Best Practices in Crowdsourcing

The following suggestions have been drawn from our research and interviews, and from our personal experience, particularly those of founder Jeanne Pinder, an author of this report.

  • Know your community. What motivates or frustrates them? Do they want to vent or share knowledge?

  • Identify the problem you’re trying to solve. Make sure your questions elicit what you are trying to learn. But be prepared for the community to tell you if you haven’t defined the problem properly.

  • Define your journalistic goals clearly. Do you want to build a database, plug gaps in knowledge, or find trends and unique stories? Are you planning a short-lived effort or a long-term series?

  • Be clear with your community about what you will do with its contributions. Will they be quoted by name in a news story? Will their information be shared for other journalists to use?

  • Define your audience engagement goals and decide how you’ll measure success—clicks, shares, tweets, Facebook likes, or earned media mentions. Appearances at a state Senate committee investigating your issue can count just as much as responses to your specific question.

  • Choose your tools carefully. You may want responses to questionnaires or data to populate a public database. Sometimes you want photos, and others you want audio or SMS responses. Network to find the best tools to match your aims.

  • User-test your tools and your call-outs inside of your work group or with a beta group of testers before going public.

  • Ask: Is this really a good crowdsourcing project? Is it something we want to turn to call-out for? Where can we mine instead of hosting a call-out?

  • Staff up and be ready for a flood of responses early on. Know, too, that some projects take a while to build.

  • Repeat and repeat your call-outs for contributions. People may not be able to respond the first time they learn about it.

  • Pay attention to the language you use. Ask people to “share” rather than “submit.”

  • Shorten the time frame between when people first vote or contribute information and when the articles actually appear so that your sources realize they have a stake in making the stories happen.

  • Give back to your community from the start. Pre-populate a database with information. Report back to your community early and often. Email updates, use pull quotes, publish short audio stories or vignettes as part of the feedback loop.

  • Respond to and reward your contributors. Use thank-you e-mails, on-air shout-outs, or invitations to an event. Engage with the comments. If you make an open call and walk away, your results will be diminished.

  • Make it easy for people to contribute. Use drop-down menus with easy questions.

  • Ask questions that steer clear of yes and no answers. Instead, tease out the stories people have to tell you.

  • Explain to your community what they’ll get. For ClearHealthCosts, the community got health care pricing data and the ability to compare their prices with others. In the WNYC sleep project, they were able to compare their sleep patterns with others’.

  • Iterate on the fly. If something is not working, fix what you can immediately. Don’t wait for the next project.

  • Think about verification. If something seems like an outlier, check it out.

  • Have a free-form “notes” or “comments” box and an email to capture contributions that may fall outside your questionnaire.

Above all, think of engagement as a ladder and sharing data or answering a survey as just a few of the things community members can do. They might also share a post or call-out with their own networks, tweet and comment, search the database, email, send in documents, appear on a radio show, or testify before a legislative committee. Try to capture all those things as you measure the impact of your efforts.

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