Crowdsourcing for Innovation


Boom! Studios should have little trouble turning ideas into products. The comic book and graphic novel publisher has a stable of award-winning work and licenses with WWE, Cartoon Network, and the Jim Henson Company. It also has agreements with 20th Century Fox and Fox Television to bring its comic book stories to both big and small screens.

And yet when the company wanted to create a new comic series created by Todd McFarlane, creator of the Spawn comic books, it didn’t dip into its cash, toss an advance at the author, then share the revenues. Even though BRZRKR would be the first comic co-written by actor Keanu Reeves and would attract plenty of attention, the company turned to crowdfunding. Boom created a Kickstarter campaign with the aim of raising $50,000. The campaign raised just short of $1.5 million, allowing Boom to produce at least the first three volumes but also enabling it to reach audiences beyond comic shops.

The campaign generated criticism. Some creators bemoaned the entry of large companies into the crowdfunding space, arguing that it takes funding from small producers. But the benefits, even for established companies, of turning to the public for money in advance of production are clear. By asking people to put their hands in their pockets, businesses are able to test a real market. The 14,571 people who backed BRZRKR didn’t just tell Boom that they liked the idea. They also showed Boom that they were willing to stump up for it. Before Boom had paid for a frame, they knew that they would be able to pay the authors to produce the comic and that the series would have an audience. They knew that people liked the idea.

Crowdsourcing has become a way of not just funding a product but of testing a market. If people are willing to pay for a product even before it’s made, the product idea is clearly sound. Running a Kickstarter campaign is now a form of market research. But it’s also a fairly crude form of market research. Audiences have only one form of response: either they pay or they don’t. A campaign can’t learn what audiences would want to see, how the product could be improved, or how they actually use it. Boom! Studios, which could have funded its project itself, learned only that people want to see Keanu Reeves’s comic. They didn’t learn what readers think of the characters, whether they stop reading after page 20, or if they’d prefer a different art style.

But a crowd can provide those kinds of detailed answers—if businesses can find them and know how to query them.

Researching a Market Crowd

Market research isn’t new. Businesses have been questioning customers for as long as they’ve been serving them. But just as the Internet has enabled creators to easily tap multiple people willing to pay for a product, so the Web’s communities also enable businesses to reach customers at any time, track the way they use their products, and ask them for feedback.

Juliet Pascall founded Incling in 2013 after working in social and market research for TNS and CSpace. She and her co-founder, a developer, are “both passionate about merging technology with qualitative research,” she says. Together, they set out to create a market research online community platform that would allow brands to engage and collaborate with customers from the comfort of their own home or while they were using the product.

Incling has now held over 300,000 in-depth conversations in 25 languages with participants around the world. As well as researchers, the team includes community managers, social anthropologists, and psychologists who analyze data extracted from the crowd using a range of different methods.

Digital diaries allow participants to upload their own photos and videos from their mobile phones, giving brands an insight into their customers’ daily lives. Community platforms let brands follow leads all the way along the customer journey, from the moment they start researching a possible gift item to the day they make the purchase. Brands can then continue interacting with those customers through those platforms, gaining more information about how they use the product and whether they’re satisfied with the purchase. Private chatrooms enable brands to quiz audiences about topics as sensitive as sex and birth control, enabling them to better understand societies and cultures in which some subjects are rarely discussed openly.

Incling also enables brands to use screen capture software to monitor exactly how participants browse websites, choose goods, and make purchases, delivering a greater understanding of the user experience. Incling has even used sentiment heat maps to gain emotional feedback, and helped brands adapt their offers to local audiences.

“Our platform can be used to run anything from short term ad hoc qualitative studies to online focus groups or interviews and longer-term insight communities,” says Pascall.

All of these tools deliver more information than whether or not an audience is willing to buy a product. They also produce real-time feedback that’s more accurate than an attempt to recall a sentiment after a customer has used a product. And because participants often take part in the studies at home or alone, they’re less likely to be affected by the intimidation that some people experience in face-to-face focus groups.

Building an online community to track the use of a product also enables a brand to reach a broader range of customers. Crowdfunding might provide one measure of the demand for a product, but not everyone willing to buy the product shops at crowdfunding sites—and not everyone who is willing to buy from a crowdfunding site will make up a product’s audience. Crowdsourcing innovation by building a community enables a brand to recruit different kinds of customers.

The brand can then question those customers quickly. Instead of waiting until a market research firm can recruit a focus group to decide the best name for a new product or a new flavor of ice cream, the company can simply push out options to the community members and ask them what they think. The company gets to enjoy a much closer and more responsive relationship to its market.

Working for a food company, Incling has asked cottage industry bakers across the US to keep an online diary for a week. The bakers shared how they purchase products, how they produce and bake their goods, and how they market and sell them. The participants’ photos, videos, and blogs gave Incling a deep understanding of the types of product they use, how they use them, and where there might be opportunities for innovation.

For the maker of a health and nutrition app, Incling recruited a group of 30 people, and tracked their use of the app and its effect over three months. The appmaker was able to explore the market and refine the concept before launch. Incling has now started its fourth year of weekly conversations with over 500 customers who help a water utility company form strategic plans and refine communications and adverts. And the company has also used mobile diaries to understand how women in Saudi Arabia use beauty products, and built online focus groups for soft drinks consumers in Russia.

How to Crowdsource for Innovation

So while some companies are turning to crowdfunding sites both to raise money and to check whether their ideas strike a nerve with a potential customer base, other businesses are using crowds for more precise questioning. They’re bringing people together in communities that they can tap at any time, encouraging them to produce mobile diaries, and tracking their use of products and mobile apps.

To some extent, brands have long been able to do this through Facebook corporate pages. Facebook’s Audience Insights give brands demographic data—including age, sex, education levels, and relationship status—about both people on Facebook generally and people on the site who are connected to the brand’s Facebook page. Brands can learn about their followers’ interests and hobbies, and even combine that data to build personas that match people interested in the brand’s business.

Having built pages, brands can also query their followers. In between providing product news and pitching new releases, a brand on Facebook can ask them how they use their products and what improvements they’d like to see.

While using a social media platform for this kind of crowdsourcing is relatively straightforward and now well-established, it leaves control of market access in the hands of the social media giant. When a brand asks followers which new model the company should produce next or how they use the brand’s latest mascara, Facebook determines who sees the question and how many people see it.

For brands to retain access to their market, they need to build the community themselves on a platform they control. That can be both expensive and slow.

“It can be daunting when you start to think about how you might set up, maintain and use your own online community,” warns Juliet Pascall. She recommends considering a short-term trial before investing in a community with hundreds of participants. “This will give you the opportunity to gauge how much time and resource is required to really run and maintain a successful online community, and the ability to co-create something brilliant with the participants as they feedback on their experience.”

Even preparing the audience—what Pascall calls “consumer consultants”—can take time. An audience will require little information before talking about a product that everyone uses every day but a technology company might need to share policy, limitations, and the law governing a new form of science before the brand can discuss innovating applications that use it.

And brands who build, then tap, members of a community need to show their appreciation. “It’s important to offer fair incentives and to reward great ideas with feedback on the outcome of research/community,” says Pascall. Even Facebook offered people in the US and India $20 a month to install a market research app that told them which apps they were using, for how long, and which features they used the most. That was information they clearly believed they couldn’t have obtained on Facebook alone.

This is supposed to be a golden age for market research. Brands have never had more access to their customers. They’ve known more about who they are, where they live, and what they like. Brands, like comic book publishers, who use crowdfunding sites to raise funds and check customer interest are only asking one simple question: “Are you prepared to pay for this idea?”

Look a little further though, and brands won’t just be able to ask more detailed questions. They’ll also gain an understanding of what exactly their customers are willing to pay for and understand what innovations they need to introduce to persuade them to pay more.

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