The version of the FLIRT model presented in this post is outdated. Find the updated version in this and subsequent posts.
Having studied the Crowdsourcing / Collective Customer Collaboration since Fall 2006, I have finally come up with the first version of the framework for my Master’s Thesis. The model is mainly inspired by writings of Eric von Hippel, James Surowiecki, Chris Anderson, Jeff Howe and of course a number of other writers and bloggers that have greatly added to my understanding of the phenomenon (too many to mention here, check my blogroll for insightful sources).
The model views the phenomenon from the perspective of a company considering intensive collaboration with customer collectives and aims to identify the different actors on the field as well as their roles in the collective creation process. Furthermore, it suggests a set of elements (the FLIRT ring) that have to be considered and established in order to achieve desired action in the community. I will first briefly explain the different actor groups and then continue on to the FLIRT elements.
I tried to keep things as compact as possible, so some aspects may not fully reveal themselves from this post alone. If you need a lowdown on crowdsourcing I suggest you start here. As this is work in progress, I urge you to comment, ask questions and challenge my thinking.
This is the group of people that is the most enthusiastic about the collaborative offer, and they go to great lengths in pursuit of creating something unique. They submit original ideas and content as well as remix each others’ material to produce solutions that will earn them respect, status, acceptance, reputation, as well as material rewards. In other words, they are the competing to conceive the winning solution.
Critics (inner ring)
Critics are the people that do not produce original solutions, but are highly involved in the conversation around them. They criticize and offer development suggestions to creators but also act as evangelists to the wider audience by actively spreading the word about the stuff they like (or alternatively, stuff they hate) by e.g. blogging. They are often driven by a personal attachment to either the creators, the collaborative company (they might even work for the company) or the field of work, in which they perceive themselves to possess valuable expertise. Like the creators, they seek rewards in increased reputation and status, but in addition also gains in audience and authority. They seek less direct material benefit from the collaborative relationship, but are instead enthusiastic about the conversation itself and often seek to convert non-believers to their view.
Crowds (outer ring)
The larger crowd is participating on a much lower level of activity and involvement than the critics. They tag, recommend, rate, vote, send e-mail links to friends and sometimes write an occasional review. The interaction is therefore quite shallow compared to the previous level. There is however a great wisdom to be gathered from all this grassroots activity: their input elicited carefully, the crowds through their actions help organizing the alternative solutions and understanding their worth. They thus introduce comprehension to the community as they confirm the relevance and value of the best material produced in the inner core.
Outside of these groups are the traditional consumers that do not participate in any way to the collaborative offering, but instead only view content and perhaps buy the items on offer.
THE ‘FLIRT’ ELEMENTS
Facilities have to be in place for the participants to have a place for meeting and interaction. However it doesn’t always mean that the company has to build their own social network service from scratch. There are a lot of networks already in place just waiting for a suitable partner to join forces with. In addition, a hybrid service can also come to question, in which some parts (e.g. discussion forums) of the community are maintained by the company while parts of it (e.g. video content) reside on a 3rd party service
The customers are not stupid. They have to be treated with respect. Although this is already a well-worn principle, it continuously tends to be forgotten, most notably by large corporations with the most resources to pour into the issue, such as these examples show. Fake bloggers and ‘user-generated content’ crafted by ad agencies are bound for a beating. The customers’ worldviews and values need to be understood and appreciated.
Also the community’s potential social objects (photos on flickr, videos on youtube, jobs on linkedin, URL’s on del.icio.us) have to be recognized and utilized, since no social network revolves around an idea of just having one (nor does it revolve around your company, no matter how hard you wish it would).
Nobody, not even your customers like to work for free. The incentives required by the different groups varoy, and some are willing to work for less than others, and the issue has to be given very careful thought in engaging the community in an exchange meaningful to all participants. It is often not money alone that inspires the customer creators, but also, depending on the context, things such as fame and access to otherwise inaccessible channels or resources might prove as powerful incentives.
Most of the time, you will have to genuinely challenge your customers and offer them a chance to enhance the quality of their life – even if it was just by the smallest amount – in order to stimulate them. Nobody is prepared to waste their free time to trivial, routine tasks with little or no ‘show-off’ value.
Don’t expect to a swarm of creativity by creating an open environment where everybody is free to do whatever might occur to them. Naturally, you have to think about e.g. manufacturing constraints already for practical reasons (Threadless has strict rules for number of colors, resolution, size of design, etc), but also arbitrary constraints can be challenging, inspiring and produce unique and noteworthy results.
Apart from standards for submitted content, also the rules of interaction need to be established for a fruitful conversation. At what point and how a member needs to register can make or break a relationship very quickly.
The people obviously need to have access to the tools necessary to create and participate. These tools can be provided by the company (like Lego’s Digital Designer, a piece of software that let’s you design your own lego models) or it may be assumed that people already have them (digital cameras / cameraphones in the developed world). Sometimes the distinction is not so clear cut (who will provide the empty cans for the artists in the art of the can competition), and thus the question is always worth a thought.
In addition, the company needs to establish its own tools for gathering the results of the conversation and turning the collective wisdom into action.
So there you have it. As said, the model is hardly complete, and you should indeed already have some questions coming my way. I will try to answer them the best I can.
Should you use the model or part of it for your own purposes, do give credit where it’s due. You may not, however, use it to gain direct monetary benefit (publish it in a book, print it for selling purposes, etc.) without a permission.