by Brandon Mandelson (http://mashable.com/2009/09/02/attract-your-crowd/)
Every few days, I get an email asking this question: “I have this awesome idea to help X, but I’m not sure what direction to take. Do I open things up to the crowd to collaborate and target a mass audience? Or do I put everything together myself and target a specific group?” This is a question everyone from the biggest brand to the smallest start-up is asking: should you go with the crowd or should you go niche?
But before you make a decision, let’s take a look at these paths and what they offer.
Two Paths Diverge Online
One path is called Shirky Avenue, named for Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations. The example you’re most familiar with from Shirky Ave. is Wikipedia (), a sprawling, self-policed online encyclopedia that at least one major study said was as good as its print competitors. On Shirky Ave. we find mass collaboration can lead to greater audience investment, and a potentially higher payoff in terms of purchases and donations. Who doesn’t want to own a piece of something they invested their time in?
Shirky Avenue’s motto: The crowd is the future of everything.
There’s another path to consider, however, one called Godin Street, named for my hero, Seth Godin. If you read any of Seth’s books, particularly Purple Cow, you know what’s on this road: hyper-targeted, hyper-local, niche content designed to cater to a small and very specific audience. A “Purple Cow” example would be Tucker Max’s “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell” and Maddox’s “Alphabet Of Manliness.” The highly aggressive, satirical style of both Max and Maddox have propelled them from blogs to New York Times best-sellers by catering to their audience and no one else.
Godin Street’s motto: Forget everyone else!
Your field and situation will ultimately determine the path you take. And while Godin Street and the hyper-targeting approach has a lot of advantages for traditional businesses or not-for-profits, I think there is success waiting on Shirky Avenue, and that’s the path I recommend people take.
Who Is This Crowd And What Do They Do?
Now I know you’re thinking, “I read Microtrends and Bowling Alone. Where’s this crowd”? Fair question, but the answer is right in front of you.
The more we isolate ourselves, the more the following is true:
1. We start to believe what others like us believe — and not what everyone else believes. Want proof? You’ve probably very recently heard someone say MySpace () is dead, but it’s still one of the world’s most popular websites. MySpace is “dead” because the vocal early adopters of the world have written it off, that doesn’t actually mean it’s dead or any less relevant.
2. We all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. There’s a universal desire on everyone’s part to connect with other human beings. You can find the proof in every story, in every culture, since the beginning. And if you want a more social media answer, just look at how many people are using social networks to connect with people.
The crowd is out there, waiting to be a part of something extraordinary. Here are some starter tips to draw them in to your project.
Five Easy Steps To Draw In The Crowd
1. Focus on The Need. Chris Brogan does a lot of things right, but the community he is building around his and Julien Smith’s new book, “Trust Agents,” is the best thing I think he’s ever done. Chris found a common bond, something that goes beyond his network and touches everyone: trust. More specifically, how to earn and build on that trust. Listen to people. Anybody will do. When you listen to enough of them, you’ll start to hear the same needs. Identify the need and build a solution from there.
2. It’s Not You, It’s We. You have to allow room for your project to evolve beyond you. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” remember? Phrase everything in terms of being a team and working toward a common goal that benefits everyone, not just you.
3. Determine Your Touchpoints. A touchpoint is any point online where a member of the crowd can contact you. Your blog, Twitter, and Facebook () presence are all touchpoints. You should aim for at least two to show up in search results because that’s how most people find things. But be careful not to over extend yourself — it’s better to have no presence at all in social media than to have an inactive one. It also doesn’t hurt to link out to your active touchpoints from your blog as a way to let people know they can find you there.
4. Set Clear Goals. Mark Horvath of InvisiblePeople.tv has a clear goal: Give a voice to the voiceless. With Mark’s project, you know what you’re getting into by supporting it, and a cool thing happens: his audience forms a bond with each other. Now the members of the crowd have something to discuss and work towards together, allowing a community to form around the project. The motivation of each member of the crowd is different but your task is to allow the crowd to come in and easily identify the project’s goal.
5. Let Go. Once the crowd understands the goal, take a step back. Follow Wikipedia’s approach. The crowd comes in and makes edits, but there is still someone keeping an eye on things to make sure the goal is reached. When the project does evolve beyond you, let the crowd know how to police itself, and they will. You can see that in action on any Wikipedia Talk page. Your role is now to steer people coming to join the crowd in the right direction.
My challenge to you: I’d like you to give us your ideas and suggestions on how to draw the crowd to a project. All you have to do is leave a comment below.