Glenn, a friend of mine from the office, went skiing with his girlfriend in Maine last March. It was ten below zero for much of the weekend, but the conditions didn't bother him much -- Glenn's from Boston. But paying nine dollars for a greasy grilled cheese sandwich at the slope-side restaurant was another story. The 3,600% mark up for a couple pieces of Wonder Bread and a slice of cheese simply got his goat. You might argue that crappy, expensive food is just part of the ski trip deal. Not so for Glenn. As he lamented this lunchtime injustice, his girlfriend noticed a table tent featuring an e-mail address where patrons might send comments and suggestions regarding their resort experiences. "If you're so upset about your food, tell them, not me," she said. Glenn, half-jokingly, whipped out his BlackBerry and sent a note off to the digital abyss expressing his sincere disappointment with the price and quality of said grilled cheese. The following Monday, he received a personal note from the mountain's director of food operations thanking him for the feedback, apologizing for the poor food quality and high price, and welcoming him back to Maine for a free lunch.
Glenn's experience represents truly outstanding customer service -- the kind of thoughtful, personal attention to an individual's needs that powers brand evangelism. Most organizations recognize the importance of seeking feedback from both internal and external stakeholders, but effectively responding to it raises difficult challenges. It's one thing for employees at a small ski resort in Maine to review and reply to the occasional e-mail from an outspoken visitor, but how do you manage that process for global organizations with hundreds of thousands of employees and customers?
Traditionally, the answer has been "sparingly." Particularly PR-sensitive issues might bubble up to find a place on the executive team's agenda, but all too often the corporate "suggestion box" is more a means of psychological appeasement than an actionable tool to facilitate dialogue. I'm not discounting the symbolic power of the "corporate hotline", even if there isn't anyone on the other end. There's something cathartic about articulating what's on your mind. But such gratification only goes so far. At some point, feedback requested but not addressed becomes a frustrating point of contention rather than a potential brand builder.
A number of innovative social media applications have emerged that challenge the notion that crowdsourcing -- tapping the latent wisdom of the masses -- is theoretically appealing, yet realistically untenable. These technologies enable organizations to sift through limitless ideas and questions to determine what's really important to their employees and customers, creating a truly meaningful feedback loop as well as a powerful "idea harvesting machine." However, the crowdsourcing technology market is quickly becoming saturated and each app has its own unique use. Here's a brief overview of the best of what's out there:
Google Moderator enables users to submit and rank ideas or questions they think should be addressed by "the powers that be." This allows leaders to tackle those topics the general population believes are most important. The Obama campaign utilized Moderator technology to conduct digital town hall events that enabled thousands of citizens to share feedback directly with the president. On the down side, Google Moderator-hosted forums may be susceptible to hijacking by vocal fringe groups. For instance, pro-marijuana users forced pot legislation to the top of the priority issue list in one of Obama's town halls by coordinating repeated voting for their group's cause. Google moderator is a free service -- all you have to do is sign up for a Gmail account and log in at moderator.appspot.com/.
All Our Ideas, the brainchild of Princeton prof Matthew Salganik, presents users with a series of comparisons and asks them to choose which of two options they prefer. All Our Ideas notes users' preferences and presents two new options to be judged. Participants can also suggest new ideas to be pitted against those previously loaded into the system. The most popular ideas float to the top of the priority list based on how many votes they receive. The pairwise system means all ideas are evaluated at one point or another and that people have to vote without seeing what others have chosen (which may prevent the kind of groupthink and "popularity snowballs" that can occur with some of the other apps like Google Moderator). The pairwise system results in a natural metric that can be interpreted to everyone (e.g., Idea X beat the relevant pool of other ideas 80% of the time). All Our Ideas is based on open source software, enabling organizations to redesign their own comparison sites to serve unique business needs. With a recent grant from Google, All Our Ideas continues to flesh out its design. In true open source spirit, the service is free!
Kindling is collaboration generator that facilitates opportunities for employees to share ideas more effectively with one another. Like Google Moderator, the site offers a system to suggest or vote on the strength of various peer-generated ideas (i.e., new products or services, innovative processes, or strategic shifts). Popular ideas bubble up to the top, enabling easy prioritization. Unpopular ideas are slowly phased out of the system. Individuals are prevented from exorbitantly voting on their favorite ideas, ensuring that votes retain their significance. Employees can also sign up to work on addressing a suggested project, so Kindling functions as a task manager as well. Kindling charges a flat rate of $5 per user, per month, but also offers non-profits and educational organizations a flat rate of $99.
Ideablob was created by Advanta, one of the nation's largest credit card issuers, to incubate creative small business projects. Participants post their best start-up ideas on the Ideablob site and registered community members can both comment on ideas they like (or don't like) and vote for those they think should be awarded a monthly $10,000 prize. The idea that receives the most votes wins and the lucky entrepreneur collects a small bit of seed money to get the ball rolling on budding business plans. Past winners have included both for-profit and non-profit groups. Even those who don't win receive feedback for how to enhance their ideas from a group of peers across the globe.
Kluster enables organizations to "borrow" ideas their customers and fans suggest. Kluster community members respond to the requests that businesses post -- a new product, a different brand, a creative theme for an event -- in some cases in exchange for cash prizes, in others simply for the joy of creative collaboration. Kluster users may bet on the likelihood of sponsor organizations choosing the ideas they like best with digital poker chips referred to as "watts". Those who submit winning ideas receive at least 20% of the prize offered by sponsor companies. Users who bet on winning ideas earn more watts while those who bet incorrectly lose them. Kluster makes money by collecting 15% of rewards offered on specific projects and charging a fee for quality placement of projects on the Web site.
The key determinant when distinguishing among crowdsourcing technologies is whether you seek the input of internal or external audiences. While each of these applications is based on the same idea of an "open call" for ideas or feedback, some are better suited for employees and others for the public at large. In both cases, users should be aware of the risks associated with this type of voluntary feedback collection. The "squeakiest wheels" are those whose voices will be heard the loudest -- and loud does not necessarily equal brilliant.
Daniel Dworkin is a Consultant at Stromberg Consulting, a Ketchum firm specializing in employee engagement and change management.