Crowd Sourcing Your Community’s Marketing Effort

Ed BurghardPeering succeeds because it leverages self-organization—a style of production that works more effectively than hierarchical management for certain tasks. ― Don TapscottWikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

I was going through my files and reread a summary of the book “Wikinomics”. It is a book about mass collaboration and how to leverage it for innovation. It was authored by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, and published in 2006. The examples used in the book are obviously old by current standards (e.g. MySpace rather than Pinterest), but the principles are timeless.

As I was reviewing them, I couldn’t help but think about the application of crowd sourcing as a strategy for place branding. The promise of crowd sourcing is that through “peer production” (collaborative development) you get better access to the expertise and resources you need to be successful. Considering that most communities are generally starving for resources and their economic development organizations tend to be leanly staffed, it seemed to me that crowd sourcing a community’s marketing effort was an idea worth considering.

What Does It Take?

Being open is a cornerstone for success. You need to be willing to share information about your community’s strategic communication plan and how it supports the community’s brand promise. People need to understand what makes your community competitive and which industries you are preferentially targeting to tell your community’s story. They need to know your objectives and progress against those objectives so they can self-determine how to best help your community be successful.

You need to have a mechanism for self-organization. People who want to help must be able to engage and disengage as their time and interest dictates. Providing a platform for virtual collaboration would be a good enabler (i.e. social networking tools) of self-organization.

Active sharing is key. You need to create a two-way dialogue with people. But, active sharing requires you to develop your skill in effective expectation setting. People need to understand when you are seeking input versus approval. If you don’t set expectations then you will have chaos and ultimately disenfranchise the very people you want to support your efforts.

You need to act globally (or at least think bigger than your community). There are Regional, state and national resources that may be helpful to achieving your community’s objectives and you need a way to allow these relevant groups to participate.

Potential Enablers

  • The Internet. New interactive tools like social media and online meeting capabilities now make it easier to collaborate without being face-to-face. It takes some skill to use these tools effectively, but the results can be worthwhile.
  • Net-Geners. The new generation of workers has grown up collaborating online. They are the penultimate social media networkers. It is actually harder for them to do work “the old fashioned way”. Net-Geners spend time online searching, reading, scrutinizing, authenticating, organizing and collaborating. You simply need to allow it to happen effortlessly.
  • Interdependent economy. Organizations are beginning to realize that they are no longer economic silos, and as a consequence act are collaborating at an increasing rate. Co-development, co-promotion, joint ventures and multi-company sponsored activities are the norm.
  • Economic Crisis. While our nation is clearly in the process of recovery, Organizations have had to rethink how they do work because their sources of funding have been cut. Lack of funding has resulted in an increased willingness to share both the cost and risk of initiatives.

What Would it Look Like?

Think about engagement. You will want to create an interactive initiative that engages people to participate in helping you communicate the benefits of living and working in your community. This could take the form of a social media effort that nurtures interaction and idea exchange. The program would need to be more than simply creating a Facebook page. When I was leading the branding work for Ohio, we created an Ambassadors program to enroll and keep our local chat leaders informed, and we created an electronic newsletter to ensure everybody knew the positive things that were happening across the state and encouraged them to share the news with their personal network. Engagement takes both strategic planning and real work to be achieved.

Think about energizing and enrolling people. It is not enough to ask for help. You need to be clear on what help specifically looks like. Nobody wants to sign up for some loosely defined committee or work team. They need to know the objectives you are trying to achieve and be able to determine what they might bring to the table to help you be successful. The better you can define their commitment, the more willing they will be to commit. In my experience, this requires a deeper level of project planning than typically occurs in many economic development organizations. But, failure to think through the process will inevitably result in confusion and disappointment.

Think about owning the result rather than the process. An over focus on how you achieve the goal will discourage the very innovation and volunteerism you are trying to create. It is understandable that with the use of public dollars transparency and ethics are always of paramount importance. But, within that context there are many different ways to achieve a goal. With crowd sourcing the group will likely gravitate toward a way that is more amenable to a virtual organization than a hierarchal one. You will need to ensure your Management and funders are flexible enough in their thinking to accommodate a non-traditional approach to getting work done. You will also need valid measure in place so you can tell if progress is truly being made.


I appreciate the above discussion is a 60,000 foot look at crowd sourcing (long on strategy and short on tactics). You may also have a tendency to view the idea as too abstract to execute.  But, I believe it offers insight into an approach that could give your community (or company) a competitive advantage, and is worth considering how you might implement it tactically.  There are a couple caveats though.  First, in my opinion, not all work is amenable to crowd sourcing.  Be judicious in what you choose to crowd source.  At the end of the day you are still responsible for results.  Second, don’t view crowd sourcing as a stand alone solution.  It should be integrated into your marketing mix. For example, if you choose to use crowd sourcing to help communicate your community’s story, then it should be synergistic with your other tactical choices.  I’d love to hear what your experience in this area is. Have you tried crowd sourcing some of your Organization’s work? What were the results? What did you learn? Do you think this is the way place branding will eventually evolve? What are the hurdles that you see to crowd sourcing becoming the standard approach for place branding?

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