Crowdsourcing Innovation: How To Make Sure You Spot The Best Ideas

Brands seeking the wisdom of crowds often look for that one-in-a-million, “original” idea. They might be missing an important insight hiding in plain sight.

The collective is a powerful thing. Crowdsourcing competitions can draw huge results, but the most valuable end game might not be free inspiration for a multi-million-dollar Super Bowl spot or a best-selling gadget. Rather, the most valuable prize might be the insights lurking in the collection of the submissions. The wisdom of the crowds isn’t just about picking a single winner.


How can you reap insights from the collection of ideas? Often in innovation, we welcome novelty and dismiss sameness. However, rather than thinking about repetition in the submitted ideas as being a nuisance, it is important to recognize that the repetition contains clues. Likewise, even if the ideas are relatively mundane, or at least not earth-shattering, the company can learn from that too. Collectively, the submitted ideas are a window into consumers’ minds.

It wasn’t just awhite60, the My Starbucks Idea (MSI) community member who posted “Please keep the Caramel Brulée Latte” in December 2011, who drove Starbucks’ decision to keep the flavor going past the holiday season. Starbucks surely also noticed that the idea had nearly 4,500 net votes and more than 50 similar requests, spanning four years. The community has spoken.

Likewise, Starbucks may very well have had gluten-free foods on the horizon. But hearing repeated, unsolicited requests in forums like MSI is easy research. The idea doesn’t have to strike like a bolt from the blue to be really valuable.

But how do you sense patterns that might matter to the direction of your business when it’s not immediately obvious? Napkin Labs, a company I advise, worked with a large electronics provider on a project to find out how people consumed television online. For this particular brainstorming session, it wasn’t incredibly important to emerge with a magic bullet type of idea to merge TV and online viewing experiences. It was more about hearing what customers thought about merging the Internet with their physical TV sets.

Consumers continually talked about the fact that they watched TV on their computers or tablets, but didn’t really feel the need to surf the web on their TV. A few expressed a desire to keep some browsing habits, like checking Facebook, more private, rather than display them on TV in front of the entire living room. A collection of sentiments like this led the electronics provider to revisit how it was approaching the Internet-meets-TV revolution.

As in any market research, we have to be careful in drawing conclusions. Using crowdsourced ideas, we need to pay attention to the composition of the community. Are these people a representative sample of consumers? No. The participants will tend to be more engaged and more rabid fans of the brand than the average customer. We also have to be on the lookout for factions of the community who might organize and mobilize participation for their cause. (Barack Obama’s crowdsourced press conference fell into that trap.) Companies aren’t going to play detective on the source of activity on their site. Simple rules of reason will have to do: If my rabid fans want to drink Caramel Brulee Lattes all year, maybe I should let them.


In traditional product development practice, there is a separation between gathering data from customers about their needs–via interviews, observations, focus groups, and surveys–and proposing new product concepts. The classic example of this separation is, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” (Theodore Levitt’s example from Harvard Business Review, 1960). In that view, managers guiding innovation should consult the users for what needs to happen, not rely on the users themselves to dream big about how it can happen. Crowdsourcing in innovation allows us rethink this separation. We can ask the crowd directly to provide the solutions, then work backward to infer what is on their minds.

One final example comes from my own teaching. One year I asked my students to suggest ways that technology could be used to improve the classroom experience. There were clear clusters in the ideas: texting-facilitated classroom interaction, game show formats, online study aids, and dozing prevention. (I tried not to take the last one too personally!) Out of the hundreds of submissions, there were very few that were truly unlike any of the others. But that lack of novelty doesn’t mean the ideas don’t have value. The clustering in the students’ proposed solutions contained information about their underlying needs for interaction, engagement, challenge, and stimulation. The students have spoken: Now I just have to see if the university will install heavy-eyelid detectors and seats with electric shocks.

Laura Kornish is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Leeds School of Business at CU Boulder. She is on sabbatical this semester, immersing herself in Boulder startups as a “professor-in-residence” at Napkin Labs and Red Idea Partners.