05/24/2010 01:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Crowdsourcing: A Legitimate Marketing Resource

At the risk of committing industry blasphemy, marketers aren't the only ones with great ideas. Just log onto YouTube, MySpace, Facebook or a host of other consumer generated content sites and you'll soon realize that people can be immensely creative without having it as a descriptor on their business cards.

I firmly believe that a properly directed creative mind can sell just about anything in any category in any retail environment. Further, great ideas can come from a variety of places, regardless of formal training. My first boss, marketing patriarch Bud Frankel, believed that anyone could contribute creatively. It made no difference to him if you were the lead creative or the guy pushing the mail cart. A good idea is just that. (Mr. Frankel's ability to promote creativity in the most likely and unlikely of places was one of the things that made him the best to have ever played the game.)

There were more than a few ad agencies quaking in their respective boots by the trend of consumer-generated brand campaigns. Doritos "Crash the Super Bowl" TV commercial contest and others like it proved that consumers had something to say about the brands they chose, and had the creative talent necessary to tell a compelling story. Realizing that an audience's creative energy could be harnessed to increase awareness, engagement and sales, marketers in certain rabid fan categories have given even more control of the brand to consumers. Mountain Dew's current "Fans Take Over the Brand" campaign, Dewmocracy, challenges consumers to create everything from new product flavors to marketing strategies, ending in a vote by fans to determine the next new product introduction.

A lover of terms beyond measure, the marketing industry looked to label the consumer content trend. First we called it consumer or user generated, then landed for a time on "open source" marketing, which came from the tech world where outside programmers collaborated to create platforms. Jeff Howe coined the term "Crowdsourcing" in 2006, defining it as the "process by which the power of the many can be leveraged to accomplish feats that were once the province of the specialized few." Today, Crowdsourcing has morphed into an industry whereby firms invite and reward outside participants to tackle creative brand challenges.

I was recently introduced to BigHeads Network, a firm that's taken a slightly more evolutionary approach to crowdsourcing. Instead of limiting their participants to creative minds who hail from the marketing world or simply members of the target audience, BigHeads accesses a diverse group of minds with different perspectives to drive new idea generation. The company amassed over 1,000 minds from a myriad of disciplines (entertainment, health care, sports, technology, politics, education, fashion, etc.), to generate product innovations and marketing solutions.

In one such instance, a cosmetics company was looking to improve female consumers' engagement with their foundation product. BigHeads challenged certain members of its brain trust to generate ideas and inspiration: a Navy Seal who used camouflage to blend into surroundings, a woman who studied reptiles that changed color for safety, and a car restoration guru who used tools to match paint on old vehicles. Although they weren't customers, marketers, or researchers, they had deep insights to the exact issue and brought truly innovative solutions to the table.

Beyond crowd selection, the questions posed to the brain trust are critically important pieces of the crowdsource equation. The firm must ask the right questions of its network to give the thinkers the best opportunity for success, and must be careful to direct the process without influencing the outcome. This is the secret sauce of a good crowdsourcing company, as asking the right questions at the right time to the right people is the fuel for this type of innovation. Lastly, how a crowd source firm reads and packages the data can make or break the effort.

Crowdsourcing has proven itself as a legitimate player in the areas of marketing insight and innovation. It is, however, a complement to rather than replacement of the role agencies play within the marketing of consumer goods and services. The ability to be creative is a gift, and strong agencies successfully corral the gifts, skills and experience of many to grow brands.

To all of the agencies out there still trembling over consumer generated marketing efforts, fear not (or at least, fear less). There will always be a place for big marketing minds within the hallowed halls of corporate America. It's just that now you might be sitting next to a crowd.

Sarah O'Leary is the Chief Creative Officer of Logic Marketing for Sales, a full-service marketing agency. She can be reached at

For inquiries about BigHeads Network, please contact .