Tap the Crowd

In our real-time world, one person with passion and an internet connection can make a huge difference. The first few months of 2011 have been a great example of that. In January, I followed the terrible flood situation in and around Brisbane in Queensland, Australia. As a result, I've also followed the remarkable story of Baked Relief, a crowdsourced support group that emerged to help those affected by this natural disaster.

Baked Relief is a movement consisting of thousands of people who bake and cook, providing home-cooked meals to people directly affected by the floods, as well as to volunteers and emergency workers such as Queensland police, fire, and ambulance workers and the military. Danielle Crismani started the Baked Relief movement when she tweeted on Jan. 10 to tell her followers she would be taking cupcakes to the volunteer sandbaggers working near her home.

The next day, she used the #bakedrelief hashtag on Twitter and was surprised that many others started to use it as well, building upon her idea of helping those affected by offering their own support. Several days later, #bakedrelief was so popular that it was the second most "trending" hashtag in Australia, with #qldfloods (the hashtag used for general information about the floods) in the No. 1 spot.

Things happened quickly, and it soon became apparent that matching the thousands of people who were willing to help with those who needed it was too difficult for Twitter alone. So on Jan. 17, Crismani created a website at http://bakedrelief.org to coordinate the relief efforts. The site provides details for those willing to volunteer and for those in need. It also accepts donations from people like me who are far away from the devastation.

Many people blogged and tweeted to spread the word, and soon Australia's national mainstream media picked up on the movement. Even people outside the area jumped in to help, with some driving for hours to deliver food. One group-Funky Pies-drove up from Sydney (about 1,000 km and a 12-hour drive) to deliver their pies to people working at Volunteering Qld, Queensland Police Service, and an evacuation center.

This story is a great example of the power of real-time crowdsourcing using social communications. No traditional advertising, media relations, or marketing techniques were used. The entire effort was crowdsourced in real time by regular folks.

Crowdsourcing involves taking a task usually performed by a few people and distributing it among a crowd of people-outsourcing it to a crowd-via online social networks. There are many ways that organizations are tapping the crowd to perform tasks more quickly or cheaply than can be done using traditional techniques.

For example, rather than turn to your marketing team to name a new product, you might tap your network of fans and ask them for suggestions. In this way, crowdsourcing might replace weeks of internal head-scratching or hefty fees paid to a specialist naming agency. Alternatively, crowdsourcing might augment the conventional process. Take a short list of names vetted for trademark compliance and ask your fans which ones they like.

Wikipedia is one of the best examples of an enormous, yet successful, crowdsourced project. The free online encyclopedia that anybody can edit has grown rapidly since its creation in 2001 and is now one of the largest reference sites on the web, attracting tens of millions of visitors per month. Wikipedia has more than 85,000 active contributors working on 14 million articles in more than 260 languages. Every day, people around the world collectively make tens of thousands of real-time edits and create thousands of new articles. Thus, the volume of knowledge held by Wikipedia expands each day, all thanks to one of the most successful crowdsourcing projects on the planet.

Television has also discovered crowdsourcing. During live broadcasts, programs such as American Idol and Britain's Got Talent get audiences to evaluate performers by calling a special phone number or texting their votes. This real-time crowdsourcing attracts and holds the attention of viewers by letting them feel they are actively involved.

As I write this, the revolution in Egypt has toppled the Mubarak regime after 30 years in power. The protest movement was crowdsourced using Facebook to organize people and direct them to the places where demonstrations were to take place.

Just think, if crowdsourcing is powerful enough to bring together people to help during times of natural disaster and even to force a government out of power, it has tremendous potential for any business. In my line of work (public speaking), I used the technique to create a new speaker video. At the MarketingSherpa Email Summit, a dozen people with handheld video cameras filmed me speaking, and I used those crowdsourced shots to make a new video to share with meeting planners. So the question is, how can you tap the crowd?