The latest Zeitgeist on the scene is “crowdsourcing.” Like the long tail before it, crowdsourcing isn’t necessarily a new idea, but rather a new name for an existing collection of concepts. In this case, crowdsourcing is the approach to business practices — especially creation — that fling open the doors to anyone and everyone interested in participating. Crowdsourcing is the heart and soul of the open source community, and it’s this belief in the ability of large, noncentralized groups of people to organize and create something great, solve difficult problems, and accomplish seemingly insurmountable tasks.

Linux, Firefox, the SETI@home project, and Wikipedia are all great examples of crowdsourcing at work. But it seems as if marketing and advertising has largely been left out of the picture. After all, the creation of a compelling message is the work of a central department or an agency of record. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms levied against a piece of advertising creative is it’s “off brand,” meaning it doesn’t support the central concept behind a product or service. The way to avoid that, the wisdom has been, is to keep things under one roof. Things work best when we’re all working off the same (client-approved) creative brief.

Recent consumer-generated media (CGM) inroads have begun to show how that strategy is, at the very least, limiting. A number of great brands have had enormous success letting consumers into the fold. Coca-Cola is the latest big brand to step up to the challenge, inviting consumers to submit films that support its latest positioning. Yet crowdsourcing actually points to another, deeper level. It may very well tell us what comes after CGM (as if we have CGM figured out!) and word of mouth in general.

Crowds, Wise? Really?

You know who really got the concept of crowds? William Shakespeare. Think about the scenes in “Julius Caesar” that involve crowds, especially the one where Marc Antony does his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. Shakespeare uses crowds (or, more accurately, mobs) as if they were another character. His crowds have motivations and emotions and act accordingly, monolithically. It’s often said the Bard was writing big-budget summer blockbusters with casts of thousands. He just didn’t know it.

Shakespeare hit on that critical insight: the crowd can move as one and be effective. Crowdsourcing works only because (let’s face it) there’s an Internet. The ability for large, dispersed groups of unrelated people to work together exists only because each one of those individuals has Internet access. That means (darn it) that it’s theirs.

As marketers, we need to sort it out, though. How do we let everyone who wants to into the development of marketing messages and strategies?

The CGM evangelists among us (me included) will tell you first and foremost, that it’s already beginning to occur. Every time Person A tells a story to Person B about Product C (especially online), they’re participating in group development of Product C’s brand. Check out this Sprite video, for example (then send me an email and explain it to me, please!). But that’s an effect and a part of the environment.

Crowdsourcing forces this concept a step further for those brands brave enough to do it. Companies that already involve consumers in product development have a leg up. The famous case study for this is Lego, which has assembled multiple groups of deeply involved consumers in the development of new products. Lego has established solid relationships that it leverages to speed development, prioritize projects, and craft compelling messages.

Shrinking the Distance

But more than that, Lego has turned consumers into partners by drastically shrinking the distance between creator and consumer and stretching the boundary between employee and customer to the point where it’s highly permeable. Which makes the task of marketing a cinch.

Think back on your career. I can personally attest that I’ve used every single product I’ve been a part of marketing. I own several Lands’ End shirts and pairs of Nike shoes. I’ve consumed gallons of Sprite, Coca-Cola, and Miller High Life (not at the same time!). I’ve even used Dryel on some of my favorite shirts (works great).

The point is, participants are given consumers. You hardly have to do anything to get them to buy, use, and (ahem) talk about the product. That, my marketing friends, is the real power and relevance of crowdsourcing. It’s going to lead us out of the “make us a commercial and we’ll give you a prize” rut we seem to be slipping into. It represents a real relationship companies and consumers may just be able to forge.

Speaking of Sharing

The crowdsourcing concept is a pretty compelling one, but right now it seems to be a bit of a blanket concept for a number of strategies and tactics. There are too many varieties of crowdsourcing to completely describe here. So I’ll post links on my blog to a few compelling examples culled from the Net.

Meet Gary at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.