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The joys (and dangers) of crowdsourced marketing

It almost sounds magical–a system with an on-demand supply of incredibly cheap labor (pennies for many tasks) that is available by simply posting a request on a Web site. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and other crowdsourcing sites have revolutionized the way companies do intensive manual labor on computing tasks. So, you might want to consider using crowdsourcing for your Internet marketing jobs. But when you do, you also need to be careful about how you do it, lest you give away too much information to your competitors.

 First, some basics. For those unaware, crowdsourcing is a fantastic resource that allows businesses to tap into the cheap labor pool of students, the home-bound, the unemployed, and anyone who wants a flexible part-time job. All you must do is break down your job into a very simple repetitive task that can be done in a few seconds or a minute, post that task on Mechanical Turk or one of its competitors, and sit back and watch as the tasks come back completed.

Mechanical Turk is by far the most popular and famous crowdsourcing site, but you should know that it is restricted to the U.S., so folks in other countries might want to look at CrowdFlower or other sites. So, while I will refer to Mechanical Turk a lot, most of what I say is just as applicable to other crowdsourcing sites that might be more appropriate to what you are doing. For example, 99Designs is a site that allows you to crowdsource any graphics design task from a full Web site makeover to a logo, offering a prize for the winning entry.

Let’s take a marketing example for crowdsourcing on Mechanical Turk to see how it works. Everyone talks about how important it is to do link building for organic search marketing, but who has the time to do it? I know a restaurant chain that needed links to its local Web sites for each restaurant location. Now, a highly paid marketing person is never going to find the time to research the right local directories, blogs, newspapers, restaurant sites, and tourism sites for the 52 cities those restaurants are located in. Maybe you could wait for summer to arrive and find an intern to do it. But it’s faster and cheaper to post the task on Mechanical Turk to list the URLs and e-mail addresses of 20 sites in a particular city that meet the criteria. For that you might pay 20 cents a site. Maybe $1 a site if you are feeling flush. If this seems cheap, you should know that many tasks pay just one or two cents.

I’m not kidding. Many of the tasks are that easy to post and get gobbled up that quickly. So how can you beat coming up with your list of link targets for a couple of hundred bucks over 50 cities? It sounds too good to be true, but it is true.

You might want to be careful about one thing, however. Mechanical Turk postings are public, so they can be mined by your competitors trying to figure out what you are up to. For a while, a Mechanical Turk tracking site was up that showed the hottest requests and what company posted them, but when I checked today the site was down.

So, think before you post. Provide the absolute minimum detail about what you need done. Not only with this provide more security for you, but it simplifies the task, which allows it to be completed more quickly and allows you to pay less.

Be careful about how you identify yourself. Obviously you shouldn’t misrepresent your identity, but it can’t hurt to avoid using your company name if it is the kind of task you wouldn’t want your competitors to know about.

In general, the risk of exposure to competitors is extremely small compared to the value of on-demand cheap labor. If you haven’t thought about how to use crowdsourcing for your marketing, your competitors might already have.

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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