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What has the crowd done for you lately? In all likelihood, not a whole lot. "Crowdsourcing" was a buzzword that got a lot of play a few years back, when Web 2.0 optimism was at its apex. It promised a decentralization of work and a new spirit of participation in business. Since then, the global economy has indeed revolutionized itself, though not in the way anyone had hoped; the crowd ended up occupying Wall Street.

But while the spotlight moved on, the idea of harnessing the crowd moved from an idealist vision to a more practical reality, in more understated ways. At the dawn of 2012, with more people online than ever before, how can a small business tap this resource without abandoning its brass tacks?

Gather feedback: Contrary to popular opinion on the subject of popular opinions, the anonymous online masses have a wisdom of their own. Customers have opinions. Friends have opinions. Even people who surf past your website never to return have opinions – and it's worth harvesting them.

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It's easy and affordable to add a feedback mechanism to your site that goes beyond a dusty-looking contact form. Modern feedback tools are miniature applications unto themselves, that can encourage users to do more than carp. These range from free tools to enterprise-grade applications like GetSatisfaction.

Some tools take user interaction to new levels. For instance, IdeaScale doesn't ask users for feedback in the abstract; it asks them for ideas about what they'd like to see from the owner's site or service. Then, the idea is put on display and other users can vote it up or down, giving a sense of what your customers' priorities (and abiding gripes) might be.

Drum up content: Running a contest might not seem like the textbook definition of crowdsourcing. But some of the most popular online contests act that way exactly. Contests that ask users to submit stories or photos to enter are a win-win for everybody. Some lucky contestants will win a prize, but it's really about sharing: Entrants get to see their photos or anecdotes published online. And the business owner gets to fill their website with interesting, engaging content. Since a steady supply of fresh content is critical for a website (both for appealing to customers, and for ranking well on search engines), a small business that commits to running a good contest can raise their profile in the community – and on Google.

Farm out labour: There's a lot of people looking for work, and online entrepreneurs have been figuring out better and better ways to harness them. Tasks that aren't geographically-sensitive can be farmed out at affordable rates, if you're confident in the quality of work you'll get. One of the most prominent sites for finding distributed labour Freelance.com, which boasts a network of 35,000 contractors. You can hunt through their directory to find the contractor you're looking for, or post the work you'd like done, and review the candidates who come to you.

One of the more practical uses for freelance labour is to find a translator for documents, even though translation is a fickle task, and it's best to make sure a native-reading pair of eyes in your office reviews the final document. Now, there's a network devoted to that task specifically: MyGenGo claims to quality-test its network of translators ("so you don't have to"), and offers rates starting at around five cents a word.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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