It's one of the oldest riddles on earth; which came first, the chicken or the egg? And while this simple query is often thought of as an example of an unsolvable paradox, the underlying conceptual issue is at the very core of modern business planning; namely, do products cause demand, or vice versa?
There might never be an answer about the egg, but the increasingly popular phenomena of crowdsourcing may indeed deliver to industry the key insight that unlocks one of the puzzles behind why some products succeed while others, with nearly the same utility, do not.
Passion Meets Practicality
The world of 'research and development' (R&D) is the nerve center of every modern industry, striving to continually supply a stream of fresh products that business planners can direct toward consumer needs so as to deliver a constant flow of new customers that will drive their company's commercial success. And the two principal sources of material keeping the typical R&D department busy have always been either an inventor's brilliant idea, or a deftly attuned sense of what consumers were yearning for.
The chief problem with such a pattern of product development is that most inventor's ideas – no matter how seemingly brilliant at first – wind-up stranded on the launch pad rather than entering the mainstream. Somehow, they often just lack that certain something that takes them from the possible to the practical.
Similarly, even the most sensitive consumer listening mechanisms tend, more often than not, to be slightly tone-deaf, resulting in product launches that are frequently met with blank stares from the consuming public. These products often come quite close to tapping into a latent interest among consumers – but mysteriously just seem to keep missing the connection point that spells marketable benefit – and sales.
This all began to change, though, with the advent of social media on the internet, which signaled the emergence a mechanism to tap into the very fount of consumer wisdom that until now was only accessible at the time of product delivery. Now a way of establishing a collaborative relationship between the inventor's inspiration, and the popular search for benefit, had a way to be concretely expressed. The practice of crowdsourcing was at hand.
The basic approach of crowdsourcing is actually quite old; expand the pool of ideas and feedback, and products become more tailored to what people will really use. Historically this idea was expressed through outsourcing the process with the creation of “focus groups”. Yet no matter how much energy went into forming such groups, their ability to accurately reflect unmet needs and desires has always proven to be limited, and inconsistent.
Social media has changed this equation forever. Now businesses have a viable means at hand to move from what they think customers want, to getting much closer to seeing what the target audience themselves have to say about this. Crowdsourcing is the process of brainstorming with a potential market in the conceptual stage so that product development becomes much more precisely focused and organic.
The key to making it work, though, is much trickier than simply asking a question. The key is asking the right question, in the right way, so that the power of the social media network becomes the outsourced focus group of old, but now of its on accord. Properly structuring crowdsourcing campaigns demand that companies:
- Clearly define the question they need answered
- Establish a precise objective of what they are looking achieve with the answer
- Have an understanding of where different communities are in the social media landscape
- Develop an effective strategy for how to tap into that specific thought network
What this approach provides is a mechanism to guide every aspect of successful product development. From verifying specifications, testing features, and evaluating functions – crowdsourcing enables R&D departments to get past a good deal of risk in market acceptance before products hit the shelves.
Crowdsourcing also carries the added benefit of jumpstarting marketing campaigns by the very nature of how it works. And when it comes to new product development, creating a collaborative relationship with the potential future market fuels innovation.