Talk to Your Crowd: Principles for Effective Communication in Crowdsourcing: A Few Key Principles for Communicating with Solvers Can Help Contest Sponsors Maintain and Grow Their Base of Participants

By Schafer, Sebastian; Antons, David et al. | Research-Technology Management, July-August 2017 | Go to article overview

Talk to Your Crowd: Principles for Effective Communication in Crowdsourcing: A Few Key Principles for Communicating with Solvers Can Help Contest Sponsors Maintain and Grow Their Base of Participants


Schafer, Sebastian, Antons, David, Luttgens, Dirk, Piller, Frank, Salge, Torsten Oliver, Research-Technology Management


Crowdsourcing contests are becoming mainstream (Boudreau and Lakhani 2013) as an increasing number of firms and other organizations recognize the vast potential of sourcing ideas and solutions from crowds of external actors. Innovation intermediaries, among them InnoCentive and NineSigma, have been quick to seize this opportunity, creating online platforms to connect problems to solvers via crowdsourcing contests. These intermediaries broadcast the technology needs of firms to their networks of external experts, who then submit solution proposals related to the technical problem at hand (Lopez-Vega, Tell, and Vanhaverbeke 2016). To date, more than 70 percent of all innovation intermediaries offer crowdsourcing contests (Diener and Piller 2013). Moreover, multinational firms such as GE and Progressive Insurance have initiated their own challenges to discover breakthrough innovations in complex areas such as renewable energy and automotive technology. Even local and federal government institutions have begun to explore the crowdsourcing landscape as a source of solutions to complex social problems and governance challenges (MacCormack, Murray, and Wagner 2013).

The value of a crowdsourcing competition depends on the quality of the solvers who choose to participate. Given the proliferation of contests, competition for the best solvers is becoming increasingly fierce, and participants are becoming more selective as an increasing number of contests demand their limited attention and time. As a result, crowdsourcing solution seekers and intermediaries must make recruiting and retaining top solvers a strategic priority. This means addressing solvers' needs beyond simple competition; because only a few solvers will win, contest sponsors must find ways to keep top solvers engaged even when they don't win.

Appropriate communication mechanisms are a key to keeping solvers engaged and maintaining satisfaction with the contest experience. Opportunities to connect with challenge sponsors to discuss approaches, opinions, and suggestions can make solvers feel valued, motivating them to engage deeply with challenges (Boudreau and Jeppesen 2015; Morgan and Wang 2010). Achieving this kind of engagement, though, requires that crowdsourcing providers and solution-seeking companies structure communication in a way that binds solvers to their cause and motivates them to generate quality solutions.

We used a combination of large-scale surveys and focused interviews to explore solvers' motivation to participate in contests and their communication needs. By asking solvers themselves when, how, and with whom they wanted to communicate, we derived key lessons for challenge sponsors and intermediaries alike about how and when to communicate with solvers for maximum effectiveness.

Communication Pathways, Timing, and Methods

Crowdsourcing contests have been around a long time. In 1775, King Louis XVI of France and the Academie des Sciences offered a cash reward of 2,400 livres for any person who could "find the most simple and economical method to decompose in bulk salts from the sea, extract the alkali ... in such a manner that the value of this mineral alkali shall not exceed the price of the product extracted from the best foreign sodas" (Aftalion 1991, 11). The winning solution--still in use today--was submitted by Nicolas Leblanc in 1789 and patented in 1791; it is still known as the Leblanc process.

Today's crowdsourcing contests largely resemble the process that led to the discovery of the Leblanc process: A seeker broadcasts an open call to an undefined crowd of solvers, who respond with prototypes and proposals intended to solve the problem presented in the challenge (Howe 2006; Terwiesch and Xu 2008). The seeker benefits from competition among solvers, shifts risks associated with problem solving to the crowd, increases idea generation, and broadens the pool of creative solutions (Terwiesch and Xu 2008). …

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