Making crowdsourcing work: some examples from the UK election

(This article was also posted today on the BBC College of Journalism blog –

The idea that journalists can tap into online sources to access a kind of collective consciousness is often touted as the next – or at least the current – big thing. If this is the way forward, news organisations need to understand what makes audience members decide to interact or participate.

‘Crowdsourcing’ may sound very contemporary, but it’s simply a more sophisticated version of a process that’s been around for decades, in at least two earlier forms.

– Traditional feedback

In the beginning, interaction between audience and news organisation was a simple a call-to-action, with audience members responding independently of each other.

e.g. radio call-in shows, letters to the editor

– Technologically enhanced UGC (user-generated content)

More recently, this approach has blossomed into an almost unrecognisable diversity as the audience makes use of a much wider range of technology to submit material.

e.g emails and text messages to news organisations, pictures of breaking news events submitted via mobile phones, Tweets and additions to Facebook pages.

Both the above should be distinguished from the current phase:

– Social media

Today people can comment and discuss with one another, so a feedback mechanism exists beyond the news organisation.

e.g. online dialogue between audience members, integration of social networks into news organisation output, collaborative crowd sourcing

As I’ve written about previously, I led a piece of research about UGC at the BBC, exploring the motivation of people who submit material (pictures, comments, story suggestions) to a news organisation, and to examine what stops people from responding to calls-to-action. In December 2007, only 4% of the UK population had submitted anything to an online news website.

While there were a number of reasons that people gave for not submitting material – lack of time was a common one – the most interesting reasons were:

– “I don’t know enough to comment or add anything.”

– “It’s complicated. I wouldn’t know how to take a video or photo or even how I would contact a news organisation or send anything in.”

– “There would be no point contacting a news organisation with a suggestion about a potential story as they already know about it. If they don’t cover a story I’m interested in it’s because they don’t think it’s important enough, not because they don’t know about it.”

– “I would be much more likely to comment if I thought someone important was listening, such as the Prime Minister.”

I’m repeating these here as I want to stress how important they still are, although our research was completed when journalism was still very much in the second (Technologically enhanced UGC) of the above stages. At the time, social media had hardly made a dent on newsrooms.

News organisations are slowly experimenting with innovative ways to use social media to engage the audience. The imaginary apostophes around the term ‘crowdsourcing’ make it appear to be a new and exciting element of journalism, but many crowdsourcing initiatives depend on the same behavioural characteristics that limited participation in the earlier stages of audience interaction.

So how, specifically do those factors play out in the current context? I’d like to compare three crowdsourcing initiatives from around the time of the General Election in May 2010.

– “If I were Prime Minister” video wall (BBC News – Have Your Say)

The BBC’s election wall appeared at the beginning of the campaign and featured short videos of people talking to camera saying what they would do if they were prime minister.

The hope was that people would submit their own videos but in fact very few people did, and many films were professional vox pops filmed by BBC crews when they were on location during the campaign.

In lots of ways this initiative theoretically had potential and it could have taken off. The main problem with it was the barrier to participation: most people don’t know how to film themselves, and even if they did, they would struggle to know how to submit their video to the BBC or would worry about cost. In addition, many people would feel unable to comment for 20 seconds on political policies.

Message for the new Con/LibDem Coalition Government (Guardian Flickr Group)
The Guardian created a group on the photo-sharing site Flickr and asked people to send a message to the new Coalition Government using a photograph. In contrast to the BBC election wall, the Guardian overcame three key barriers to participation:

– Difficulty of creating and sending content

– Concern that participating was pointless

– Fear that they didn’t know enough to comment.

The project was based on photography – which is much more accessible to most people than video. The call-to-action also encouraged participation by emphasising that this wasn’t necessarily a serious project: “A greeting? A warning? Some sage (or silly) advice? An idea? A request.” And while there was no guarantee that David Cameron or Nick Clegg would look at the results, rhetorically it was set up with that intention, giving the project a purpose beyond simply contributing.

While someone might not have felt confident sending in a picture that outlined the finer points of a potential economic stimulus package, it was easy to draw “TELL THE TRUTH” in big letters on a piece of paper and hold it up to the camera.

Commons Sense book for new MPs (BBC Radio 5 Live)

This was a project which produced a real life object, not simply a digital object. A Commons Sense book was made, and given to all of new MPs as they arrived at the House of Commons for their first day.

The suggestions in the book came from audience members who had attended outside broadcasts at the party political conferences last September. The wider audience then whittled these 600 suggestions down further to select entries for the final book.

This is a powerful example of the merits of combining off- and online engagement. It always results in the best material. And like the Guardian example, the very design of the project emphasised that suggestions would be read by people that matter, rather than soliciting audience comments for the sake of it.

All three of these initiatives had merit. This post is merely attempting to compare and in the process share what we can learn from such experiments. And experiments they are. We’re still learning what works and what doesn’t.

My point is that we already know something about what motivates and prevents people from engaging with the news – whether in a call-in radio show or an ambitious crowdsourced project online. When newsrooms are planning these initiatives, it is worth considering…

– How simple is our call to action?

– Have we made it as easy as possible for people to contribute?

– Have we made it as clear as possible how people contribute (technology needs and associated costs)?

– Have we given people a reason to contribute – beyond simply contributing (‘faux interactivity’ as one of our participants called it)? Who might be listening? Might change actually happen as a result of someone contributing?

Successful crowdsourcing projects don’t have to involve the Prime Minister listening. Two of my favourite initiatives are the BBC World Service Save our Sounds project and BBC Radio 4’s History of the World.

In both, people are asked to contribute to an online ‘archive’ that would remain for others to experience and enjoy.

To be successful it can’t be ‘interactivity for interactivity’s sake’. The audience can smell it a mile off.