November 18, 2013, 3:04 PM

How a web retailer improves on the wisdom of its crowd

Spreadshirt.com's contributors are creative, but not always accurate.

Move over Facebook: some concepts are cooler than social media. Crowdsourcing is hot, and when paired with content the result can be beautiful!  

Spreadshirt is a business with a community and we sell stuff powered by the people. Is content-based crowdsourcing the Holy Grail for marketers?  Maybe. It offers unlimited ideas for content to answer every conceivable consumer query and millions of things to optimize on Google.

But is crowd-sourced business really that simple?

Certainly, venture capitalists and CFOs love this concept, as the potential is boundless and required financial resources are minimal.  As CEO of Spreadshirt, the potential and limitations are not lost on me.

We have over 9 million designs in our databases provided by consumers, designers and brands.  To replicate this resource without crowdsourced content:  We would need designers creating 10 designs a day at approximately 110,000 hours of work at an assumed rate of about $15 an hour. That’s $1.65 million in labor alone.  If other overhead is factored in like HR, Management, coffee, Christmas parties, the cost is closer to $3 million.

However, the diversity of designs, constant news, and trend monitoring around the globe most likely makes the real value of 9 million diverse designs closer to 10x that, or $30 million. Clearly the value of the crowd is substantial, even with a rudimentary cost /benefit analysis.

Another notable nuance: Crowds react to events constantly. From the Boston bombings to German flood zones, we have instant fundraising. While our company does not specifically fundraise, we provide our partners with an online platform to raise funds.  Mechanisms like donating a portion from sales or proceeds from commission allow partners to direct funds to charities or causes that they support.

Within minutes of the first flight being stopped due to the Icelandic Volcano, we went from one lonely volcano design to hundreds. So marketers should be even more excited than the CFO, because each new tag is created by the crowd and represents a new niche market to potentially sell to. Effective Google SEO alone would be worth $150M in global marketing based on my assessment of scaling the spending on paid search marketing to cover terms and assess how much SEO is worth by factoring in things like head terms and long-tail traffic. Even better, many of the crowd share what they have done with their friends and family, further generating direct brand exposures and boosting free traffic coming back.

Caution light!

However, you are at the mercy of the crowd to get it right. Yes, we have hundreds of thousands of designs, but no control on how the creators title and tag them. A recent search result for the word “goat” 12 months ago on the U.K. site displayed things like sheep, hippos, and other seemingly unrelated words.

The crowd isn’t concerned about effective search terms. It throws in lots of tags in the hope of getting noticed, so in “crowdspeak” goats can also mean sheep or hippos.

At Spreadshirt, we have a unique conundrum, as our content is crowdsourced, international and ambiguous. We are powerless without our crowd. But enthusiastic marketers, CFOs and VCs should be advised that crowds need control, and this can be difficult to manage. Turning all output into something meaningful to other customers is a continual challenge.

Spreadshirt invested over $1 million over a two-year period to get this right by focusing on the accuracy of the tag and the ranking of tags for each image, and continually monitoring the system to ensure accurate results. Currently consumers will see goats (99% of the time when searched).But delivery of accurate results has been no easy task, since it involved renaming and ranking inaccurate tags created by the crowd. The tag is created by the designer, continually reviewed by Spreadshirt team for accuracy, and an algorithm determines which image will appear in response to a given search term. The algorithm factors in the number of clicks and previous sales from prior searches.

Although the content comes from outside of the business, the rules about search always apply. Google is still the most powerful search engine and wants to offer the best experience for its customer by finding the most relevant sites. Ensure that tagging mechanisms and ranking algorithms are optimized; strive to improve ways of removing poorly tagged items to deliver the best customer experience and SEO opportunity.

Keep the focus on what the potential customer might be looking for and the relevancy of the content rather than on what your company offers. Once the consumer lands at the site, follow up the easy search process with a great landing experience. Concentrate on how each customer wants to proceed, not just on the benefits of the crowd, and your site may end up even cooler than social media.

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