Want an Answer? Ask the Crowd

Do you think you have what it takes to create the next hit commercial or solve an equation that could lead to a scientific breakthrough?

Well, if so, there's good news.

You don't have to be a top advertising executive or scientist to take a stab at success.

A new trend called "crowdsourcing" is allowing the masses to participate for the first time, and anyone who is successful could find themselves in a lucrative position.

Crowdsourcing is a relatively new term.

It's been around for a few years, but it wasn't fully recognized until June 2006 when Jeff Howe wrote about the trend in a Wired Magazine article.

Today, it's emerging as a powerful tool that many companies are relying on for their success.

According to Howe, who coined the term, crowdsourcing is defined as "anytime a company or institution takes a job once performed by an employee and outsources it in the form of an open call."

Examples are everywhere as this term permeates the modern culture, and the practice becomes increasingly prevalent.

Its beginnings date back to Aug. 25, 1991, when software engineer Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux operating system, put his code on the Internet.

"He told users, 'If you can improve the code, please do,'" Howe said. In Howe's words, that was sort of the "big bang crowdsourcing."

The idea worked, drawing thousands of new ideas and fresh eyes.

Today an increasing number of companies rely fully on this labor pool.

Web sites like YouTube, where content consists of viewer-submitted video and Digg.com, where links are submitted and categorized by their popularity, capitalize on the masses' ability to provide viable content.

The T-shirt giant Threadless.com is another example, Howe said.

With humble roots, two design-school dropouts held weekly competitions, where design artists submitted their work for the possibility of it appearing on a T-shirt.

"What began as a fun, little competition has now turned into one of the largest T-shirt companies in America, shipping out 70,000 shirts a month -- all content generated from artist submissions," Howe said.

In the scientific world, pharmaceutical giant Ely Lilly created a stage to share ideas called Innocentive.

The idea behind this is to link people seeking solutions to problems with those who may be able to provide it.

Scientists all over the world post their challenging questions and equations where solvers attempt to reach a solution.

Should the seeker find a solution, they receive an award -- usually a small cash payment -- that was set by the person that posted the problem.

The Canadian band Barenaked Ladies, known for its creativity and quirkiness, has also joined the crowdsourcing movement by offering its fans the chance to create the next big remix to promote an album.

At risk in crowdsourcing may be quality control.

With thousands of submissions, "most are crap," Howe said, so it's essential to bulk up on a proper filtering system to pick out the few submissions that are usable.

Crowdsourcing may not always be the best method, and companies may need to think twice about how they use it, he said.

The tactic backfired in Chevy's face during a sponsorship with "The Apprentice."

In the reality-TV show where teams compete to land a coveted job with Donald Trump, each team had to do design a commercial for the Tahoe.

One group posted a venue online and let the crowd submit their best work.

Instead, the plan boomeranged when hundreds of environmentalists and activists against sport utility vehicles sent ads bashing the so-called "gas-guzzling" Tahoes.

Gary Stein, director of strategy for Ammo Marketing, said that should be a lesson: Don't pursue a tactic without an overall strategy.

"They latched onto this tactic, but they didn't take into account that they are tapping into an enormous well of negative sentiment about their product," he said.

As a result, Chevy got pinned with negative publicity associated with the Tahoe.

Despite Chevy's misstep, Howe said the advantages of crowdsourcing were clear.

It can provide companies with fresh ideas, information on what is interesting, and the ability to define what is done in the future.

"In a lot of cases the audience you are tapping may know more than your actual employees," Howe said.

Other times, it can be cost-saving. Viewer submissions can cost a fraction of what a production team would.

But Stein said it was not just about the economics.

"As an advertiser, you do this because it will attract people to an ad. Your ad is all of a sudden an event," he said.

The trend shouldn't be seen as a threat to ad copywriters or designers, though, he said.

"It's just another tactic that we can use," he said.

He predicted that the fad may already be winding down. "There's only so much you can do."