Help them to help you grow your business

How much would your business benefit if people showed up each day to help out for FREE? 

Some might help you find new customers. Others might help you support your current ones.  Some might even help you make your product or service better. 

Under the right conditions people like to help. Some because they don’t even realize they are helping. Others for social currency and yet others for the hard kind. We’re not so interested in the pay-for-play folks, though.  

Fittingly, Wikipedia defines “crowdsourcing” and has some good examples and references. But knowing what it is, is not the same as taking advantage of it. So what interests us is: how can you make it easier for potentially willing helpers, to help you? How can you create situations where someone can easily move from thinking to acting on your behalf. 

Its getting ever easier online – When you join a cause a group on Facebook, it doesn’t take much. In fact, there is a huge difference between those who join a cause and those who act on its behalf, as these statistics show. But what would happen if it just took another click to donate? (like Amazon “One Click” or even purchasing on iTunes).  How much more money might be donated?

Offline works too – When HP asks you to recycle, they take a few steps to make it easier. You don’t need to search for a way to dispose of your toner cartridge. HP makes sure you can reuse the packaging to return it to them and they include a shipping label. So all you have to do is call UPS to pick it up.  Could you make this easier? Are more people returning cartridges as a result? How much is HP saving?

And offline, is going online – When Barack Obama asked volunteers to call potential voters on his behalf, he didn’t ask them to come on down to their local call center. No, he didn’t ask them to go anywhere, just a few clicks and they would be connected. They didn’t even have to dial a phone number.   

We like all of these ideas because its seems like everyone wins, as a result of some simple, well thought our design and communication. So we wanted to look at different business activities, to understand where and how people can help businesses grow. And then dig into how these examples might be generalized into some framework to put this all to use. And finally, take a look at some open questions presented by having non-employees doing work for free. 

Product & Service Development

This is probably one of the fuzziest processes of all, but this doesn’t mean you cant get help. 

Just Ask

Companies like Dell and Starbucks have formalized the process via Dell Ideastorm and My Starbucks Idea. But even before companies were asking, ideas were being volunteered.

Companies like Muji or Cafe Press take this a step further.[in Japanese] is used to solicit ideas, too, but Muji also holds design competitions. Some of the winning designs find there way into the stores. In the case of Cafe Press, they are in fact, asking people  to use their tools (including design and manufacturing resources) to create products for themselves and others.  

Then there is Wikipedia. There have been a number of analyses about just how many people contribute, but regardless of the numbers, the point is – there are unpaid people working on the project. Ditto for Linux and a whole host other software programs. In these cases the community relies on some simple infrastructure to get the work done such as Source Forge

But it doesnt take software development tools to open up the process. As Jeff Jarvis discusses, the news production process is easily opened up when the process is viewed differently. i.e. along the way, feedback is sought, not just from a small group in the newsroom, but far and wide. The result is something that resembles the agile development processes on Source Forge. And something as humble as a blogging platform can be made useful to receive help in producing new content. 

Steal With Your Eyes

As an engineering student I spent one summer working in a refrigeration construction plant. The most interesting advise I received from one of the technicians – “steal with your eyes”. It doesnt translate nicely from Afrikaans unfortunately, but the point he was making was that he had received no formal education, but had figured out how to observe and learn. 

Observation is tremendously powerful. In fact, people just doing what they normally do, might be one of the most helpful things they could do for you. It’s no longer unusual for product developers to ask to observe people using products in their “natural surroundings”. Like animals, we tend to be more ourselves “in the wild” – whether online or off-.

But beyond asking people if you can stalk them, there are increasingly ways to observe from a distance via “public personal histories”.

Public Personal Histories

Flickr feeds. Blog posts. Tweets. These are chronicling different aspects of peoples lives. In many cases they describe shortcomings of existing products or wishes for products or services. Companies like Dell are using these published histories to reach out beyond Ideastorm to better understand the conversations that involve Dell online, wherever they might be happening. 

The beauty of these data points is that people created them primarily for themselves and others they know, so they have taken the time and expended the effort to create and share their experiences. And they are doing this at NO cost to the people who wish to review and learn from them. So you actually dont have to ask anything of them. 

Activity logging

Increasingly data is generated whether we want it or not. Its not just site analytics, but actions taken on our phones or driving actions in our cars. But to gather this data in the first place, you need instrumentation – it might be simple sales statistics or more details logs of how long people spend waiting in an airport security line or when deciding when someone last visited a store. Instrumentation is getting cheaper – Google Analytics is free, so there is not excuse not to know what people are doing on your website.

But increasingly other instrumentation is possible, like location data – we have talked about companies like Sense Networks who are able to help companies make sense of this abundant location information now being generated by phones, GPS devices, etc. And products like Nike + or SNIF Tags generate data which can be shared online, too. 


The simple Hotmail promotions in the footer of the free e-mail service, have come a long, long way. 

Flu versus a conversation about flu

There is a big difference between talking about flu and getting flu. Too often today, viral marketing is used to describe some alternative to buying media to distribute some communications. This is just not the same as designing viral elements into the business from the beginning. 

For example, talking about Youtube in the abstract is one thing. Receiving a link to a specific video from a friend, is something else. 

In the first case, it might take some effort to go and visit the site and then see if there is anything relevant for me. But if someone I know, sends me a link to something I am likely to like, my experience with Youtube will be quite different. That first experience might be pivotal – in one case, people might hear about Youtube (hear about the Flu), in the other case, they got the Flu and become one of the people helping to drive Youtube to the most popular video destination.

Today, many services capitalize on this idea – attempting to convince users to take some step to get others to act (visit,view, share, register, invite, donate, buy, etc). 

Get an echo

Specific parts of personal histories can cause others to take action. For example Facebook users see various details of what their friends are doing – what groups they join or what events they will be attending, for example. How important are these actions in causing others to take action? Companies like Social Amp are trying to understand this behavior. 

I think there are some interesting relationships to things like recommendation engines, which use specific user actions to predict what they might like. On a simpler level, companies like Amazon use specific actions such as “customers also bought…” or “what do customers ultimately buy, who view this page?”. 

So how exactly do you cause actions that cause others to act? This will be the subject of future post, but at a minimum you have to convince people to take a few initial actions – it might be convincing friends and family to buy your product on Amazon to get the ball rolling. Or getting a lead customer to take the plunge and talk about it. Perhaps a good way to think about this, is an expansion on the classic reference – you want your customers to take a visible action on your behalf which you know others are going to see. 

Let others show you off

Zipcar does a wonderful job of using their cars to simply let people know that about the service. The more people who drive, the more people who see the cars  and might be curious about it.  My own experience has been that on a few occasions, when I first started using the service, people would ask us about the car and how it worked. It happens less now, or maybe just because its winter and everyone is cold and in a hurry to get where they are going. 

Method Products created beautifully designed soap. Soap users were proud to display their products in their bathrooms and kitchens, making soap a-suddenly-much-more-visible-thing. Other things around the house that seem to be shown off include all manner of electronics gizmos which brings us to a funny area we like to call demoability


Demoability is designing in some aspect of the product or service use that just wants to be demoed. Or at least making it really easy for someone else to demo the product or service. I do this all the time – its the – “you will get a kick out of this, so I must show you” in me. The iphone had a few wonderful touch screen demos which ensure that it was hauled out and shown around probably more than any other phone that preceded it (I am not aware of any stats to confirm this). But here are some others someone might have felt inclined to show off: uploading Nike + run info, folding a folding bike, Nespresso coffee making, remote control helicopters, Nintendo Wii remote, Seamlessweb ordering process, Zipcar car finder etc. Not everything can happen in real-time, but increasingly products and services can do a great job telling their stories with some semi-scripted help from their users. 

Interestingly I have seen a few toys which have “demo” modes. And I have used these to show people what they do. Perhaps this was mainly intended to use this way in the packaging, in the store, but it makes it easy for me to explain when asked, so…


Its increasingly easy to find and buy what you are looking for, so for example, following a recent demo of a Vinturi, I realized it was the perfect dad gift and immediately used my iphone to buy on Amazon. As it become easier to buy in response to a demo, for example, the lines between distribution and promotion will blur. But there are many ideas specific to distribution that help smooth the way for product sales that dont have to take place via retailers. 

Let anyone sell for you

But this is not really the point here. Getting others to distribute on your behalf is increasingly the domain of enterprise software, where companies like Salesforce pioneered ideas around letting users sign up for personal use and then expand the user base by inviting others and opting in to new features. In this way, selling was done by users, selling to potential users within organizations. In the case of 37Signals, Basecamp, this goes a step further, since many of the projects might involve multiple organizations, so now people from different organizations are showing off the product and helping to distribute it. More than a few of our clients opt to use Basecamp once they have used it with us for a while. 


Support can be a tremendously frustrating experience, particularly if it is not timely and if it does not resolve the problem. While some companies fear discussing their shortcomings in the open, there users are online actively seeking help.  GetSatisfaction offers a great example of how these support requests are being facilitated with and without the participation of companies who make the products. 

Either in a peer-to-peer mode or with the participation of the manufacturer or service provider, these services provide a way to expand support possibilities. 

At some point, support feeds back nicely into product development, as it helps to prioritize issues and is likely to spur discussion of new features (as GetSatisfaction is benefitting from). 

Other Actions

We think there are more examples around actions such as recycling, donating, etc. We will expand on those in subsequent posts. 

Beyond Examples: Suggestions & Questions

We have lots of work to do here and will allocate future posts to these ideas, but here are some initial thoughts on how you might make these ideas work for your organization. 

Reciprocity design

Much of online commerce if focused on finding ways to move users through a funnel. Get people to a site, get them to click through to learn more and then purchase something. Or maybe just to fill out a lead form. 

So we know that multi-variate testing techniques can help you test options. But you still need to hypothesize on things to test. So what should you be testing? What actions should you focus on improving? 

We think you should look for opportunities to make it easier for people to help you. And then you can apply some of the same design and optimization thinking to refine and get the most from these interactions. 

Help is on the way, for you too

Google Analytics, Various Google Searches, GetSatisfaction, Twitter, SocialMention, Salesforce (used by Starbucks and Dell), as well as a host of Wiki and Blog tools, etc. All these companies are building tools to enable companies to quickly begin deploying some of these ideas around their existing products and services.

In many cases, they have figured out how to use these ideas to enable win-win situations for their company and yours. We will delve into some of the tools we are using and recommending to customers, in some follow-up posts. 

Organizing things differently

We think there may be some lessons from outsourcing and partnering – these are critical decisions about how you work with another organization to help them or to have them help you. You need to know who they are, if they can be helpful, how they might help, if they are qualified, etc. But then you also define a way to work together to deal with poss

IP: who owns the work that results from the collaboration?

Disagreements: What happens when disagreements arise? 

Legal:  “Discovery” is an increasingly important part of the legal process and used to be limited to e-mail. Whats the impact of having more communications in the open?

Privacy: what permission is required from users? 

Info deluge: you thought your inbox was busy before, its going to ramp up significantly when you ramp up interactions…

Too much openness: can too much disclosure become a competitive disadvantage?

We are just starting to dig in on these questions and will likely discover more. But right now, in the spirit of seeking help, we would just appreciate any initial thoughts and ideas in response to this post.


  1. Rob Shwetz

    Hey Shaun,

    Considering an organisation like P&G is aiming to have 50% of its new product ideas generated by consumers or outside the company, I think you’ve tapped into a topic which is both relevant and valid. The idea around ‘Using Collective Collaboration to Create Competitive Advantage’ is the core thought I am getting out of this – correct me if I’m wrong! Around that core thought there are already case studies which are generating results, like P&G, who undertook shifting their culture towards a consumer centric innovation one about 5 years ago.

    What you may also want to consider is some of the trends going forward which may accelerate the rate at which companies will need to innovate, and why this is happening, particularly with the millenials who will represent the largest commercial opportunity in the U.S. in the forseeable future. Tying in some of their attitudes towards participation, use of technology, need to ‘give back’ and community engagement may help towards understanding why this is happening, and why companies need to adopt this approach in their business models (or revamp their models altogether) to succeed.

    Found an interesting trends paper which might provide a couple of thoughtstarters for you.

    Hope this helps and has been of some value. See you in Tokyo next weekend!


  2. I believe that statistics on the contributors vs. users for crowd-sourced applications/products might start pointing towards trends of breaking innate human apathy. One-Click donations, or micro-donations could be highly successful, if I only put my information in once, and get a tax-deductible invoice annually (Amazon, ITunes and Facebook can could do this effortlessly). Lots of feel good and very little effort or real participation beyond clicking. UnitedWay tried it, but I suspect they missed the point. Whether $5 is a micro-donation could be debated. The conversion would probably have been the same at $20. (
    On offline works too: The green HP return envelopes (for inkjet cartridges) were a great idea. However, in the early days of its implementation I could not help noticing the ambivalence with which our mailman treated it. I believe there is opportunity for improvement and feedback, adding to the feel good make-a-difference economy of re-use and re-circulation. Maybe this should not be an entirely analog process.
    On stalking subjects: Tom Kelly from IDEO coined the term “unfocus group,” ( reacting against the notion of a focus group where people reactions are notoriously staged (peer-pressure, social acceptance, personal projection, best behavior etc.) There is real value in observation when people are behaving normally, even badly.
    On activity logging: One of the truly big challenges that still exist is reducing the signal-to-noise ratio within these digital reconstructions of our lives. Ultimately, these AI engines are still marionettes informed by the genius of human minds. Sense networks and others are proving some unique new products to facilitate this. One should note that with these new tools come great power. Facebook famously pissed off many users with its Beacon program. ( This while they have some internal issues with respecting users’ privacy (
    On other actions: There is definitely a trend shift away from personally forwarding vs. publishing interesting links, comments. Private networks have become walled enclosures with filters attempting to demarcate the private and public sections. I forward interesting links sparingly. I am more likely to post it to my Twitter account, FB wall or FB status. On that note, I also donated my twitter feed to Guy Kawasaki at for intermittent posts. These automatically repost to FB. While a fun experiment, colleagues and friends have started to question my affiliation to Alltop. What value does your Twitter or FB status have? I donated mine to the Obama camp on Election Day. So did millions of others.
    On Get and Echo: A practical example of misinterpreted noise is the Amazon recommendation engine post Holiday shopping. After a myriad of gifts for the family, I have grown use to ignoring and auto-deleting recommendations purely because of their inability to deal with short-term noise created by gift buying. Would selecting gift-wrap solve this?
    On letting others show you off: Both Zipcar and Method had the elevator pitch or basic storytelling jump out from every aspect of their offering. Listening to Robyn Chase in the early stages of Zipcar one could not imagine a life without it. Simple, to the point and making the user feel special and part of a new cause. I am interested to see if her new venture will be able to capitalize on the same sensibilities. All three these products are further enhanced by simplicity and design.
    On reciprocity design: Check out and the work they do around evolutionary product innovation. Testing is both art and science.
    On info deluge and openness: You made me a believer in basecamp, and email filtering is a great start. Finding the balance between openness and corporate style insular innovation have proved difficult. The Economist recently wrote about Champions ( and how the majority of big innovations still happen with large corporations ( Is there balance t be found?

  3. mutopo

    Rob – thanks for the comments and the reference. Will dig in a little more on what P&G is doing in this regard. The Millenial market is interesting, particularly when their behavior is contrasted with other market segments – Forrester has some nice data this (via Groundswell blog) Clearly hightlights the different level of online participation in areas such as blogging, reviews, etc.

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