Crowdsourcing is used in a range of ways by publishers to engage with the 'crowd' to varying degrees, from simply asking questions on Twitter to gather a spectrum of opinion, to producing a whole magazine edition in collaboration with the readership.
Last week we published a podcast which looked at three examples of crowdsourcing projects from women's magazines across the world on the larger end of the scale. They included projects at Company, here in the UK, as well as at Olivia in Finland and Femina in India. The projects ranged from engaging with readers in making certain decisions on content or layout, such as in the case of Olivia, through to inviting content submissions from them.
Their experiences offered up many lessons and practical tips other publishers may benefit from when running a crowdsourcing project, which are outlined below.
1. Test the water first
For larger-scale crowdsourcing projects, which involve the readership helping towards production of an issue, it may be sensible to first get an idea of how keen the readership is in being more actively involved.
Tarun Rai, chief executive of Worldwide Media, publisher of Femina magazine which in April produced an edition made up of only reader-produced articles, said the team first used Twitter to invite followers to share their responses to specific questions or subject areas.
"The readers were actually quite keen to write", he said. This led to the magazine asking their readers to send in a story idea, along with an example paragraph, based on standard subjects which feature in Femina, including work, relationships, health and fitness, and sex.
"Once we did that, we got a humongous response," he said, with the best ideas then invited to send in their full entries for possible publication in the magazine.
2. Consider building a 'co-creation platform'
While publishers running these crowdsourced magazine projects often make use of social media platforms to invite submissions, Finland's Olivia magazine, which is published by Bonnier Publications, built its own "co-creation platform", Oma Olivia (Open Olivia), where readers could help make decisions about the content and design of a crowdsourced edition.
"Everything was done in the editorial group," chief executive of Bonnier Publications, Marjaana Toiminen, told Journalism.co.uk, with the overall project run by the author of a crowdsourcing thesis at Stanford University.
"[The thesis author] knew what else was going on in the world so she could integrate her knowledge into the concept," Toiminen explained.
The online platform which was built for the special issue - which is published once a year - delivers each decision as a challenge, such as the photos to use from a shoot, or the text to put on the front page.
Toiminen prefers to describe the project as "co-creation" instead of crowdsourcing.It's something deeper, and more open. You involve the audience in every phase of making the magazine, starting from ideas but going deeperMarjaana Toiminen, Bonnier Publications
"It's something deeper, and more open," she explained. "You involve the audience in every phase of making the magazine, starting from ideas but going deeper into getting angles and finding questions to ask and then deciding on the blurbs and photos and everything. So it's like an ongoing process throughout the magazine."
The platform offers a number of different decision-making mechanisms. These range from a vote to "open discussion", Toiminen said. "Every process or every challenge has different types of involvement models."
3. Engage with the blogging community
One strategy which a number of the publishers have found useful in driving crowdsourcing efforts, is to engage with the blogging community online.
When Femina was trying to raise awareness about its 'Made by You' issue, for example, it worked with bloggers "who write on issues relating to women".
"We activated that network to make sure that they spoke to their readers and asked them to contribute to the Femina Made By You issue," he said.
"They also had the added incentive that some of them would actually get published too," he added, explaining that as well as getting readers to write, the magazine also reached out to "experts in the field", including the bloggers, to share content.
"So they had an added incentive that they may be part of the Femina Made By You issue also".
One of Company magazine's previous crowdsourcing projects was centred on the blogging community. Following the magazine's relaunch at the start of 2012, it turned its attention to bloggers as a way to reach its readership "through digital platforms", editor Victoria White said.
This involved liaising with "style bloggers" in terms of content in a "super bloggers issue", as well as creating the Style Blogger Awards.
Bonnier Publications has also tapped into "the fashion blogger generation", with the introduction of an entirely new magazine with that audience in mind.
"We invited a bunch of fashion bloggers to create that concept," she said. "Some of them became a part of the editorial team, and there's always a part of the magazine done in Facebook with the fashion blogger community."
4. Plug into the 'power of social' networks
Any crowdsourcing project will inevitably involve social media interaction, whether social networks are the setting for the crowdsourcing – perhaps gathering tweeted responses to a question – or to encourage social media communities to engage in crowdsourcing elsewhere.
For Femina's Made By You issue, for example, a Facebook app was built which members of the social media network could use to send in their stories for consideration.
It is also worth remembering that Femina used social media in the first place to test the crowdsourcing waters before committing to producing an entire issue on this model.
Meanwhile, Company uses a Facebook group of "die-hard Company fans" to gather feedback and ideas for editions of the magazine. The group is closed and so requires those who want to join to apply, "but we don't turn anyone away", White added.
"We constantly ask them what they want in the magazine," she said. An example included asking the group who they wanted the cover star to be, and were also given the opportunity to carry out the interview.
5. Make use of Google+ Hangouts/Skype to hold open meetings
Publishers can often use video conferencing platforms, such as Google+ Hangouts or Skype, to engage with their communities. The functionality varies from carrying out interviews live 'On Air', which anyone can watch, and selected individuals can partake in, to editorial discussions ahead of publication with writers across the world.
Later this month Company is running a Google + Hangout On Air as part of the production of its "social issue" in January. It is currently inviting readers who would like to have some input with the editorial team in the meeting to register in advance.We thought, why not get readers involved and have people come in and almost suggest features to us – using a Google Hangout – as to what should go into this special issueVictoria White, Company
"We thought, why not get readers involved and have people come in and almost suggest features to us – using a Google Hangout – as to what should go into this special issue.
"The planning is where readers can get involved," she added. "They can pre-register to be involved in the hangout if they've got ideas they want to suggest and put forward."
Femina also used Google + Hangouts to hold an editorial meeting with half of the 60 contributors who ended up successfully submitting content to be published in the magazine.
6. Keep some hold on the editorial reins
One of the key pieces of advice shared by all three publishers centred on the crucial role the editorial team must play to ensure the end product follows the same style and standards as a regular issue would.
Toiminen, for example, said this was a lesson the Olivia team learned after its first try at a co-created edition in 2010.
"At first the team was very careful about giving enough voice to the participators, so actually they made a magazine that wasn't really Olivia's concept," she said.
"It was much looser and had less narrative and fewer good, well-written stories, because they just wanted to let out all the voices within. That was a disappointment for the crowdsourcing people and for the journalists and for me as a CEO."
But since then the team have worked on how best to "integrate the process", and have gone on to produce crowdsourced issues on an annual basis, with the fourth one due out later this year.
They now understand that "they don't have to be too democratic" if it were to result in a final product "that disappoints the audience," Toiminen added.
In reference to the number of people who participated in the Femina crowdsourcing project in April this year, Rai added that "you can't risk ignoring your readers for the sake of the 7,000 or 60 contributors".The responsibility of producing a very good issue, an issue which people enjoy reading, is still the editor'sTarun Rai, Worldwide Media
"The responsibility of producing a very good issue, an issue which people enjoy reading, is still the editor's."
He added that the way he explains it to colleagues, is that "you can abdicate or you can delegate your authority, but you can't delegate your responsibility".
At Company magazine, they learned a similar lesson the first time they ran their graduate issue, which sees a group of fashion graduates join the team for a month. "You have to remember you are still the experts and you shouldn't expect that people would have your levels of expertise," she said, explaining that for the first issue they had told the graduates to "re-do the flat plan" in whatever order they liked.
"They looked at us with slightly blank faces, and they just ended up moving everything around for the sake of it," she said, adding that in reality, "that wasn't any use to us or them".
"How would you know how to flat plan a magazine, if you're coming to it completely blind? So you are still the experts, but what you want is the enthusiasm and the ideas."
7. Don't forget about new advertising opportunities
Of course a magazine is not just about the editorial content, and the publishers also had to think about ways of bringing advertising into the magazine, or even into the crowdsourcing process itself.
At Olivia, for example, advertisers could set their own 'challenges' on the online platform, the results of which then became advertorials in the magazine.
And while it did not come to fruition at the time, the experience of crowdsourcing an edition of Femina did highlight new ways the magazine could run advertising in future versions, Rai said, with the possibility of getting relevant advertisers to sponsor the entire magazine. In April, "one of the leading mobile service providers" was interested in this prospect, he said.
"They said that this year their budget is already taken care of, but next time you do something like this, call on us and we will sponsor the entire activity. So the advertising opportunities are huge."
8. Harness the PR and marketing potential for the magazine
Not only does the experience help magazines build greater connections to their readers, and offer readers a hands-on role in the magazine's production – and therefore hopefully a highly relevant and appealing end product – but the magazines also enjoyed the "PR buzz" which came with the experience of doing something a bit different or innovative in the industry.
"It's a crowded market and magazines are not top of mind where media is generally concerned," Rai said. "Television and the internet are more sexy than magazines, so you need to do things which get the attention of the advertisers, of the media, of people in the industry,"
He added that it also offered "marketing opportunity".
"If you want to be seen as contemporary, it's important to do contemporary things, not just look contemporary," he explained.
9. Consider sales strategy and timing
While there are certain challenges to take into consideration with these projects, such as the time needed to carry out effective crowdsourcing, many of the publishers reported healthy sales of the special editions and say the idea makes sense for sparking interest in the brand, particularly in quieter months.
The co-created Olivia edition, for example, is sold "during the slow season", Toiminen said. "It really enhances both ad sales and newsstand sales because it's something special and it gets a lot of PR every time, and a lot of attention."
Femina doubled the price of its Made By You edition, Rai said, but "circulation numbers went up" regardless.
"We were sold out within the first week," he said. "So the opportunities are huge".
White added that while "there's no miracle magic wand" when it comes to boosting sales by significant volumes, the experience can work to unite readers in a more meaningful way, giving the "feeling of a club".It feels very inclusive. You are a Company girl, you know you're a Company girl. And in turn they are then spreading your word for youVictoria White, Company
"It feels very inclusive," she explained. "You are a Company girl, you know you're a Company girl. And in turn they are then spreading your word for you.
"And it's got to be a two-way street, so I hope by including them as much as possible we're showing a level of respect for our readership, and I think that's where brands need to go. It has to be a two-way conversation."
10. Use the experience to refresh thinking
For Toiminen, one of the most important outcomes of the experience has been to encourage Olivia's editorial team to "regenerate, recreate and innovate in a new way".
"I think it's a bit obnoxious to consider that everything we do that is new and fun for us will be interesting for the audience," she said, adding that by engaging with readers and considering the ideas they bring to the table, journalists can "find themselves in a different place which is a source for creativity".
Operating in this new environment can also spark entirely new ideas for products, such as the fashion blogger magazine at Bonnier, which incorporates some of the underlying crowdsourcing ideas.
Similarly, at Worldwide Media, Rai said that other magazine editors within the group are now "thinking of ways to do crowdsourcing, whether it's an entire issue or sections".
And Femina itself has also stumbled across a potential new business which could see its readers more regularly writing fictional content, under the name of Femina Fast Fiction.
"If our readers are so keen to write, we just want to check out whether they're keen to write only on subjects that we give them, or are they keen to write fiction?
"I am quite hopeful that within the next month or so, we will be launching this new platform where we'll invite people to write their fiction stories on our website, on the tablet, the mobile, as well as hopefully on Twitter. So we'll have fast fiction and very fast fiction!
"But that, I think, is going to be an exciting new area, new development, from crowdsourcing and if all goes well, those stories could be published in a fiction-only Femina special issue.
"We could select some of those authors, we could get them published, we could help them get published and hopefully at the end of it monetise it also for ourselves."
Free daily newsletter
- Tip: Community advisory boards 101
- Can an ‘encyclopaedia of opinions’ help us have healthier conversations?
- Independent journalist launches new hyperlocal title to serve London communities
- Fever Pit'ch: a football newsletter powered by reader-first approach and strong community
- How four European publishers experiment with new tools to grow their audience