Crowdsourcing your market intelligence: Fad or fundamental?

Crowdsourcing, the online practice of soliciting services, ideas or content from undefined groups both online and offline, is gaining in popularity among companies as an inexpensive way to accomplish costly or tedious tasks, like accessing key market intelligence.

Major brands like Coca-Cola, Doritos and Google have found success in crowdsourcing design but how effective is crowdsourcing for gaining reliable market intelligence?

According to one expert, using crowdsourcing to research foreign markets is not necessarily worth the time and money for small- and medium-sized enterprises. You must consider both your industry and the country you want to work in before turning to social media for advice, says Anatoliy Gruzd, assistant professor in the School of Information Management and director of the Dalhousie Social Media Lab.

“Using social media to solicit ideas, advice and services may sound easy and effective, but it's not necessarily the best strategy for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), he says.

Gruzd says that companies must consider both the industry and the country they want to work in before deciding whether to research foreign markets through crowdsourcing. In some industries, only expert opinions are relevant.

“Ask yourself: Am I looking for expert opinions or can the average person actually contribute their insight to this?” he says. If you aren't interested in the average person's opinion, using crowdsourcing is probably not worth it, he says.

Gruzd says that you must also consider the country you're researching and whether people in that country regularly use social media.

“Not everybody is as well-connected as Canadians,” he cautions. “As a result, you might be getting a recommendation or suggestion on how to do business in a certain country but it is coming from a fellow Canadian.”

“In a country with a low Internet and social media penetration rate, it would be questionable for foreign investors to use social media and online communities to do crowdsourcing activities,” Gruzd adds.

Sharon M. McIntyre, the Chief Marketing Officer for Calgary-based Chaordix, a company that specializes in crowdsourcing market intelligence, says that crowdsourcing does have its place in foreign market research.

She says that crowdsourcing allows you to gain information from people who don't work with you. “The best people to accomplish a specific task probably don't work with you directly and crowdsourcing helps you tap into them,” she explains.

For example, a Canadian company may need help if one of the products it is exporting gets stuck at the border, she says. “I bet there is a question on Quora or a group on LinkedIn of people who exports from Canada to that country that could help you,” says McIntyre.

But how do you know if the information reliable?

If you decide to use crowdsourcing to research foreign markets, you must take steps to ensure that the information you get is credible, according to both Gruzd and McIntyre.

“Some social media sites allow people to remain anonymous,” says Gruzd. “We can't really know where the recommendation is coming from.”

People can also create false online identities or fake Facebook accounts, he warns.

McIntyre advises SMEs to be cautious when using websites like Twitter — which she says is like a “great big suggestion box with anonymous people stuffing it” — for anything more than preliminary research.

Instead, McIntyre recommends SMEs use social media websites such as Quora and LinkedIn that have a better reputation for giving quality advice. “Your chances of getting credible information from people who have actually done what they say they have done is very high on both of those platforms,” she says.

How to crowdsource:

  1. Find a reliable network. You can start by joining LinkedIn or Quora, and even look to Wikipedia or Twitter to begin the research process, but look at all information with a healthy dose of scepticism. Contact the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service for access to insight gained from an extensive on-the-ground presence in over 150 cities. When it comes to reliable networks, the TCS is hard to top.

  2. Get connected within those networks. On Twitter, follow hashtags that are used to mark keywords or topics you are interested in. “You can use them to find out the people who you should be following,” McIntyre says. Once you find the experts in the field, McIntyre recommends you search their names and find the social media platforms that they use. “If you see they are on LinkedIn, see if you know someone in common and ask to be introduced,” she says.

  3. Give before you get. McIntyre recommends that you don't ask the experts for help immediately. “Help people by answering their questions about what you know. That is more effective in social media. If you show your value to that group, by the time you're ready to ask your question, they will be willing to help you,” McIntyre explains. “Become a great resource.”

  4. Be patient. McIntyre says that crowdsourcing does not happen quickly. Instead of looking to find a foreign distributor or a manufacturer in one day, you should expect to develop connections and gain information over a long period of time.

For more information, visit the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service.

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