Lots of people have good ideas. In the shower over the years you’ve probably conjured up a new invention or product enhancement you believe could shake up an entire market. But you’ve never acted on this brilliance because it’s not your industry, not your normal field of expertise, or simply because you’ve forgotten all about the idea a few minutes later.
You’re not alone. Every moment across the globe millions of consumers have bright ideas that go nowhere. An avoidable waste? Perhaps not.
Imagine if you could tap into this rich mine of creativity and incorporate it into your company’s innovation strategy. It’s more than possible, argue proponents of the innovation trend known as crowd casting… it’s already happening. And it could be just what your business needs to achieve faster, more effective innovation.
It’s all about passion
Crowd casting proponents believe traditional models of product development rely too heavily on the belief that “our experts are smarter than our customers”. A better approach, according to consumer experience consultant Patricia Seybold, is for companies to work shoulder to shoulder with passionate customers to harness, adapt and commercialise their ideas. 
The crowd casting process revolves around the recruitment of lead consumers. These people are not your biggest spenders. Lead consumers are the most passionate end users or would-be end users of your product or service. They might be parents (in the case of nappies), Generation Y men (body spray deodorants), or teachers (educational toys). Different product categories would have very different lead consumers, however the common link between all lead consumers is an unassailable passion for a particular product.
According to crowd casting advocates, these passionate consumers will not replace on-staff designers, scientists or other experts; they work with your team to co-design new ways of achieving a desired outcome, a process that can generate new ideas, shorten R&D timelines, reduce development costs and foster a direct emotional connection with consumers. Ultimately, the big promise of crowd casting is a reduction in the failure rate of new products – estimated at 80% for the US market in 2005. 
While involving consumers in the innovation processes isn’t particularly new, the strength of crowd casting is new media facilitated instant feedback. In a short space of time companies can collect the ideas of lead consumers via private online communities, development toolkits and online games. Fast feedback means fast innovation, a distinct advantage in response to ever decreasing product lifecycles. Are you willing to buy calendars, order Family Planners here.
Once you’ve found your lead consumers you need to engage them. Online communities connect consumer to company as well as consumer to consumer via private chat rooms and instant messaging. By monitoring this communication and measuring the results firms are able to directly tap into the concerns and creativity of their customers.
Hallmark’s ‘Ideas Exchange’ offers an example of a successful private online community. The greeting card and gift company regularly asks its lead customers to offer their ideas, value add to other people’s ideas and discuss gift giving or lifestyle related topics. And the pay-off? Hallmark says its online relationship with consumers delivers 10 to 15 usable new concepts each month. 
Members of Hallmark’s online community don’t receive payment for expressing their ideas, they receive incentives such as small gifts. And nobody’s complaining. It appears members of this and other online communities are more in interested in helping a brand they are passionate about than being directly paid for their input.
Tools of the trade
Online toolkits are another way to harness customer innovation. Toolkits generally feature easy-to-use design software that enables lead consumers to create, test or modify products. Whirlpool recently estimated it could reduce new product research time by a month and cut expenses by 30 per cent as a result of asking its online community to make design changes to images of household appliances. 
When BMW added a toolkit to its website that allowed customers to design cars featuring advances in online information delivery services it received 1,000 responses. According to BMW, the results were impressive with 15 participants brought to Germany to meet with engineers. Several of their suggestions have been utilised in new car prototypes. 
Other online toolkits offer consumers the opportunity to develop the next generation of LEGO toys using 3D design software or the chance to select burrito ingredients for Taco Bell using an animated programme. Or you might want to take your toolkit into Second Life. Sportswear band adidas currently allows Second Life residents to design concept shoes in a 3D virtual environment.
Avoiding the pitfalls
Crowd casting is not without its risks. Pioneers in the field Stefan Theme and Eric von Hipper warn that far from being easy ride, companies seeking to take advantage of customer involvement must carefully develop and maintain their online community or toolkit. Creative consumers are smart consumers; they will see through an unfocused approach. Firms should also be prepared to revamp their existing business model and adjust their managerial mindset when equipping customers with the tools to build their own products. 
Ignoring the power of consumer creativity is another risk. The stock photography business changed dramatically after iStockphoto enabled 23,000 amateur photographers to sell digital images up to 99% cheaper than the offerings of existing players.  Industry heavyweight Getty Images has since purchased iStockphoto for US$50 million to protect their market share.
Fad or future?
Wikipedia, citizen journalism, YouTube… the emergence of user created content has been swift and influential. Is innovation its next frontier? While the practicalities of crowd casting are still unfolding, one thing cannot be challenged: companies must work intimately with their consumers to gain a deep understanding of their context and motivations. They must pull experiences from consumers, rather than push product at them. Your smartest customers are ready, willing and able to share their ideas. Are you prepared to do more than just listen, but to invite them into your company’s innovation inner sanctum?
Six tips for effective crowd sourcing
Maintain focus – don’t ask vague questions or have ill defined goals
Create an ‘in crowd’ – only recruit the smartest consumers
Community matters – build solid, rewarding relationships
Tool up – provide easy-to-use tools that bolster creativity
Be open – be prepared reveal your business processes
Filter effectively – you will receive an abundance of ideas, good filters are essential