Brainstorming vs. crowdsourcing – where do you see the most value?

January 25, 2010 at 8:37 AM 11 comments

In the past, I have been a proponent of crowdsourcing as a good tool for just about anything, and I even would consider it a replacement for good ol’ fashioned brainstorming.

But lately, I’ve realized that each method definitely has a time and a place. Crowdsourcing can be a great tool when you’re just starting out on a project or you have a brand-new interest. When there’s something you need to work on but honestly have no idea where to start, I think crowdsourcing with the right people is absolutely you’re best bet.

For a project for which you have research or background information, though, brainstorming with others who have this information seems to make far more sense. Sometimes you need people with diverse backgrounds to help kick something off or give you a new view on something. But there are also times when you need a more specialized and trained view.

When do crowdsource and when do you brainstorm? Do you make the distinction?

I know that I am making a pretty hasty generalization here, but I’ve found that sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to look to a crowd. Even though they may have varied and wide expertise, without all of the information, their wisdom would almost be wasted. At the same time, brainstorming can be dangerous when you know too much because you may struggle to see outside your own narrow mindset.

It’s a tricky question, but I’m pretty confident that there must be a clear distinction between when these two different methods should be used. What do you think? Where do you stand?


Entry filed under: public relations, Social Media. Tags: , .

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tim Jahn  |  January 25, 2010 at 9:28 AM

    In the sense you’re referring to, I think crowdsourcing and brainstorming can often mean the same thing.

    For example, if you’re looking for blog post ideas and ask your friends on Twitter for ideas, is that crowdsourcing or brainstorming? I’d say it’s both.

    If your boss needs ideas for a new client’s campaign and gets five employees into the conference room to seek out ideas, is that crowdsourcing or brainstorming? Again, I’d say it’s both.

    Even with a service like crowdSPRING, I feel like it’s crowdsourcing AND brainstorming.

    Great question, Rebecca!

    • 2. Rebecca Denison  |  January 25, 2010 at 9:37 AM

      I see what you mean! That’s most definitely true in a lot of cases.

      I guess I’m being nit-picky about the definitions. If I’m just asking anyone I can find, is that really brainstorming? And when I pick and choose who I’m ask, is that really crowdsourcing? I think I am being too narrow in my definitions here.

  • 3. jen howver  |  January 25, 2010 at 10:38 AM

    good question rebecca…i can see how you could make a case for them being different, and how they overlap enough to be considered the same. i guess i see brainstorming more as a place for idea generation, and crowdsourcing more for the actual creation/development of an existing idea. that’d be my differentiation…

    • 4. Rebecca Denison  |  January 25, 2010 at 10:43 AM

      Yes! I love it. That is such a great differentiation to make, and I never would have thought of it like that. But you’re right, brainstorming usually happens when you need new ideas to make something happen or to reach a goal. Crowdsourcing is know what you’re doing, but just want to figure out how or how to do it more efficiently.

      Thanks for the great input!

  • 5. Daniel Prager  |  January 25, 2010 at 10:54 AM

    Really good question. I feel like in marketing, PR, and advertising specifically people have become obsessed with the idea of crowdsourcing.

    Right now, I don’t know how different crowdsourcing and brainstorming are (I generally agree with Tim’s points). Asking for input from your social graph, or increasing internal communication around a project, is that brainstorming or Crowdsourcing? Probably both.

    But what about creating content with the goal of inciting a response. What about advertising agencies like CP+B whose only goal is to “get people talking” ?

    Is that crowdsourcing or brainstorming? Neither? Both?

    This is really a great question. Thanks so much for the post.

    • 6. Rebecca Denison  |  January 25, 2010 at 11:33 AM

      I think you and Tim have a valid point in that there is a lot of overlap here. The distinction I think I keep making is that crowdsourcing is a more broad thing while brainstorming has a much more focused agenda. Perhaps that’s just my own opinion, though!

      Your point about CP+B makes me wonder if I’m thinking of this in the wrong way. Crowdsourcing and brainstorming aren’t methods, they’re tool with almost identical purposes, right? So what’s the advantage of one vs the other?

      I think I’m only getting more confused, ha ha. Thank you for sharing your unique insights!

  • 7. Ryan Stephens  |  January 25, 2010 at 3:59 PM

    While I think Tim is probably correct in the notion that there’s a lot of overlap depending on the approach, I also like your distinction Rebecca. I do think that crowdsourcing tends to be more from the vantage point of people who don’t necessarily have all the specs; whereas, I envision brainstorming to be a process that’s a little more structured in nature (i.e. colleagues at a conference table during a whiteboarding session).

    One of the things I’ve learned through the years that’s a bit off topic is the notion that at the beginning of EITHER of these processes, take EVERY idea into account even the ridiculous ones. Don’t start dismissing and refining ideas right away because sometimes the more outlandish ideas become a key component or help stimulate a great idea moving forward.

    Good stuff amiga!

  • 8. Kyle Hawke  |  January 25, 2010 at 6:10 PM

    Another nuance to consider…

    One of the constraints with current crowdsourcing models is that they lack a means to implement a solution. So, the crowd can come up with great ideas for the ‘sourcer’ but then they are stuck with a list of ideas and still dont have the resources to implement them. What is needed is a crowdsourcing model that also sees ideas through to implementation.

  • 9. Rasul Sha'ir  |  January 26, 2010 at 11:22 AM

    Jen Howver has is right and crowdsourcing and brainstorming are two different things entirely. Brainstorming is about getting the “collective ideas” on the table. Crowdsourcing (when leveraged correctly) is about bringing people together to get more/better input on an exisiting idea and also to move that, already identified, idea, project or business initiative forward. They’re not interchangeable and serve two entirely different purposes. In an office with co-workers you brainstorm for new ideas you don’t crowdsource. If you need a logo design and want diverse talent to create it, you crowdsource for that. These are just two examples of the growing crowdsourcing field. Again the two are very different. See or cooltownstudios as execllent examples of what crowdsourcing is.

    • 10. jen howver  |  January 27, 2010 at 10:47 PM

      thanks for backing me up there Rasul. i like the examples you provided…

  • 11. DR. WHAW? – February 4, 2010 « One true sentence.  |  February 4, 2010 at 8:07 PM

    […] Better to Brainstorm Alone (Andrew O’Connell) Since Rebecca recently raised the question of brainstorming versus crowdsourcing, it seems timely that this post from the Harvard Business Review blog should assert that sometimes […]


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