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Crowd Control - 7/7/2009 -

You can breathe new life into your publication with crowdsourcing, but you've got to thoroughly explain the process to members and be comfortable relinquishing a little control.

By Arash Shane Robinson

THE ASSOCIATION MEDIA & PUBLISHING 2009 PRE-CONFERENCE CAME FULLY LOADED with relevant and timely content, and the session on Crowdsourcing was no exception. The term "crowdsourcing” was first coined in 2006 by Wired magazine's contributing editor Jeff Howe to describe the practice of using Web 2.0 technologies to outsource solutions to the public. Three years later, crowdsourced solutions are everywhere. Examples include iStockPhoto, Second Life, Threadless, Yahoo Answers, and Digg, to name a few.

As association publishing challenges grow more complex and budgets are squeezed by a down-economy, the cheap, mass collaboration that crowdsourcing allows has made it a very attractive problem-solving option for nonprofits.

However, crowdsourcing does have its drawbacks. Critics claim that crowdsourcing solutions can lead to job loss. The design industry is an example of this, as more and more small businesses turn to sites like crowdSpring and 99designs for their design needs. In the past, these businesses might have hired a professional designer; today, they can crowdsource their design solutions for a fraction of the cost.

Arguably, the most popular example is the crowdsourced "birdie” graphic employed by Twitter that they reportedly paid a designer $6 for.

In any case, the phenomenon doesn't seem to be going away, and the Association Media & Publishing 2009 Pre-Conference session on Crowdsourcing was a great example of how associations can use it to their advantage. During the session, Lisa Junker, Samantha Whitehorne, and Joe Rominiecki from ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership shared their experiences of crowdsourcing the May 2009 edition of Associations Now. They started the process back in November 2008, breaking it down into three simple steps:

  1. Brainstorm—submit ideas for articles
  2. Vote—rate submitted ideas on a 1 to 5 scale
  3. Recommend resources—suggest angles, sources, etc.

Take-Aways and Lessons Learned

  • Decide how much to crowdsource. Before the process began, the team discussed how far they were going to go with the crowdsourcing of the May 2009 issue. Crowdsource the articles? Photography? Art? (Note: The art director was not happy about this.)
  • Keep tasks simple. Whitehorne pointed out the importance of developing easy tasks to encourage participants' involvement. The harder the task, the less participation you can expect. The team recruited 50 volunteers that generated 80 ideas, but recommended about 20 resources.
  • Tasks dictate the platform. Rominiecki highlighted the value of focusing on the task before choosing the platform. After the team identified its objectives, it chose the most appropriate tools, which in this case were surveys and discussion forums.
  • Cast a broad net. Junker discussed the importance of spreading the word to as large an audience as possible, and then to continue spreading it over and over again throughout the process to maintain volunteer engagement. When the Associations Now issue was ready to go out, Whitehorne reported that it was marketed as the crowdsource issue by using a special logo, crediting ideas to participants, and following-up and asking for feedback.
  • Repetition doesn't have to be repetitive. Junker said that some of the article topics that were voted most highly by participants had been covered in recent editions of Associations Now. To avoid repetition, the team approached the topics from different angles.
  • Relinquishing control opens up new possibilities. A concern for the team was the possibility of disliking the ideas crowdsourced by the participants. Relinquishing control is scary; but in the end, they liked all of the ideas and discovered that for the most part they were in tune with their membership.
  • Transparency needs to be "real”. If you say you‘re going to relinquish control, you need to follow through or risk negative feedback. Also, there might be times when you have to do something that wasn't crowdsourced, so transparency is key. The team had to publish an article on a topic that was pre-determined with the advertisers. Technically, that article wasn't crowdsourced, but it worked because everything was transparent.

Crowdsourcing Associations Now's May issue was undoubtedly a lot of work, but the team indicated that the return on investment in terms of member engagement and the final product made it all worthwhile. Lisa Junker reported that the editorial team has received good feedback from readers through direct emails, as well as several blog posts written about the issue.

"One thing we've learned through this whole process is that communication is very important to crowdsourcing participation,” says Junker. "Our next step is to figure out a good strategy for making sure our readers know how they can submit ideas and vote on them.”

Meanwhile, the team is working with ASAE & The Center's knowledge department to develop a white paper on crowdsourcing and plans on using crowdsourcing for future issues of Associations Now.

Arash Shane Robinson is senior associate at The Coulter Companies. You can follow him on Twitter at @ArashRobinson. Association Media & Publishing (formerly SNAP) thanks him for volunteering to cover this session at the recent Association Media & Publishing Conference 2009 for those members who were unable to attend.


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