Crowdsource Your Store

Use social media to grow a crowd of loyal fans and engaged followers.
by : 

Maggie Feeney

June 1, 2014

Crowdsourcing is a huge buzz word these days, touted by marketing professionals as the latest, greatest innovation in how we do—or should be doing—business. Simply put, crowdsourcing refers to outsourcing tasks normally performed by employees or contractors to “the crowd” (aka the general public) via the Internet. Crowdsourcing allows businesses to recruit willing participants for free or at a fraction of the cost it would take to hire a staff person or find volunteers with the needed time and talents. But, does crowdsourcing live up to the hype and does it make sense for small businesses? If you go the social media route, the answer is a resounding yes.

Why crowdsource?

Instead of relying on a small number of people in your business to generate creative ideas, crowdsourcing opens you to a world of ideas from the “crowd” outside your doors. What’s in it for this untapped group of supporters? They get numerous benefits, such as status as an expert, being part of a community of like-minded people, gamification (using elements of games to drive engagement), and financial rewards in the form of discounts, free merchandise, prizes, and in some cases, actual payment. What’s in it for retailers? National chain stores and brand-name manufacturers are discovering “crowds” can be engaged very effectively to solve problems, gather information, generate ideas, and achieve practically any task large or small, all for little or no cost. But, the biggest benefit for any business—especially small, independent retailers—is not the ideas or products crowdsourcing generates, but the collaborations and connections with customers. Why? Because people emotionally invested in your business are more likely to become loyal, repeat customers.

Regardless of your customer demographic, odds are they are wired into the Internet, mainly to get social, which means crowdsourcing through social media can be an effective way to build community, engage customers, and promote brand loyalty. “These days, consumers expect to have a voice and be able to share their pride and enthusiasm for a business they like,” says Nancy Peirce, a digital marketing consultant. “Engaging them through fun crowdsourcing campaigns is not only rewarding for us and for them, it also validates their reasons for publicly supporting your brand.”

Build your crowd

To really tap into the power of crowdsourcing, you need an online presence, particularly on social media channels where people spend most of their time online, and you need to give people reasons to engage with you.

Because of their national presence, chain stores and brand-name manufacturers are able to run very successful crowdsourcing campaigns. For instance, when Target asks their 22 million Facebook fans to name their favorite pair of shoes, they easily can expect tens of thousands of responses. Target’s customers are motivated to respond not only because of the incentive of product discounts, but because they can redeem those discounts online or at any Target nationwide.

Small, independent retailers can benefit from crowdsourcing through social media, too, but it’s critical to have a solid base of followers. Chances are if you have a presence on social media, your loyal customers—aka “brand ambassadors”—already follow you. But, to make the most of crowdsourcing, you’ll need to grow your crowd. Yes, a small group of loyal followers is important to cultivate and keep, but if you consider the number of residents living in your own town, those followers are likely only a small fraction of the followers you could be reaching. Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram are all great vehicles for retail stores to get social and crowdsource, but how do you grow a following?

One way to increase your Facebook and Twitter fan base is through paid promotions. You can target your audience by location, gender, and interests, as well as other platform-specific refinements. Unless you have an ecommerce site serving customers nationwide, you’ll want to target people who live in your town, so when you tap them for crowdsourcing activities, their input will be more relevant to where you do business. You also can email your customer mailing list directly and offer them an incentive to follow you on your social media sites, such as a special offer code for a percentage off merchandise for a limited time.

Of course, as you well have experienced yourself, following businesses on social media doesn’t mean you actively communicate with them, especially if they don’t actively communicate with you. Gaining followers is just the starting point to crowdsourcing. Once you have a following, you need to engage them regularly to make it worthwhile for them to help you crowdsource solutions to problems, generate ideas and images, or suggest product, display, or event ideas. Says Peirce, “Businesses on social media have a tendency to forget that engagement is a two-way street. It’s important to interact with your fans and followers. ‘Like,’ make comments, and share thoughts on their posts, too. This interaction is what stimulates them to engage more with you. It also helps their friends notice your page.” Plus, if you and your followers aren’t regularly interacting, it’s likely they won’t be “fed” your posts due to the algorithms based on engagement that social media sites use to funnel content to people.

And the winner is …

Once you’ve rounded up your crowd, it’s time to start crowdsourcing. One way to tap into the power of the crowd is through crowdvoting, that is, gathering customer opinions via short online surveys. This is more than just your standard-fare opinion poll. The survey input can be used to gauge the demand for items before you invest inventory dollars and display space. Brand-name consumer products have been using crowdvoting quite successfully to design new product lines. For instance, Lays’ 2012 “Do Us a Flavor” campaign not only crowdsourced ideas for a new potato chip flavor (3.8 million ideas, in fact!), it then used crowdvoting to crown the winner (“Cheesy Garlic Bread,” in case you were wondering).

Crowdvoting can be effective for retail stores, too. According to global retail consultant J.C. Williams Group, the European grocery chain Lidl asks its Facebook fans to “Like” the products they want to see discounted. Whichever product receives the most likes is the one that goes on sale the following week. Lidl’s customers are rewarded for their participation with discounts on merchandise they like, and Lidl helps ensure a successful turnout for their sale because customers have already made it clear what they want to buy. Lidl creates a natural loyalty loop by putting its customers in the driver’s seat—they see they have a real say in what happens in the store and are rewarded for their opinions.

A picture is worth a thousand likes

Another creative way to use crowdsourcing is for product photos. Hiring a professional photographer can be expensive, and stock photography, while convenient, is often not quite what we are looking for, especially in the era of the unpolished selfie. The pervasiveness of smartphones means people are walking around with a camera in hand ready to snap a picture at any moment. You can capitalize on it by holding an online photo contest of people using or modeling the products you sell—why not make it a selfie campaign!

As Peirce notes, “Photo challenges are exciting events for hobby photographers and budding professionals to share their passion and talent in return for the exposure.” Plus, considering gamification is one of the main reasons people participate in crowdsourcing activities, a fun contest with a chance for a prize is an easy sell to people who love competitions. You get the benefit of free, original product photos for your website, e-newsletters, and marketing campaigns, and participants get to do something fun that doesn’t take a lot of their time in exchange for recognition and the chance to win a prize.

If you don’t have a big social media following yet, despite promoting your page, a photo contest can help build it up. On Facebook, you can create an event listing for free and then promote (advertise) it according to a budget you set. As with your page promotion, you can set parameters of who will see your promoted event in their news feed, so if you want to limit the contest to specific people, such as those who live in your town or a certain age group, you can do that. Add a crowdvoting layer to your crowdsourcing photo contest by inviting customers to vote for their favorite.

Social media sites have policies governing contests on their sites, so be sure to know the rules before you start (See “The fine print” for important links). For instance, Facebook recently softened its rules to allow contests (it calls them “promotions”) to be administered through your page feed or through an embedded contest app created through services such as,, or Facebook doesn’t allow businesses to require participants share the contest link on their timeline to qualify.

Because contests generate excitement and focus on fun, they are a great way to build awareness of your store. Bring the fun and excitement into your store by using the photo submissions in a vibrant store display featuring the products being modeled in the photos. And, don’t forget to post a prominent QR code directing shoppers to follow you on your social media sites.

Generate buzz, build brand awareness, and reward!

Crowdsourcing campaigns which ask for opinions, suggestions, or participation for free can be very successful, but you need to find other incentives to make it special; otherwise it’s easy to get overlooked among the many things competing for attention. “Offer people who contribute or participate exclusive perks,” Peirce suggests, “such as special offers and discounts not available to the general public, sneak peeks and first dibs on new merchandise, and customer recognition awards.” Regardless of what perks you choose, be sure to show appreciation for your crowd!

A residual effect of crowdsourcing, particularly crowdsourcing “events,” such as photo contests or other tasks with fun incentives, is your followers are more likely share their positive experiences with friends. What better way to promote your business than with happy customers spreading the word? Plus, as Peirce notes, “One component of SEO is determined by who is talking about you online, linking to your site, and mentioning you in comments. This is an important factor search engines look at to determine the validity and credibility of a website.” Creating shareable crowdsourcing campaigns has this added benefit of improving search engine rankings for your business.

The most important outcome of social crowdsourcing, though, is the community of loyal customers you’ve won through positive, rewarding, and fun engagement. That’s a great way to stand out from the crowd!

You get what you pay for

Crowdsourcing has many faces, and one that has attracted much controversy is paid crowdsourcing—especially microwork and creative crowdsourcing.

Microwork involves doing small tasks that don’t require advanced skills but are nonetheless time-consuming and require human input, such as labeling product images by color for an online store. Microtasks posted on sites such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk pay pennies each. While that sounds like a bargain for small businesses, the hourly wage equivalent is far less than minimum wage, raising ethical questions about fair compensation. Also, because microwork pays so little per task, workers have an incentive to complete jobs as quickly as possible, often at the expense of quality and accuracy.

As with microwork, creative crowdsourcing provides businesses with lower cost creative work such as logos, slogans, and even entire websites. Sites such as provide access to budding designers ready to jump on a project to build their portfolio or increase their name recognition. Clients are promised as many as 100 completed designs from which to choose, and for a very low cost. But, because the designers are working on speculation and have no personal connection with the clients, businesses typically sift through a healthy dose of unusable material to find a few potential gems. Established designers criticize creative crowdsourcing because there is no pay guarantee for design on spec, designers forfeit their copyright even on designs not selected by the client, and there is no opportunity to truly collaborate with clients.

Data crowdsourcing

If it’s data you need, you can crowdsource without dipping a toe into social media. Look no further than piggyback, or implicit, crowdsourcing. A perfect example of piggyback crowdsourcing is the use of Google’s enormous database of search terms. On a micro level, you can look at data from your own website’s Google analytics to find out what keywords people used to discover your website. If you aren’t using those keywords in your site description, try adding them—it may boost your SEO. (If you don’t use Google Analytics, get started at On a macro level, you can explore Google Trends ( to find out what topics are trending up in public interest. If you discover that a topic of trending interest complements the products you already carry, you can use that information to promote your store as the place for customers to find relevant products.

The fine print

Ready to hold a social media crowdsourcing contest? Follow these links to the details you need to know:

  • Facebook,
  • Twitter,
  • Pinterest,
  • Instagram,
  • Google+,

Maggie Feeney is Editor in Chief of Retailing Insight.