Harness The Wisdom Of The Crowd

Industries across the globe, including financial cooperatives, are making good use of mob mentality.


For the past six years, Doritos has crowdsourced its commercial for Super Bowl the ultimate stage for creative promotion and a true test of a brand’s viability through itsCrash the Super Bowlad contest. For the 2013-2014 season showdown, Frito-Lay has promised $1 million to the contest winner as well as $500,000 to the runner-up. In 2012, the chipmaker brought its internationally embraced Do Us A Flavor crowdsourced concept to the United States when it solicited the public to vote viaFacebookfor one of three consumer-created potato chips. In the end, a Wisconsin mother rose to the top with her winning flavor, Lay’s Cheesy Garlic Bread. As with the Super Bowl commercial, the winner took home $1 million and the runners-up, Lay’s Chicken & Waffles and Lay’s Sriracha, each received $50,000. All three creators got to see their chip flavors in widespread circulation in 2013.

The outlay for prize money, coupled with other contest expenses, is still considerably less than what Frito-Lay would spend to devise its own audience-pleasing ideas and produce new products. The idea of crowdsourcing or the act of generating ideas or products through the efforts of a large group has spread in American industry over the past few years. According to wirelessweek.com, seven of the 35 advertisers in the 2013 Super Bowl line up incorporated crowdsourcing into their commercials.

So what do snack foods have to do with credit unions? More than you might think.

Frito-Lay didn’t rely on stale thinking and processes to formulate a solution to a problem, i.e., how to attract new consumers, it looked beyond its traditional boundaries for fresh ideas. It went straight to the source, so to speak, for that little oomph to make it stand out from the crowd. But can credit unions use crowdsourcing to help the institution and its members? Of course. Credit unions have essentially practiced crowdsourcing for decades and continue to do so today and new research shows how collective input can genuinely advance common goals.

Credit Unions On Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is at the heart of the credit union industry: People aren’t happy with for-profit providers of financial services, so they get together to create a better solution. Instead of contributing dollars, though, today’s crowdsourcing asks participants to contribute brainpower. There is a great deal of brainpower out there much more in a collection of a thousand members than in a conference room of executives so how can credit unions tap it to the benefit of the institution and its membership? For the answer to that question, just look around the industry.

Instead of contributing dollars, credit union crowdsourcing today asks participants to contribute brain power.

Each year, Michigan-based CUSO CU*Answers holds acontest to solicit video ideascovering a specific credit union-centric topic; for example, credit union ownership. Client credit unions enter script ideas that are applicable to the majority of credit unions. CU*Answers chooses the best ideas and works with a video company to produce the videos, which credit unions can then customize and use for their own promotions. Several years ago, two state leagues chose CU*Answers video winners for a statewide promotion of credit unions.

Affinity Plus Credit Union ($1.7B, St. Paul, MN) uses employee crowdsourcing to tackle a wish list of improvements and pet projects. Through its Make A Change For The Better program, every one of its nearly 500 employees address problems and opportunities within the credit union. Employees work in small groups to hash out ideas and present them to a group moderator. Once an idea has passed through the vetting process, which at times requires the consultation and guidance of an executive team member, the employee who initially had the idea becomes a project manager who is responsible for creating a timeline, assembling an implementation team, keeping the project on track, communicating the project’s progress, and measuring post-project impact three months later.

BECU ($11.5B, Seattle, WA), Washington’s largest credit union, uses a crowdsourcing platform to power its Ripple Effect initiative. Through the Ripple Effect, BECU posts challenges and invites employees to respond with possible solutions. Everyone can view and vote on the solutions or offer a comment or refinement. Ideas flow in as do thoughts, suggestions, and refinements and evolve through the participation of hundreds of employees. In time, the most popular solutions rise to the top.

HBR On Crowdsourcing

An article in the April 2013 Harvard Business Review titled Using the Crowd as an Innovation Partner looks at the instances in which the crowd is likely to produce better results than internal management. The article’s authors, Kevin Boudreau and Karim Lakhani, break down successful crowdsourcing into four categories: contests; collaborative community; complementor; and labor market.

Contestsare the classic search for ideas invite a crowd to develop a solution, often for reward, and from a large number of proposals pick the best one. Hello Frito-Lay. These work best, according to the authors, when the problem is complex or novel or has not established best practice approaches.

Collaborative communitieswork together for a common goal or common advancement. Whole industries have resulted from the intentional or serendipitous collective efforts of individuals. The 19th century steel industry is an example; so is Wikipedia; so are credit unions. Proprietary information is difficult to protect.

Complementorscontribute solutions to an existing platform. Think app creators for mobile devices. The more creative and useful the apps, the more desirable the mobile devices.

Inlabor markets, an organization looks to external crowds for labor skills, that is, outsourcing tasks on a large scale. Naturally, someone in-house is responsible for coordinating the efforts of these outsourced workers.

External Industries On Crowdsourcing

There are countless examples across the globe of successful crowdsourcing techniques. The examples below should serve to inspire new thinking at the credit union. Instead of looking at a single problem through the lens of a single credit union, consider what new voices at the credit union or within the community at large can bring to the discussion.

OpenIdeois a community-oriented crowdsourcing website that tackles social challenges such as how to use social business to improve health in low-income communities or how to design an accessible election experience for everyone. Sponsors put forth a challenge and the OpenIdeo online community collaboratively works on and refines ideas until it develops a viable solution(s). Once the challenge sponsor declares a winner, it or the OpenIdeo community works on implementation. OpenIdeo tracks successful implementations, such as the solution to the challenge of how to increase the number South Asian descendants in the bone marrow registry to increase the possibility that minorities will find matches.

InnoCentiveis similar to OpenIdeo but with a bent toward the scientific and medical communities. The site has more than 300,000 solvers, has received 40,000 submissions, and has solved more than 1,500 challenges. When InnoCentive put forth the challenge of how to separate oil spill material from frozen seawater in barges, the solution came from an unusual source. John Davis is in the concrete business and uses vibration to keep cement liquid during long concrete pours; he suggested applying the same principle to the barge content. Indeed, vibration does keep the petroleum in liquid form as the seawater freezes, which allows spill crews to separate the petroleum from the water, pour it out of the barges, and dispose of it. Companies, public sector agencies, and nonprofits partner with InnoCentive and offer cash rewards for solutions. Davis won $20,000 for his participation.

TopCoderinvites participants to crack tough software problems. Companies post challenges, the website markets the solutions, and winners receive royalties. Participation in TopCoder contests offers prestige for programmers thus increasing their personal marketability and employability and innovative solutions for the companies. It’s a win-win for both the company that posted the challenge and those that participate in it, even if they don’t ultimately receive the financial reward. Another crowdsourcing company, Appirio, purchased TopCoder in September, creating the world’s largest community of developers and designers.

Finally, Danish toy company LEGO useslego.cuusoo.comto solicit new ideas from AFOLs (adult fans of LEGO). Submissions can address original model ideas, original part ideas, or original models based on the licensed intellectual property of a third party. Fans have suggested kits that create exotic birds and ones that represent popular video games. Viewers of the LEGO site vote on submissions, the company develops the winning ideas, and the winner receives compensation. LEGO unveiled the fourth and most recent CUUSOO winner, the DeLorean Time Machine from the Back to the Future movie franchise, during the 2013 Comic Con; fans could purchase the kits starting Aug. 1.

Next Steps For Crowdsourcing

No group should be able to tap the power of the crowd like credit unions. Now it’s time to use that power to form deeper ties with members and communities. For example, instead of relying solely on the tried-and-true newsletter, which is predominantly a one-way communication vehicle, consider how tweets, podcasts, and interactive surveys allow members to comment back. Credit unions can offer up challenges to gauge members reactions to new products or ideas before making an investment. Member feedback can range from a simple Facebook like to a refinement that makes a product or service more amenable to a full-blown idea that appeals to either the entire membership or to a niche. The point here is to harness the brainpower of the many rather than the roomful of execs.

Don’t confine your challenges to products and services, though, think about community outreach, too. Find out not only what members think of that road race sponsorship or public school financial literacy program but also how they would refine it. When credit unions reach out to members, they are reaching out to their owners. That relationship is intimate and binding; therefore, the collective energy spent on designing new solutions should be more effective.

February 25, 2016

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