No Content, No Problem: Utilizing Others’ Content to Boost Your Own Strategy


Many companies have social/content strategies that rely on fan-generated content to create a community and encourage engagement.

This post will include examples of companies that use such content and how-to instructions for creative strategies (such as embedding Quora quotes in posts or making use of fan-generated content).

Before we look at who is crowdsourcing, and how you can use it to supplement your own content marketing strategy, I want you to understand why content marketing is arguably the most important digital marketing channel in 2014.

Last year, Econsultancy published a Quarterly Intelligence Briefing on Digital Trends for 2013. This study revealed that content marketing was the key marketing channel for both companies and digital marketing agencies alike.

Extract from Infographic by Xanthos Digital Marketing, summarizing some key findings from the Econsultancy Digital Trends for 2013 study

The rise of online content marketing is in no small part thanks to Google and its focus on encouraging users to create useful, information-rich content, though content marketing in a non-digital format has been around for hundreds of years.

In simple terms, content marketing is the practice of creating content that engages and informs, ultimately driving a customer or user to take profitable action(s).

According to a 2013 study by the Content Marketing Institute and Marketo, 92% of marketers are using content marketing. Of those, 58% of B2B marketers and 60% of B2C marketers plan on increasing their content marketing budget over the next 12 months (study performed in July/August 2013).

When content marketers were asked what their biggest content marketing challenges were, they cited the following (note: only top 5 listed here):

For B2B content marketers:

  1. Lack of time (69%)
  2. Producing enough content (55%)
  3. Producing the kind of content that engages (47%)
  4. Lack of budget (39%)
  5. Producing a variety of content (38%)

For B2C content marketers:

  1. Lack of time (57%)
  2. Producing the kind of content that engages (51%)
  3. Lack of budget (48%)
  4. Producing enough content (45%)
  5. Inability to measure content effectiveness (36%)

It seems that the scale and engagement required for a successful content marketing strategy are the very things most content marketers are battling to manage.

So, the question is how do you produce a lot of content within a limited time frame and with a set or small budget? For that matter, how do you produce content that your customers will engage with?

To solve this problem, companies, increasingly, are turning to their pre-existing fan base.

The Wisdom of the Crowd

In 2005, Jeff Howe, a contributing editor to Wired magazine, coined the term crowdsourcing. According to an article published in The New York Times in 2009, Howe defines crowdsourcing as:

“The act of taking a job once performed by a designated agent (an employee, freelancer, or a separate firm) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people through the form of an open call, which usually takes place over the Internet.”

With the rise of social media networks, point-and-shoot camera phones, and a connected, always-available world, crowdsourcing as a marketing practice has exploded.

A History of Crowdsourcing

The practice of turning to fans for content is not new. Pillsbury has been crowdsourcing recipes for an annual calendar since 1949, and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was in large part compiled by volunteers that copied passages from assigned books illustrating the usage of various words.

In 2005, the OED and the BBC combined forces to create a project called Wordhunt, which asked a national audience to submit evidence/examples of select words, showing how these words had been used historically. These examples were to be sourced from any number of places, including magazines, fanzines, unpublished letters or postcards, books, and even movie scripts!

Other historical instances of crowdsourcing (typically taking the form of monetary-incentivized competitions) include:

  • The Longitude Prize in 1714 (a British carpenter received £20,000 in compensation for his invention of the marine chronometer to help sailors navigate when at sea)
  • Toyota’s logo in 1936 (selected from approximately 27,000 entries)
  • The 1955 design of the Sydney Opera House (at least part of the design)

Today, a number of popular sites also rely on crowdsourced content for their continued existence and/or ongoing development. A few obvious examples include:

  • Wikipedia – crowdsources knowledge and citations/references that back up the knowledge
  • Threadless – crowdsources t-shirt designs that are submitted online and that users vote on – the top 10 t-shirts are sold through the online store and in-store in Chicago – each “winning” designer receives compensation for their help
  • Waze – relies on crowdsourcing to provide up-to-the-minute traffic information for this GPS application for phones
  • YouTube – crowdsources videos for entertainment, information, and advertising purposes
  • Facebook – relies on the crowd to create different language versions of their site

While crowdsourcing is by no means new, it is a tried and tested method used to obtain a lot of content in very little time. The main difference now is the method used to acquire that content.

For those partaking in a brand/company’s crowdsource campaign, the motivations often are as extrinsic as they are intrinsic. For some people, it’s the chance to win money, recognition, or an award of sorts. For others, it’s a desire to do something they find personally rewarding (for example, to volunteer for a good cause or play a game that’s exciting).

As a marketer or content marketer, you’ve got to tap into your audience’s psyche to figure out what will make them partake in the task you need to accomplish. Why would they spend time, effort, or money creating something for YOU? How can you get them to think about you, talk about you, and work for you?

Examples of Companies Crowdsourcing Their Content

Today, crowdsourcing, primarily, is associated with the internet and, increasingly, with social media platforms. Both companies and individuals use this technique to solve a number of problems, including those identified by the 2013 CMI/Marketo study mentioned above.

1. Crowdsourcing to Acquire Funding (aka: crowdfunding)

Kickstarter is a famous example of a company that has created a platform that helps artists, entrepreneurs, musicians, designers, and others raise money to see a project through to fruition. Backers – the name given to those donating money – are given incentives depending on how much they invest in the project. These incentives are decided by the project owner.

Famous crowdfunded Kickstarter projects include:

  • Pebble (pledged $10,266,845)
  • Ouya (pledged $8,596,474)
  • MaKey MaKey (pledged $568,106)
  • TikTok and LunaTik (pledged $942,578)

Kickstarter is by no means the only platform that allows creators to turn to the crowd to help get funding for a project. Other companies include: Patreon (probably the newest example of the lot, launched in May 2013), Indiegogo, RocketHub, Crowdfunder,, Quirky, and, of course, the digital/tech industry notable AngelList.

2. Crowdsourcing to Encourage Customers to Engage with the Brand

A number of fashion/clothing companies utilize crowdsourcing to encourage fans to engage with them. To incentivize this operation, companies can do any number of things, including featuring fan-submitted content on their site (giving the fan/customer direct kudos from the brand), using the content in advertisements (giving them “Hollywood-style” exposure), or awarding monetary compensation.

Done well, crowdsourcing can turn regular customers into fans or even into super fans or brand evangelists, which, really, is what every company wants. Apple is the typical example here, with so many fans that shop ONLY Apple products.

Designer clothing company, Coach, has taken this exact approach. Their “Coach from Above” campaign collates photos of fans wearing Coach shoes they tagged with #CoachFromAbove and posted on Instagram, Twitter, or Pose. The only incentive for the person submitting the photo is that their image MIGHT be featured in the Coach from Above gallery and on their map.

What better way to turn aspiring fashionistas into fans? After all, a well-known company has acknowledged their great sense of style!

Levi Strauss is another good example of a company that has used crowdsourcing to get customers engaging with them. In 2010, they launched a campaign asking people to submit an innovative and sustainable alternative to using an indoor tumble dryer. (Ordinary air-drying methods are not foolproof, especially for those without a back garden/terrace or those who live in a rainy country.)

The task was to find a wide-reaching alternative to air-drying. Not only would this “Care to Air” design challenge help to brand Levi Strauss as “environmentally aware,” but it also would encourage owners of Levi Strauss jeans to take better care of their clothing, ultimately making their own product last longer and be perceived as a product of higher quality.

The reward for the solution was $10,000 in prizes. After just two months, the company had received 140 designs. The top two winners created alternative drying racks that easily could be mounted on a wall inside a house and that also could masquerade as art (at least in the case of one of the designs).

3. Crowdsourcing to Save Money and Time

Crowdsourcing is helpful if you have a large following but not a huge budget, or if you want to consider a lot of ideas but you don’t want to pay for all of the ideas or multiple designs.

99Designs is a “contest-style” marketplace that taps into a community of logo, graphic, and web designers to offer customers (who are in need of a design) a variety of options. This is not a free service, but the nature of the service/package that the customer chooses gives them a lot of choice for a very low price. In the real world, to receive a dozen designs from a dozen different artists, one might pay a dozen times the price that 99Designs charges.

Adobe is another notable crowdsourcer that taps into their audience to acquire free transcription and translation for thousands of their training videos. Because the audience is engaged and because there’s a certain cool/geek factor that comes with being able to include the Adobe name on a resume, they can do this without having to pay a cent.

4. Crowdsourcing to Get Answers, Undertake Research, or Make Decisions

Requests to fill out surveys or to participate in online research studies also fall under the banner of crowdsourcing, as does asking questions on question/answer sites or on social networks. In fact, as part of my own research for this post, I turned to LinkedIn and Quora for help, asking social and content experts if they could suggest a few examples of companies crowdsourcing content in one form or another.

LinkedIn and Quora are examples of more business-oriented social platforms that allow one to tap into a network of individuals, many of whom are experts within their field. Plus, LinkedIn Groups allow you to have conversations with people outside of your immediate network but who you may want to speak to, people like Elon Musk or Sergey Brin (who also likely don’t have time for LinkedIn).

Here are some of the great answers I got just a day or so after asking my question. As you’ll see, some of them come directly from people working within (or with) companies that are using crowdsourcing – REI, SAP, and Eyeball Digital.

The same was true of Quora . When I asked for help, I got responses; granted, not as many as on LinkedIn, but still good, useful responses.

What’s great about Quora is that it allows you to embed the responses on your site or in a blog post. This is a good way to add interest to your post and give credit to the person who answered your question.

Read Quote of Rachel Parker’s answer to What companies or brands are crowdsourcing their content marketing? on Quora

To embed a quote, simply highlight the selection you want to embed and then click the “embed quote” button that pops up over your highlight. This even works for “sections” of quotes!

Econsultancy is another company utilizing the power of the crowd. They send out a daily newsletter containing links to blog content, their latest reports, various digital events, and…usually a link to one of their surveys.

If you’re an Econsultancy member, you know that the company (often in association with other companies) compiles some really great reports with a lot of statistical data. The data from these reports is in part collated from responses of people on their email list. In exchange for completing the survey, you receive the report when it is published. If you don’t think that’s much incentive, you should see the prices of the reports. Trust me, it’s a good deal.

Screenshot of Econsultancy’s Daily Pulse email

Crowdsourcing also is used to help companies make decisions in line with what their audiences want.

In 2012, Budweiser ran a campaign called Project 12. This campaign involved Budweiser’s 12 primary U.S.-based brewmasters and their target audience of U.S. beer drinkers. First, Budweiser’s brewmasters were asked to write a unique recipe for a beer. From the selection produced, Budweiser internally whittled the 12 choices down to 6.

Then, the 6 recipes were brewed in small batches and thousands of consumers across the nation were asked to provide feedback. The top 3 winning recipes were made available in a limited edition sampler pack, with each recipe named after the zip code of the town the beer was brewed in. Not just a good way to get customers thinking about the product, but also a good way to go about creating a product that people would like and buy!

Image courtesy of

The Chicago History Museum uses crowdsourcing to come up with ideas for exhibitions simply by asking people to email a specific address with their idea / preferred exhibit. Once they’ve narrowed the ideas down to the top 16, they open it up to the public again, allowing people to vote on the final 16 exhibits.

5. Crowdsourcing to Acquire Products and to Find Fresh Talent

American Idol, Eurovision, and Britain’s Got Talent are perhaps the most popular examples of turning to the crowd (or to entire nations) to find the next star, something/someone that isn’t necessarily the “best” but that appeals to the majority. But it isn’t just television shows. It’s also brands and BIG ones like Amazon.

In case you haven’t heard, Amazon runs a division called Amazon Studios. It’s a website and business model that relies heavily on participation from the crowd, that is, writers submitting scripts and fans reviewing those scripts, watching movies/clips, and, in general, giving feedback.

Of course, for Amazon, it’s a super affordable way to produce a product that the public wants and that they’re already engaged with before launch. Plus, they get first dibs on buying something “great” and they get to buy it for not very much. Instead of having to go out and commission writers, they wait for something to come to them. Their justification? Potentially, you could attract the Hollywood community! Naturally, this isn’t for famous writers, just for the budding (or desperate) artist.

6. Crowdsourcing to Advertise, Grow a Business, Create Promotional Materials, or Procure Content

Crowdsourcing is a popular practice with social media websites. In fact, today almost every single social media website relies upon content obtained from or volunteered by the crowd. This includes sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Quora, LinkedIn, and Springpad, to name but a few.

One specific example of a company using crowdsourcing to help “get the word out,” is Clipular. I’ve picked Clipular instead of a “social giant” because I think this is an amazing little browser extension that doesn’t get the press it deserves. Basically, it’s a screen capture tool with a user interface not unlike Pinterest’s. In comparison to other extensions, especially Evernote’s slightly messy one, this is just a breeze.

So, where does crowdsourcing come into it?

Not so obvious, perhaps, but…when a user decides to share a “clip” or a “collection of clips” (or when a user decides to share their seriously cool content IMMEDIATELY), they get free advertising, and the public is doing it all for them.

Plus, check out Clipular’s Tumblr blog. You even can submit your own collection of clips to them if you want to see it featured on the blog, yet another example of crowdsourcing content and advertising.

And, if you take a closer look at the image above, you’ll see I’ve thrown in a bonus, an app called Pickld that turns to the crowd for content, allowing people to create, submit, and share their very own comic books that combine personal photos and neat little in-app stickers, bubbles, and more. Pickld is based in the Philippines and is a relatively new player on the social scene. Still, it’s an app with great potential for content marketers and storytellers.

If you’d like to see how a “big player” is doing things, GoPro also makes good use of their social media fan base, asking followers to submit images and videos taken with their GoPro cameras (ultimately marketing their own product, but giving recognition to those who use it).

To obtain the content, GoPro encourages daredevil owners of their cameras to share videos and images via social media. Each day, GoPro picks a different video or image to feature on their website or across social media accounts. Of course, the very act of getting fans to share content socially gets them an additional boost, helping to spread word of the product.

There’s More than One Way to Crowdsource Your Content

As you can see from the examples mentioned above, crowdsourcing can be shaped to fit just about any business in any number of ways. It can be used to acquire free content, supplement a content marketing strategy, form the backbone of an entire business model, encourage engagement, save money and time, and create promotional marketing materials.

It’s pretty straightforward, really, but, if you’re still at a loss for how to get started or feel your business doesn’t lend itself to content marketing, why not begin by asking questions on LinkedIn or Quora (just to get a feel for things)? Both are good networks for B2B and B2C companies.

You also could run a competition or create a hashtag and feature your followers’ content somewhere on your site. And, you could use fans’ content in advertisements, but make sure to tell them how you’re going to use the content since some of them may not want the publicity.

All you really have to do is identify what you need and give people a chance to give it to you. Of course, don’t forget to consider your audience. What do they like to do? How can you get them to combine what they like to do with what you need?

Marketing Channels You Can Use to Crowdsource Your Content

  • Email – send out survey requests or let people know you’re running a competition – Urban Outfitters does this
  • LinkedIn – tap into your own network of connections and use LinkedIn’s Groups – ask questions, answer questions, and get people engaging with you or with your company – people prefer talking to people rather than brands/companies, so you’ll probably find you have more luck getting answers if you’re operating under your personal name instead of your company page
  • Quora – ask questions on Quora – works in much the same way as LinkedIn Groups or Yahoo! Answers
  • Twitter – use this platform to tap into relevant hashtags, to create hashtags, or to ask questions
  • Crowdsource images on Instagram and Flickr – use them in product promotions, on your site, or just to show the world that your fans like your stuff
  • Hook up a account for your business or some key staff members – Jelly is a mobile app that launched only last month – I won’t give it away now, but it’s brilliant, and I encourage you to try it – think Pinterest combined with Quora, with a nicer user interface than either

Words to the Wise

Play nicely

Your customers/fans are doing you a favor by providing you with content, especially if you’re getting it for free. In order to continue the relationship with your fans, be sure not to abuse them and to acknowledge and reward wherever and whenever possible. No good ever came of just taking…

Cover all angles

Think your crowdsourcing campaigns through before you launch them. Consider the campaigns from every angle. Can anything go wrong? If it does, how will you respond? Here’s your last example, and it’s an example of crowdsourcing gone wrong.

In 2012 Mountain Dew decided to crowdsource the name they were going to give the new apple-flavored version of their Mountain Dew soda. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t bank on people opting for less than “tasteful” names. So, instead of winning positive press, they simply scrapped the campaign, created a boring name, and became a primary example of “how not to crowdsource.”

Know the law

If you’re using the crowd to come up with solutions to problems, then who owns the solution, patent, or invention? If you crowdsource for something you intend to sell, are you breaching employment law? Be careful if you’re going to start something like “Amazon Studios.” Best to have a lawyer look things over first.

Let your fans know how you’ll use their content

Fair is fair. Plus, you don’t want to get embroiled in any legal battles. If you tell people what you’re going to be doing with the information they submit and you’re totally upfront, you’re not likely to run into trouble.

No Going Back…

Once you get your head around the very broad definition of “crowdsourcing,” you’re going to start noticing how many brands and companies are crowdsourcing their content, and you’re going to wonder why you didn’t do it sooner yourself. My advice: begin small and scale up. And, if you come across anything particularly interesting in your research, let me know!

About the Author: is a digital marketing consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s passionate about creating campaigns that help businesses stand out from the crowd. Areas of interest and expertise include: content marketing, social media marketing, digital strategy and brand building. You can find out more on her website or follow her on twitter @candylandau.

Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, we only recommend products or services we believe will add value to our readers.

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