model for Collecting Business Information

Encyclopedia Britannica won’t mean much to kids born in the past 10 years — unless, of course, they read about it on Wikipedia. Business information will likely suffer the same fate.

Once a business community gathers a large enough crowd, the traditional data company will find itself obsolete. A network of people begins to form, and the group will start to mine within its ranks for insights and wisdom.

Eventually, it gets to a place where the crowd becomes a reputable source for information. It’s all about crowdsourcing, and this crowdsourcing is changing the landscape of business information in the same way Wikipedia did for encyclopedias.

Take our company, for example. We created a platform for users to contribute information on small businesses, emerging startups, and large corporations. Although we use statistical best practices behind the scenes to ensure accurate data, contributors rarely offer up faulty info.

Even when companies input their competition’s data, the information is accurate. In fact, we’ve compared our data to paid providers and found we come out ahead 60 percent of the time. That’s the thing about crowdsourcing: People often hold themselves to a higher standard because others are always watching.

The Content Is User-Built

Of course, crowdsourcing shouldn’t be confused with user-generated content. The latter is what you see on LinkedIn where users supply information and articles on themselves and their companies.

Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, is collaborating to solve problems. Wikipedia is the most obvious example, but you can also see it in open-sourced software like Unix. Users had the power to change and co-develop software, and it was much easier to access and obtain than other software.

By using the wisdom of crowds, you often get better outcomes. But you have to start somewhere, and the key to building a community is to understand both its mindset and its motivation. It’s about making them equal partners in the collecting and sourcing of your content, and this involves the following:

1. Create a great atmosphere. Making the experience a good one is one of the easiest ways to encourage involvement. After all, participation brings a sense of community for those involved.

In “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” the title character finds a way to convince a bunch of boys to paint that fence by making it sound fun. It wasn’t a punishment but a privilege — a pleasure even.

Pull people into the process. Let them see how their contributions shape the direction of the content. Once you have a motivated crowd, it makes your business model far more effective and valuable than a traditional data company.

2. Cast a wide net. With crowdsourcing, you inevitably get more data than proprietary data collection models. Although it may sound counterintuitive, the more people you get to contribute, the higher the rate of accuracy will be.

James Surowiecki explains it best in “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few.” At state fairs, you’ll often see jellybean-guessing contests. If you get enough people to participate, the averaged answer will be close to the correct number.

Your crowd is smarter than any one participant. Post call-outs to encourage people to weigh in on topics and tell them what they’ll get in exchange for their participation. And, of course, follow through on your promises to keep them coming back with more.

Crowdsourcing

3. Let data drive the direction. Hiring a team to source information is often the traditional data collection method. And while it’s often combined with some user-generated content, there’s still a question of its accuracy and honesty with no crowd to validate it.

What’s more, verifying information can become expensive, and content stales quickly if isn’t regularly maintained. Take Encyclopedia Britannica, for example. It relied on staff to author content, which went through 15 official editions with some periodic supplementing.

Allow contributions to evolve and expand the insights in your content. Work toward building a committed community to provide trusted content that offers fresh perspectives to the topics at hand.

4. Relinquish control to contributors. Too many companies try to control the collection and sourcing of data. They don’t trust the crowd to control the quality or reliability of data, which could then affect the contributions and insights gathered.

At my previous company, we had several different levels of contributors. If there were disagreements, we turned to the community to resolve the issue. We entrusted key members with identifying abuse and keeping data quality high.

Look for ways to institute levels and layers of control. Empower community members to monitor content and enforce policies around contributions. Putting the power in the hands of contributors can keep them invested in your content.

Gathering a crowd is a lot like gathering fairy dust. Both are hard to find and extremely valuable — not to mention that a little bit of each can go a long way. But as you bring more and more people into the fold, you’ll end up with a thriving community, and you can sit back and watch the insights come pouring in.

Jim Fowler is founder and CEO of Owler — the free competitive intelligence platform business professionals use to outsmart their competition, gain competitive insights, and uncover the latest industry news and alerts. Prior to Owler, Jim founded Jigsaw in 2003 and was CEO until it was acquired by Salesforce for $175 million in 2010.

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