Crowdsourcing: The Cup is Half Full

In 2011, the word “crowdsourcing” was added to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as a mashup of the words “crowd” and “outsourcing.” In five short years, it became a way to define a new way of doing business:

“the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers” – Merriam Webster

Even though the etymology of the word hasn’t been around that long, the idea, itself, has.

In fact, just this past week I employed crowdsourcing for a project on which I was working. I had hit a speed bump in my planning and the ideas had stalled. We sent out an email asking for a solution to a group of key stakeholders and literally, within 45 seconds, I had the answer to something that had stumped me for days.

In this week’s Modern Retro PR, examine the ways in which soliciting others for help in solving complex ideas has happened in two different eras.

Modern: #WhiteCupContest

Sometimes a when it comes to a new project a blank piece of paper can leave your mind empty and overwhelmed. But that’s exactly the opposite what Starbucks saw. The company’s baristas noticed customers doodling on the company’s white paper cups designed with only a Starbucks logo. The revolution of a blank canvas sparked a unique opportunity for crowdsourcing a design for the iconic cup. Thus, the White Cup Challenge was born in 2014!

According to Starbucks:

The company-sponsored design competition encouraged customers in the U.S. and Canada to decorate a Starbucks® reusable cup with their original customized art and submit a photo through social media using the hashtag #WhiteCupContest.

According to the company, the promotion brought in nearly 4,000 submissions in less than a month’s time, with the winner’s artwork being reproduced on a limited edition reusable Starbucks’ cup.

The blog Marketing Eye explained the impact of the Starbucks crowdsourcing campaign by calling it “a winning combination of crowd-sourced product design, increasing reusable cup sales and reinforcing a Starbucks’ environmental responsibility credentials.”

The affinity for the crowdsourced designs shared via Twitter has even prompted the company to expand the platform on which the artwork is seen to Pinterest. The Starbucks Cup Art Pinterest board is yet another way for the company to thank its customers for being part of the company’s success. This particular Pinterest board is being followed by more than 250,000 other Pinterest accounts.

Shortly after launching this campaign, the Seattle-based company expanded the crowdsourcing to its annual red cup holiday designs. Patrons were offered a red cup on which to draw their hearts out. Similar to the #WhiteCupContest, the #RedCupContest features holiday-themed art.

According to the company’s Facebook page, in 2015 Starbucks received more than 24,000 artwork submissions in five days!

The popularity of the competition further enhanced the brand and created customer loyalty. Additionally, the company developed a permanent, digital home for the holiday artwork at

The beauty of this campaign wasn’t that Starbucks was asking customers to come up with new ideas, but it was that they provided a platform to showcase how people spent their time as they enjoyed a cup of their favorite brew.

Retro: Crimestoppers

It was more than 40 years ago when an Albuquerque, New Mexico police detective came up with an idea to help solve a backlog of crime mysteries. The idea was simple: solicit the public for information about the unsolved crime to which the police may not have had access. If successful, the hope was that the information provided would help police crack the case and ultimately lead to an arrest and conviction.

The incentive to the anonymous tipster would be a cash reward. According to Crime Stoppers:

Members of the local community, media and law enforcement, came together in partnership to begin the effort to provide crime-solving assistance to law enforcement, and the first Crime Stoppers program was born on September 8, 1976.

In 1976, the word “crowdsourcing” simply didn’t exist, but it is evident that the philosophy did based on the work Crime Stoppers was doing to address issues of crime in local communities. While this collaborative partnership with the media, police and the community began with a telephone tip line, the organization now takes anonymous tips through the internet, too—a reflection of the modernization of an organization to evolve with changing times and technologies.

Crime Stoppers presently operates around the globe and has a 95% conviction rate on cases where tips are submitted, according to the organization’s website. There, viewers can also find an up-to-date tracking log of the success of the program. So far, more than 700,000 arrests have been made.

Do you have a tip to share? Call Crime Stoppers USA at 1 (800) 222-TIPS.

Final Thoughts

For strategic communicators looking for permission to use crowdsourcing, it already exists in one plank under the typical 12 functions of public relations’ competencies: trusted counsel. It is here where a communicator can use information gathered from stakeholders to provide trusted counsel to an organization’s leader. Done correctly and effectively, the information gleaned can offer the communicator primary informal research to use for consideration.

But it takes courage and a sense of humility to employ this strategy to address a challenging opportunity. Leaders must be willing to recognize that they nor their team has all the answers and that the collective “we” may offer insight we have yet to consider. Additionally, crowdsourcing can help leaders avoid groupthink by having others outside the organization’s inner workings to think of solutions to the problem.

“Crowdsourcing prevents groupthink and stops leaders from buying in to their own ideas without thinking through other perspectives.” – Chris Cancialosi, Forbes Contributor

This is a huge shift in the thinking that the experts know it all.

If, as organizational leaders, we are trying to solve challenging issues in order to meet the needs of a key public, then why not include them in the process? Writer Carrie Dagenhard of argues we should as part of a brand loyalty strategy: “By leveraging crowdsourcing and the technologies that make it possible, digital brands can amass and retain user allegiance.”

Simply put: an optimist communicator would view the cup as half full and crowdsourcing as a way to fill it to the brim.

One thought on “Crowdsourcing: The Cup is Half Full

  1. Hi Lesley,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your blog on crowdsourcing and your examples. I never thought about Crime Stoppers as crowdsourcing until you mentioned it. As you pointed out, it is a perfect example of crowdsourcing, and way ahead of its time. A friend is a crime reporter in Cincinnati and says the most popular segment in their many daily newscasts was their “Wheel of Justice.” They had pictures of people wanted for alleged crimes on a wheel, and a law enforcement officer would spin the wheel and highlight that person. I don’t think stations do it anymore, since some called them “Racist Wheels of Justice,” but they were very popular. Here is one from another station:

    Your highlighting of Starbuck’s #WhiteCupContest was also an excellent example of not only user engagement, but co-creation, and building brand loyalty, especially with the Art Pinterest Board. The fact that Starbucks created a digital home for the artwork, that customers can return to, to look at their art, and other people’s art, is a stroke of genius.

    As you stated, it takes courage and a sense of humility to use crowdsourcing. Your quote from Chris Cancialosi clarifies some of the real benefits (and challenges) of crowdsourcing: it prevents groupthink, and stops leaders from buying into their ideas, (ways) without thinking about other opinions, outside of their own box.

    That same notion also ties into branding. As marketer Tim Leberecht states in his Ted Talk, 3 ways to (usefully) lose control of your brand, companies can crowdsource with consumers to create ideas and share knowledge and content. But that means companies would have to give up control (and become more transparent). I cannot imagine my employer, a university, ever doing such a thing, yet major companies like Starbucks thrive, by doing just that.

    The challenge for strategic communicators may not be knowing which communication strategies are most effective, and the theories and research behind why they are effective. The challenge may be getting some companies to buy into them.


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