We used to live in a world where few people produced content and most people consumed it. Thanks to the Web, nearly every digitally connected person creates some sort of content and nobody can consume it all. This has enabled a new phenomenon of content contribution that’s changing the world: crowdsourcing.
According to Wikipedia – a darling example, itself – “crowdsourcing is a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people, in the form of an open call.” It’s all about user contributions, and it’s proliferated with the explosion of easy-to-use social and Web technologies.
It’s now impossible to avoid crowdsourcing buzz. I heard crowdsourcing chatter nonstop during several recent Advertising Week events – “let the customers do the work for you.” I frequently hear it at work and amidst peers throughout the interactive industry. Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, even penned a (very good) Harvard Business Review cover story this month on how companies should leverage crowdsourcing, or “user contribution systems.” An entire cottage industry of services, technologies and online communities is emerging to join this gold rush – typically regarded as untapped value, free for the taking.
To be sure, there are many reasons people participate online, such as instant rewards, need for self-expression, belonging or altruism. Most people contribute passively, for example, by doing nothing more than visiting a Web site. That passive visitation data can be mined in aggregate to illicit important insights and trends.
Conversely, it is a minority of people that actively and consciously contribute, by creating valuable content that is typically new, original and labor-intensive. We see such examples in sites like Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia and Amazon reviews, where only a few create content for the majority. But in these high-involvement contributions, it’s certainly not money or formal payment that motivates most contributors. So what is it?
In a report released last month, titled “Crowdsourcing, Attention and Productivity,” scientists at Hewlett-Packard’s Social Computing Lab concluded that motivation to contribute stems not from self-expression or altruism, but attention.
According to the study, which factored in 9,896,816 YouTube videos submitted by 579,471 contributors:
[T]he productivity exhibited in crowdsourcing exhibits a strong positive dependence on attention, measured by the number of downloads. Conversely, a lack of attention leads to a decrease in the number of videos uploaded and the consequent drop in productivity, which in many cases asymptotes to no uploads whatsoever. Moreover, uploaders compare themselves to others when having low productivity and to themselves when exceeding a threshold.
What’s the lesson in this? Attention is the ultimate currency of crowdsourcing, or, really, any active user contribution. Attention is scarce, and the few active, most valuable contributors in your immediate or extended community are hardwired to seek it out. Marketers should factor this not only when creating incentives for contribution, but in driving overall engagement. Because to grant attention is to acknowledge; and acknowledgment is the basis of all relationships.
(The above also is my latest column in MediaPost.)