Not ideal

Drawing a Crowd: Crowdsourcing – Ten Years On


It was in 2005 that the term crowdsourcing started to become accepted by dictionaries as a recognised portmanteau of the words ‘crowd´ and ‘outsourcing’. Ten years on, we take a look to see how this process has been utilised by individuals and organisations the world over.

Crowdsourcing is a simple concept: it is the gathering of thoughts and ideas from a group of people, outside of usual members, employees or associates. The concept is not a new one – in fact, a prominent example dates back over three centuries to 1716.

A Brief History of Crowdsourcing

At the turn of the 18th century, long distance sea travel was taking off in a big way. New journeys to exotic destinations came at a high reward but also at a high price – many ships were lost due to difficulties navigating the high seas. This was because longitude (see map below) was calculated using the position of the sun and the time. However, this presented one major problem – clocks in the eighteenth century used a pendulum to keep time and as you can imagine, a grandfather clock isn’t the most accurate timepiece when being thrown around during a force nine gale.

This problem was so serious, costing the British government many lives and lost trading opportunities, that they came up with a Longitudinal Prize of £20,000 (around £2.5m in today’s money) for anyone who developed a time keeping device that could be used at sea. John Harrison took the prize for the successful invention of the marine chronometer: a pocket watch that kept the time at sea. The introduction of this device led to much safer sailing – opening up new trading routes, marking a shift in global transportation and in the collaborative creation of ideas.

Applications of Crowdsourcing

It’s all very well learning about how crowdsourcing came about but if the idea of going on a potentially deadly multi-week voyage thousands of miles across the ocean in a wooden ship seems like a foreign concept; then these examples of how its application in the modern, digital landscape might help get your feet back on solid ground:


Crowdfunding is the crowdsourcing philosophy applied to finance: each person interested in becoming involved in a project promises a certain amount of money in a project. To act as an incentive, the project organiser will usually grant rewards for this participation. Many crowdsourcing sites have been spawned in the last decade but the most well-known is Kickstarter – which has provided the platform for funding a multitude of products and events: everything from Pebble smartwatches to potato salads.


If you’ve been on the internet for longer than five minutes, you’ll be familiar with CAPTCHA – perhaps not by name but this, often incredibly frustrating, invention has become a common sight on almost every site where there are forms that need filling in. Yes, this garbled set of letters actually has a purpose other than making you want to throw your computer out of the nearest window.

The idea of CAPTCHA is to stop non-human activity on a lot of sites. No, this isn’t to stop Martians signing up for Facebook accounts – instead it is to stop people writing automated scripts to create thousands of fake accounts, send millions of emails or generally abuse other online features.

One of the most widely used CAPTCHA systems is called reCAPTCHA and it uses an ingenious method to do two jobs at once. Not only does it require a human to verify and type in a series of letters but it also provides a free way to digitalise the vast swathes of books and written text out there.

Each time you fill in a reCAPTCHA form, you’re helping to translate just one word of a scanned or photographed text. The way this works is that you are usually given two words – one to be translated, the other is already known as a control word. If you manage to type in the control word correctly, then a system will automatically recognise you have done so and save your translated word. If your translation corroborates with many others, then this will be taken as the correct translation and used in a digital copy.


Of course, if you wanted to learn more about crowdsourcing – you could read more about it on its Wikipedia page. This brings us to our third example, this massive online collaborative encyclopaedia itself is a perfect example of crowdsourcing. There isn’t one person that knows everything: even Stephen Hawking wouldn’t be able to alphabetically name every guest star to ever make an appearance on Sesame Street. By combining knowledge on this online platform, hundreds of thousands of users have helped others learn about an incredibly diverse range of topics (over five million articles currently exist – and that’s just in English.)


Examples of Crowdsourcing in Marketing

Like so many concepts, crowdsourcing opens up an enormous opportunity for marketing services or product but it’s down to a business or organisation to harness this creativity in a productive way. Here are a few examples that we like here at Conker:


McDonalds provided a great example of crowdsourcing (or should that be crowdsaucing?) as part of their 2014 MyBurger campaign, which allowed users of the McDonald’s website to have a go at creating a brand new burger. The online marketing campaign allowed website and social media users to create and send in their dream burger using a dedicated web portal.

The restaurant chain chose five winning burgers which it released week by week from October – November 2014. The campaign had a massive reach with close to 100,000 entries. Of course, MyBurger came with an equally appetising side course – providing mountains of analytical data about the nation’s ever changing appetite.



Have you ever heard of Toyota? Of course you have. Have you ever wondered where its name came from? No? Well, we’re about to share this juicy pub quiz fact with you anyway. The Toyota name and past logo was actually crowdfunded in 1936: it shows the three Japanese katakana letters spelling out Toyota, after the company changed its name from Toyada to Toyota. The winning logo was designed by a competition winner, from amongst 27,000 others, who’s design was stamped on hundreds of millions of cars and trucks from 1936 to 1990 when a new logo was introduced.


Crash the Super Bowl

The annual Super Bowl is absolutely enormous in the US and across the world, with viewership figures above 100 million. It comes as no great surprise that the media space in contest’s advert break is one of the most expensive in the world – coming in at around $170,000 per second. It speaks volumes about the power of crowdsourcing in advertising that Frito Lay, the parent company behind Doritos, has chosen to fill their slot with a crowdfunded competition winner’s video as part of their Crash the Super Bowl campaign every single year since 2006.


Crowdsourcing is taking what humans do best naturally: collaboration – and applying it to new areas. The device you are using right now? It came about from the collaborative work of many different people and organisations, designing and improving many individual hardware components. The browser you are using to access this page? It was created using source code worked on by a vast array of different people, in different countries: all helping to fit another piece of the puzzle. After all, like the saying goes: no man is an island – and even if they were, thanks to crowdsourcing and the Longitude Prize, we could reach them.