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Crowdsourcing: Testing the Limits with John Winsor

What does the future of crowdsourcing look like?

johnwinsorHaving grilled some of the top minds in the software business, this installment of Testing the Limits will deviate slightly from the norm. With us this month is John Winsor – author, entrepreneur and crowdsourcing expert.

After a successful career as a journalist and magazine publisher, John founded Radar Communications in 1998, where he implemented a variety of academic-based market intelligence tools to help some of the country’s most progressive companies learn from key voices in their communities. Today, he offers that same advice as the VP/Executive Director of Strategy and Product Innovation at Crispin, Porter + Bogusky.

John has written extensively on the subject of crowdsourcing, having published the popular 2005 book Spark: Be more Innovative through Co-Creation. With his latest book Baked In: Creating Products and Businesses That Market Themselves now hitting the shelves, John was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss the future of crowdsourcing, the premise of his new book, and the best (or worst) rock-climbing movies of all-time.

uTest: The hottest debate in crowdsourcing right now is the “fall” of traditional advertising or design firms and the “rise” of crowdsourced services. In your opinion, what does the future of crowdsourcing look like? Is the world ready for what you call the “digital tsunami?”

JW: Well the future of crowdsourcing is definitely bright, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions in people’s minds. Those who are skeptical of crowdsourcing question its ability to truly connect people. With crowdsourcing, you no longer have all of these professionals working together in the same building – that alone is often too much for some people to come to terms with. The idea of a crowd aggregating to solve business problems in a virtual environment is entirely new to most people, even though the underlying trend has been developing for years. The difference now is that it simply can’t be ignored.

uTest: So you see crowdsourcing as eventually obtaining mainstream acceptance?

JW: Absolutely. People are starting to see the full potential of this model, especially on the client side of the equation. There was a time when most people viewed crowdsourcing as chaos – like the inmates running the asylum, and that’s no longer the case for a growing number of people. So I think we’re just getting started.

Let me give you an example. When I started blogging, people would say to me, “Oh that desktop publishing thing is never going to work out. It’s just not going happen. Amateurs will never rise to rank and status of newsprint.”

That was in 2003! So crowdsourcing, like blogging, is an evolving market. I suspect that we’ll look back in a few years and have a laugh over the naysayers the same way we laugh at those who thought blogging was a “fad.” I’d categorize many of today’s crowdsourcing companies as “Crowdsourcing 1.0.” In other words, there’s still a long way to go – and too many great ideas for this trend to fail or even fall short.

uTest: Your new book Baked In just hit the shelves and it’s getting some great reviews. What’s it about and where did the idea for this book come from?

bakedinJW: I wrote the book with Alex Bogusky. It is largely based on our personal observations. Over the last few years we’ve seen many clients enter a market with almost identical products, so it was almost impossible for them to differentiate themselves from their competitors. We started to see how this situation was reducing marketing as little more than a way to lie about their products or services. In other words, if there’s no difference between your product or service from that of your competitors, then what other options do marketers have? This obviously led to some very poor marketing strategies.

Social media is changing all that – and that’s what a big part of this book is all about. Social media lends itself to transparency. You’ve got to live up to what you’re saying, because if you don’t, someone else will. The simplest way to summarize the book would be to say that marketing shouldn’t be separate from your product or service – they have to be one and the same. Hence the title.

The basic premise of the book is that the future lies with those who embrace creativity. I’m convinced that crowdsourcing will play a major part in this evolution.

uTest: In a recent blog, you say “every crowd, including Wikipedia, needs an editor.” What does crowdsourcing look like without one?

JW: I suppose it depends on the situation. Like I said before, people are starting to view crowdsourcing less and less as mob rule. They are starting to see an order being established. This is not to say that crowdsourcing cannot be disorderly – it can be. For example, a lot of present-day crowdsourcing is often contest-based. I think this winner-takes-all model will invariably lead to problems. It blurs the lines in a reputation-based community if one person takes home all the spoils. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

uTest: So do you see any backlash against crowdsourcing on the horizon?

JW: There will always be some form of backlash, but for the most part the results will be positive and people will emerge from this as the new experts. I do find it ironic that the “no spec” crowd – those that feel that crowdsourcing is an affront to their profession – are so hostile towards this trend. Chances are, these same people displaced a whole generation of people before them because of a paradigm shit driven by technology. It’s a natural progression, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. It’s inevitable.

In my view, it’s really no different than how other industries evolved. Take magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker for example. Early on, they would never have had freelance writers – it was all done in-house. Today, almost their entire editorial staffs are freelancers. So business will continue to adapt and find more efficient ways of doing things.

uTest: You write a great deal about co-creation (vs. crowdsourcing). In your opinion, what is biggest the difference between the two?

JW: I don’t really see a big difference. I define co-creation quite simply: People working together to solve problems. So for me, crowdsourcing is really a subset of co-creation. I think one of the big crowdsourcing trends that people are missing right now is the amount of participation being done by organizations, as opposed to individuals. Take Innocentive for example. Almost 20% of their participants are multiple individuals within one organization.

uTest: You seem to be quite the avid climber. What’s the highest peak you’ve ever climbed?

JW: The tallest peak I’ve ever climbed was in South America and it was around 20,000 feet. I’m really more into the technical climbs though, as opposed to the distance ones, but I enjoy the sport regardless. I like the intensity and the fear you have to overcome.

uTest: Which is the least terrible climbing movie: Cliff Hanger or Vertical Limit?

JW: Haha, great question. I’d have to say they’re equally terrible. To be fair though, climbing is one of those sports that would be difficult to capture on the big screen.

uTest: So what’s next for John Winsor? Where will you be in 2012?

JW: Well I hope to be doing what I’ve always done; pushing my limits, writing books and staying involved in the conversation.

To keep tabs on what John’s up to these days, be sure to check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.


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More Stories By Jennifer Moebius

Jennifer Moebius, Public Relations Manager at uTest, champions media efforts, analyst relations and speaking/awards programs. A media maven and creative writer, Jennifer’s accomplishments include feature articles in BusinessWeek, Fortune, Dow Jones, The New York Times and Investor’s Business Daily. Prior to uTest, Jennifer was Senior Account Executive at boutique PR firm Emerge Public Relations where she managed PR programs for a variety of tech clients including Burton Group, Information Builders, Action Engine, Tizor Systems, good2gether and Harvard Business Publishing.

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