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What motivates the crowd to get involved in business ventures?

Existing research suggests people who engage in crowdsourcing are looking for a creative outlet for their talents or skills that they don’t find in their daily jobs.

Sharon Shimoni/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Globe's latest report on research from business schools.

Has it really been a decade since we caught on to the power of the crowd as a new and important marketplace actor?

"Crowdsourcing" was given a name in 2006 to describe "far-flung labourers" who pool their resources to do everything "from grunt work to lab work," according to Wired magazine, which was among the first publications to bring attention to the practice.

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Since then, marketers and entrepreneurs alike have embraced crowdsourcing as a meaningful tool to add value to a project with minimal outlay.

Some experts have gone so far as to suggest the practice is superior to what corporations can achieve using internal resources, according to Montreal researchers Eric Martineau of LaSalle College and Zeynep Arsel, an associate professor of marketing at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business.

"This is because the collective intelligence surpasses those of individual specialists," the co-authors write in their study, published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

The study seeks to help companies better harness crowd creativity and specific skills by tackling the subject from a new angle.

Namely, the researchers ask: Why do ordinary people sign on to these campaigns in the first place?

"For these kinds of projects, we argue that firms need to better understand what participants are getting from their involvement, beyond monetary benefits," Dr. Arsel says in an e-mail.

The study expands on existing research that suggests people who engage in crowdsourcing are looking for a creative outlet for their talents or skills that they don't find in their daily jobs.

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There's another camp that believes crowdsourcing attracts "professional-amateur" hybrids who are looking for opportunities to showcase what they can do.

The Montreal researchers, however, identify four distinct participating styles based on skill and community needs of individuals:

– Communals: people who are looking to build skills and community bonds.

– Utilizers: those looking to sharpen their skills without much intention to form social bonds.

– Aspirers: those who lack both skills and bonds, but aim to gain more of both.

– Tourists: those who are minimally invested in both community and skills and infrequently participate.

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Ultimately, the study finds that different kinds of people work together to not only create value for the firm, but also to generate benefits for themselves and other members, such as social connections, status within online communities and improved skills.

The researchers' take-away?

"Firms need to offer better platforms that facilitate skill and community building, matching those needs," says Dr. Arsel.

In other words, "When consumers are put to work to help create products for a company, it is possible that the firm can also work for consumers."

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