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Crowdsourcing has become a bit of a turn-key idea, trumpeted by many communications and advertising agencies as a great way to generate content and buzz for a cause or product.

It's often true, but be careful. You have to have a shared ideal between your brand, product or cause and the people you are asking to help out. If they have no expertise or don't feel connected to what you're doing, it will inevitably lead to trouble.

Doritos is an example of a brand that did it well. Its 2006 Crash the Super Bowl YouTube contest was a runaway success, creating one of the most popular ads from that year's game. And struggling Canadian mining company Goldcorp put information about one of its properties online and offered $500,000 in prize money for accurate suggestions on where to find gold. Experts used a variety of techniques that helped the company find $3 billion worth. A lot of work went into realizing that revenue, but the creative application of crowdsourcing definitely played a role.

As with anything involving a crowd, you run the risk of it going sideways – even if you start out with a good idea. When the crowd becomes too large it might lose perspective. The expertise is gone. The huge audience you've attracted becomes an amplifier for your miscalculations or the agenda of people seeking to have a laugh at your expense.

It has happened to some of the most experienced strategists and the brightest minds. In the past three years, White House staff has fallen into this trap twice. The first time was right after the last election, when they asked the public what the government's main priorities should be. Legalizing marijuana was the No. 1 answer. More recently, the #AskObama Twitter Town Hall on Jobs was crashed by Republicans, spammed with silly comments while highlighting the difficulty of giving 'presidential' answers in 140 characters.

These examples are big: huge budgets, high-profile events such as the Super Bowl and major personalities like the President. But there are definitely ways a small business can successfully use crowdsourcing for a product or cause.

Detroit Soup has worked the model to near-perfection. Each month about 150 people meet up in one of the city's lofts and put $5 into the pot for an organic soup dinner where they share ideas and hear presentations designed to help improve the local community or the city. The winning idea gets the proceeds from the night's dinner to implement a plan.

This grassroots model works because the people involved fit the shared ideal of using creativity to improve their communities. The message doesn't get diluted and the project doesn't get derailed. And the company is able to maintain control by keeping it local. Success came through authenticity, smart targeting and, not unlike the Goldcorp example, inspiring a passionate community to be part of a shared ideal.

Whether you decide to go big by leveraging a diverse global community of problem solvers on the Internet, or go small with your local community, crowdsourcing can be a powerful and extremely cost-effective way to tackle and solve business problems you can't do on your own.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic . She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.

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