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Crowdsourcing: Turning customers into creative directors

November 23, 2010

Following on from last night’s class on Digital Market Research, I recalled an article I had seen on companies using crowd sourcing to help them design new products, which I thought I would share with you – it’s from BBC Business News dated 29th September 2010.

“The office building doesn’t look so good from the outside, we don’t need it to, so the rent is lower, but inside it’s really nice.”

Ning Li is’s 28-year-old CEO, and we are at the company’s London office, on the 11th floor of an unremarkable Notting Hill office block. is an online-only furniture retailer, so there’s no danger that customers will drop by. The company is six months old and already approaching profitability, with revenue doubling month on month, despite relying on word of mouth rather than marketing.

But this is a furniture business with no warehouse – and no inventory.  Instead, products are “crowdsourced”.  This is how it works. Visitors to the website are encouraged to submit their designs. The best of these are worked up into prototypes, and posted on the website. Registered members of the community vote. The most popular pieces are then available for pre-order – made in China, shipped by container and delivered directly to buyers from the port.
The designers are paid nothing upfront – but receive 5% royalties on successful designs, which Li maintains is above the industry average.

By going directly to manufacturers in Mr Li’s native China, he says the company can offer high-quality furniture at discounts of between 60-70% compared to traditional high street retailers.

“People buy things from very valued brands. They buy from an importer, who buys from an agent, who sources it from elsewhere. Each time a mark-up is added, sometimes it changes hands three to four times.”

“You can sell cheap furniture for a cheap price, but that’s not a bargain for consumers. The only way to create a bargain is to create quality furniture for a good price.

“How do we do that? When you link the consumer to the manufacturer there are huge areas of opportunity.”

Defining crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing isn’t new. Wired magazine’s Jeff Howe, who coined the term back in 2006, defines it as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”

Companies who have embraced it include Procter & Gamble. Their Connect + Develop initiative gave birth to the Swiffer range of cleaning products. InnoCentive crowdsources solutions to R&D problems; chipmaker Intel is looking for the home phone of tomorrow; industrial giant GE is offering $100,000 for a green electricity grid, and Crowdspring deals in design.

Crowdsourcing helped mining firm Goldcorp to discover 8m ounces of new gold deposits in 2000.

It’s the internet, of course, that makes crowdsourcing possible – on a global scale.

So is turning your customers into both creative director and chief of research the ideal low-cost model for business?

John Winsor is the author of Spark: Be more Innovative through Co-Creation and chief executive of Victors & Spoils, an ad agency built on crowdsourcing principles: “First of all it’s a lot cheaper, and secondly you get a lot more diversity of ideas, so those are the big advantages, and the speed – you get hundreds of ideas in a matter of four or five days. Great ideas come from the edges.”

But there are pitfalls. “The biggest caveat is the issue of curation. It’s great you opening the gates up to everybody – but all of a sudden you’re going to get a lot more stuff.”

To cope, ever more companies offer to help setting up crowdsourcing solutions. Mr Li, though, feels that the technology doesn’t need to be onerous.

“We take very good photos, with a solid, fast website. We have a technical team so everything’s been built in-house. The voting section for instance, this kind of feature is very easy to design.”

“It was just a fun, creative project”

Threadless co-founders Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart met on an online art forum in 2000, after Nickell won a t-shirt design contest. He started a thread asking people to post designs, the best of which he would print. The designer would get some cash and some free t-shirts. Chicago-based Threadless was born.

Mr Nickell claims that “it wasn’t intended to be a business at all, I never really thought it could get big like this. It was just a fun, creative project.

“We later learned that it was this revolutionary business model. I think the reason it’s so pure like that is the reason it’s worked so well as a crowdsourcing company.”

Ten years on the company is highly profitable, bringing in close to $30m in revenue in 2009.

Around 1,200 designs are submitted a week. The best are posted online, where the community votes. The company then decides which of the most popular designs should go into production.

Winning designers get $2,000 plus $500 in vouchers. Should the t-shirt go to a reprint, they get a further $500.

The crowdsourcing model has critics; companies, they say, are simply getting spec work done for free.

Mr Nickel doesn’t see Threadless that way: “I think that the way companies are seeing crowdsourcing is a lot different from the way we see it. They are looking at it as this new business model, as a way to outsource your work to an anonymous crowd of people. We’re more about giving people something productive to do with their passions.”

“What differentiates Threadless is there’s no spec.”

The technology is also an in-house production. He says “it’s simple to make a website like Threadless, it’s not so much the software that makes the company, it’s the community.”

Engaging your audience

Canadian shoe design company Fluevog has been around since the 1970’s. In 2002, it started Open Source Footwear, a website where customers – or ‘Fluevogers’ as they’re known – can upload designs. Winning shoes are named after their creator, who also receives a free pair.

So far the company has produced 12 of the designs.

Marketing Director Stephen Bailey says that it has benefits beyond the shoes in terms of customer engagement. “It’s an affordable way to be ahead. You’re able to see what your customers are thinking and what they’re dreaming of, and you’re able to measure that against what you’re doing.”

Fluevog outsources some of the coding of its website, but most of the technology remains in-house. Open source designing has proved so successful, the company has branched out into crowdsourcing print advertising through Fluevog Creative.

‘Design by committee’

Not everyone is so sanguine about the benefits. Jaron Lanier is a US computer scientist, virtual reality pioneer, and author of You Are Not a Gadget. He made Time magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

His concern is that by “mining” the crowd in this way, the wealth that results from the work done remains concentrated in the hands of the people who put out the call – ultimately endangering jobs and the economy. Mr Lanier also believes that crowdsourcing threatens creativity.

“The wisdom of crowds is what we call in the trade an optimising function, meaning that if you can set up a problem where you just want a simple answer. Crowdsourcing is good at that but for synthetic creation there just aren’t any examples of it being good – it leads to what we call design by committee, dull derivative stuff.

“Do you really think that Simon Cowell would have promoted the Beatles through some show where the crowd was voting? … Of course not.”

Despite this, use of crowdsourcing as a low-cost means of innovation seems unlikely to disappear.’s Ning Li says, “I can’t imagine any business doing what we’re doing with a lower cost structure. The model’s been proven – we’re selling one container a day of products which for a six-month business is absolutely fantastic.

“I think the features for crowdsourcing are not very complicated to develop. What’s complicated really is to keep your promise. Because consumers can like something but eventually if you don’t do anything about it, it’s frustrating and disappointing for people who trust you with their votes.”



Busy day at BizCamp Belfast for Room 201

November 15, 2010

Well it was quite a day at BizCamp at the Ulster Museum in Belfast today.

Six speaker rooms, Nearly 100 excellent speakers – and hardly a sales pitch among them (which was great!).

Couldn’t get around all of the presentations but here’s what I heard:

Anything to do with digital marketing, SEO, Paid Search, Social Media.

Kathryn Leech: Head of Digital Marketing, Biznet

Our own Lecturess Kathryn Leech did the lot in 15 mins and was brilliant as always! World of Mouth is a brilliant insight and the fact that every good conversation begins with listening. Great advice for all businesses out there rushing to join the dash into digital. Take your time. Listen. And think strategically!

Kathryn’s presentation will be available on SlideShare shortly (if not already!), so keep an eye out for it.

Online video marketing.

Jonathan Gaston: Colours Video

In spite of some technology issues Jonathan did a great job in presenting the case for video content online. Did you know that YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world? Check out some of Jonathan’s work on his website…love the work for Alexander Boyd Displays! And check out the latest Alan Partridge series exclusively on Fosters Funny! Top tip Jonathan!

Kill the online hype. Start the collaboration.

Stephen Bogan: MD, Genesis Advertising

 A call out for collaboration between offline and online from the MD of one of the province’s leading traditional advertising agencies. Proving that ‘advertising definitely isn’t dead!’ with a pile of stats from the IPA/BDO and Thinkbox/IAB, supported by solid examples like ‘Compare the Market’, Stephen explored the ‘myths & facts’ surrounding digital marketing and social media (brave enough given the context of the day!). Did you know that half the population in Northern Ireland doesn’t use the internet regularly and that only a quarter are on Facebook? Did you also know that 68% of the population still watch our own UTV for an hour daily (and that 57% of 15-29s watch UTV and 52% Channel 4?). Can’t argue with the facts; nor with the argument that the best solution for a Client starts with defining objectives, understanding the market and reaching it through the most appropriate channels, whether that’s offline, online or a combination of both.

Geolocation and how to own your own ‘digital real estate’.

Ken Sharp: Owner, Triage Hospitality

Great presentation from Mr Sharp on geolocation and geotagging. Useful overview of the market and the opportunities – Foursquare, sitorsquat, Yelp, Mashups, Bump etc and the importance of owning our own ‘digital real estate’. Very clear that unless we engage with the market and manage our own ‘real estate’ the market will do it for us! It’s no longer a choice now…and the commercial benefits are there too – Google trusts user generated content more than business generated content, so it’s time to start listening to the conversations and engaging!

Innovative marketing with or without a budget.

Dean Langasco: Owner, I Love Mondays

Missed most of Dean’s presentation (unfortunately!) but from what I saw I Love Mondays really do understand the idea of innovative marketing and how to use creative thinking to get the most from a marketing budget however small. If anyone has some notes from Dean’s presentation, we’d love to share them. Or get in contact with Dean! Great company with some great ideas that won’t break the bank!

PR can be indefinable, vague and is often misunderstood.

Gwynneth Cockcroft: MD, DCP

A man walks in to a bar…classic stuff from one of the Province’s most respected PR people and a great presentation on what PR really is all about. Loved the 5 golden rules of PR:

Know who you’re talking to

Know how they speak

Listen to yourself

Get someone else to listen to you

Question everything until you’re really uncomfortable

 ..and above all make sure your PR has a PURPOSE (otherwise it’s just noise)!

Do well…then tell. You certainly did Gwynneth. Great job! Must come up and see you some time 😉

And finally a plug for Shhmooze, a neat new App for conferences and events.

Tried it out myself and it works great in spite of the slow connectivity at the Ulster Museum. Mehdi el Gueddari, the company’s CEO and Lead Developer was more than helpful in getting me registered and it wasn’t long before I was waving at, and being waved at by contacts at the event. Great work Shhmooze and best of luck with the App!! Think it really will ‘change the way people meet people’!!

And finally, finally a big thank you to the BizCamp team who made today possible. It was a hectic day and lots to manage, but from what I could hear from people around me, the day was a tremendous success. Here’s to the next one!!

If anyone has any feedback, opinions, notes or links to any of the presentations or content from today, please let us know. We’d love to share!!


The Lone Ranger or The Magnificent Seven…?

October 23, 2010

Why market via email?  A key question to ask for any company thinking of embarking into the world of email marketing whether you’re B2B or B2C.  But what is more important to consider is “is it enough?” 

Let’s discuss the first question:

Well the buzzwords are brand awareness, acquisition, retention and loyalty.  In other words it’s about getting your brand out there on the web, acquiring new customers and building their loyalty to ensure you keep them.  Remember faithful Pareto?  His age old “80/20” rule still applies here, even in the digital world. 

But with deliverability of the message becoming an increasingly important consideration, can we be assured of the success of our email marketing campaigns?  If you want your campaign to work, the success factor is NOT to go it alone.  Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto as a sidekick.  Wouldn’t you rather use the Magnificent Seven?

  1. Email Marketing
  2. Search Marketing
  3. Online PR
  4. Online Partnerships
  5. Viral Marketing
  6. Interactive Ads
  7. Offline Communications – even in a technology driven world we still need to consider the accessibility of our message to all consumers, not just the computer savvy ones.

Seems to me that Email Marketing can be good, even very good as long as you use an interactive campaign…

And you thought I was talking about the movie, didn’t you?  Alright, go on…check out the link below to see The Magnificent Seven in action…you know you want to…

So for Email Marketing to give you the best return on investment what are the tips to remember?  Well Chaffey et al, 2009, prompt us to consider if the creative and copy is consistent with our brand, if the message reinforces other communications and if the timing of the email campaign fits in with offline communications.   As a consumer myself I always think of the WIFM factor (what’s in it for me?)  Get the copy right and be relevant!  Adapting the message to specific audiences will increase conversion.  Offer consumers an incentive for signing up and allow them to modify their subscriptions and communication preferences.  Listen to unsubscribers and give them an alternative like RSS feeds or Twitter.  ESP’s like smartFOCUS DIGITAL will even test your emails to check for the likelihood of getting spammed.

If this juicy titbit isn’t enough to answer your questions on Email Marketing I recommend checking out the DMA website at, in particular their ‘Email Marketing Best Practice Guidelines, 2007’ publication.  If nothing else it’s always good to know that you’re doing the right thing.

Or you could just wait until I post the next juicy titbit…


Disruptive meeting of Social Media Association for Business

October 20, 2010

We came. We saw. We did a little learning.

Great turn out at the 2nd meeting of the Social Media Association for Business tonight at the University of Ulster. Good mixture of social media experts, bloggers and business people keen to learn what this ‘social media thing’ was all about and how it can actually help businesses do better business.

Think that there was probably as many questions as answers from tonight’s meet up. Lots of good discussion about disruptive marketing (really must read Jean-Marie Dru’s book if I can get it at the right price on Amazon!) and how Apple has succeeded by being disruptive (although every Apple product hasn’t been entirely successful!).

Disruption is a great thought. The big challenge however for many businesses and organisations is not to be ‘dazzled by the lights’ of social media but focus on good old fashioned sound marketing thinking like understanding their market, competitors and customers; developing products and services that meet the needs of the market;  differentiating themselves from competitors; attracting customers and retaining them etc.

The principles of sound marketing haven’t changed and they are still valid, if not more so, in the new digital environment. What has ‘changed utterly’ is the speed at which change happens and the scale of the opportunity that digital media offers businesses whether they are trading across the island or around the world.

What was clear from tonight is that social media isn’t easy (nor is it rocket science!). It demands strategic thinking and an investment in time and resource. It also takes imagination, and that’s a big thing. In social media, content is king…content that is relevant and engaging and not just about the latest 25% discount sale offer…and that brings us back to disruptive thinking. As Sir Richard Branson said about Disruption,  “It’s all about risk–taking, trusting your intuition, and rejecting the way things are supposed to be. Disruption goes way beyond advertising, it forces you to think about where you want your brand to go and how to get there.”

Social media is just another way of getting there, but an extremely powerful way potentially, in spite of what Malcolm Gladwell thinks!

Looking forward to the next catch up…and a new SMAB logo? Maybe time for a little disruptive thinking.


You can’t delete a Tweet but you can ignore it!

October 18, 2010

Before you send your next tweet, think about this.

Over two-thirds of comments on Twitter go without response, with the first hour being critical to a tweet’s lifespan, according to new research. Sysomos, maker of social media analysis tools, researched 1.2 billion tweets over two months and reported that the majority, 71 percent, received no response (retweet). Of the 29% of tweets that produced a reaction, 19.3% were retweets and the rest replies. 

Gone in 60 minutes. How deep do you tweet?

 The study found that of all tweets that generated a reply, 85% had only one reply. Another 10.7% attracted a reply to the original reply – the conversation was two levels deep.

Only 1.53% of Twitter conversations are three levels deep – after the original tweet, there is a reply, reply to the reply, and reply to the reply of reply.

Sysomos also discovered that 92% of retweets take place within the first hour after broadcast.

Just 1.63% of retweeting takes place in the second hour after broadcast and a tiny 0.94% in the third.

Of the 1.2 billion tweets Sysomos analysed, only 29% prompted a reply or retweet.

Tweet for thought?


If you build it they will come…but only if they can find you!

October 17, 2010

Is your website or blog a field of dreams…or just a field or bog, in the middle of nowhere?

Thanks to Paul Bullas for this insight into SEO.

According to Paul the online world is in essence no different to real estate in that the position of your website on a search ranking page (SERP)  can be the difference in 2010 between your business being a success or a failure. So unless you’ve got the blind faith of Ray Kinsella, when you’ve built your website, you better make sure that people can find it, and find it ahead of your competitors’!

Getting found online when people type in a phrase or keyword is now so important that companies can rise or fall due to their results in a Google search. Search Engine Optimization is the art and science of  moving a website or blog up in search ranking results and needs to be factored into the building and ongoing optimizing of websites and blogs for your business.

  • How important is it to be on the first page or ideally ranking number one on the first page?
  • How important is ranking to get people to click through to your site when there are thousands of other companies competing to be on page one?

It started with a search

Search engine ranking is now known to be absolutely critical as research shows that 93% of all buying decisions start with an online search.

Look at some statistics regarding click through traffic based upon the position that a page receives when entered into a search  engine (this is from a study leaked from AOL’s search engine logs):

  1. The first ranking position in the search results receives 42.25% of all click-through traffic
  2. The second position receives 11.94%
  3. Third position on the first page obtains 8.47%
  4. The fourth placed position on page one receives 6.05%
  5. The others on the first page are under 5% of click through traffic
  6. The first ten results (page one ) received 89.71% of all click-through traffic,
  7. The next ten results (normally listed on the second page of results) received 4.37%
  8. Third page receives a total  of 2.42 %
  9. The fifth page receives a total of only 1.07%
  10. All other pages of results received less than 1% of total search traffic clicks.

These figures featured in the Beginners Guide to SEO which you can download from one of the top blogs on search engine optimisation SEO

What Paul also found from this source was that being listed at the top of the results not only provides the greatest amount of traffic, but instills trust in consumers as to the worthiness and relative importance of the company/website.

Do you optimize your website or blog for search?

Let Blog201 know what works for you.



Social media is a waste of time for small businesses?

October 17, 2010

Read an interesting article in the Daily Telegraph this weekend that reported that a survey conducted by the Forum of Private Business (FPB) found that 52pc of respondents who use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, regard them as ‘not useful’ or ‘useless’ to their businesses.

FPB spokesman Phil McCabe said: “It’s clear that, while a lot of our members are certainly trying out social media for their businesses, many remain unconvinced of its benefits.”

Is it the medium or the message?

It’s obviously hard to say whether this response from the small business community is down to the media that they are using, or how they are using them, or what they are using social media for. Suffice to say that this reaction is probably not surprising! Tried it once and didn’t like it, or it didn’t work has probably been the experience of many SMEs. I would suggest that there could be many reasons for that. Maybe there was no strategy in place for why or how they were using social media? Maybe content, either quality or quantity, was the issue? Maybe consistency and commitment…it’s not just about building a website, or opening a Facebook or Twitter account…and it’s not just for Christmas!

Hopefully Blog201 will learn a little more about the experiences of local SMEs when we meet up with the Social Media Association for Business on Tuesday night. Let’s hope there are some good stories there that we can tell you about.

In the meantime, Alastair Duncan, partner at marketing consultancy Alternative Genius, offers five simple tips for small business owners uncertain about where to get started with social media.

1. You can start with a Facebook page

Just when you thought you’d finally got your website up to date, a new survey from advertising giant Omnicom has found that Facebook users who ‘like’ a brand’s page on the social networking site are more likely to buy its product more. As 14 millions Britons visit the social networking site every week, it’s as good a place to start as any.

Andrew Henning, from digital agency Redweb, says making a business page your customers can ‘like’ is a simple exercise and “an opportunity to start building a ‘social profile’ for your business”.

2. Be in many places with a good story

Create pieces of content to appear in many places and devices, not just on your own website, and have a clear point of view to stand out from the crowd. “View your website as a hub, then find all the spokes where stakeholders are spending time and build a relevant presence,” says Steve Rubel, of PR firm Edelman.

Yeo Valley, the Somerset based organic foods company, just ran an advertisement during X-Factor with surprisingly handsome farmers rapping about produce. An overnight sensation, the video, the web site, the ‘yeo tube’ page and Twitter comments were all linked to invite people to feel good about the brand.

3. Listen up

The only thing worse than being talked about, said Oscar Wilde, is not being talked about. In the context of social media, however, there is something worse: not listening…just read our post on Gap last week!

4. Stand for something

Blogging is a great way to keep customers informed and interested in new services. It’s good for search too, as the more frequently key words relevant to a search query appear in text (‘plumber in Leeds’) and the more people link to it, the higher up the natural search results you’ll go.

Twitter is even easier. Think of a good name (yours is probably best), have a simple picture and sign up. The micro-blogging site lets you publish short statements, link to your blog, website and Facebook page, and others can share your links. Twitter also tests your ability to be responsive as people do talk back.

5. Find suppliers as well as advocates

Angella Newell of Tasting Sessions, a London based ‘food adventure’ business, creates ‘multi-sensory experiences with a twist’ at food festival events.

She uses blogs, Facebook and Twitter promote the company, and has unearthed a host of talent, producers, artists, musicians “to make the events amazing”.

“Social media is a great leveller. People are more willing to have an informal conversation that can lead to something else – even Stephen Fry tweeted about our festival last year.”

If you have any examples of how small businesses have used social media to build their business, let us know and we’ll blog about it here.


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