What if I told you there was a business model you could employ where the product content generation and enhancement were virtually free? And how much more interested would you be if I also told you that your users would actually appreciate the free work they're doing for you? Well, such a land of business nirvana exists and other companies are already taking advantage of a particular type of crowdsourcing. We might call it YoWDIA: You Were Doing It Anyway.
Most readers of this blog likely already know the background on reCaptcha. For the rest of you, the various Captcha methods are designed to prevent bots from filling out web forms while infuriating you by making you type in a couple words from a hazy, grainy image. reCaptcha has a secondary purpose: the digitization of documents. When you dutifully figure out that that fuzzy, barely discernible smudge is "pomegranate" and type it in, you are unwittingly fixing the interpretation of some scanned document in the Internet's basement. It's human-powered OCR. You have to be tested anyway, so why not get some use out of your humanity verification? Freebie.
How about your GPS unit, Waze app or any other traffic-and-directions product? You were driving to work anyway, so why not capture your speed and location, compare them to the known speed limit for that stretch of road, and report the traffic to everyone else? You get the beneficial awareness of everyone else's commute time at no cost and everyone benefits from your data. Some kind of virtual hippie commune where we're all paying this forward? Nope, because while you and the other Waze users are generating (and receiving) value for free, Waze is collecting extremely valuable data and selling location-based ads as well. You get a free app, Waze (now Google) makes money, advertisers get location-based ads placed efficiently. And You Were Doing It Anyway!
Probably the best example is Duolingo, a clever product combined with an innovative business model. On the web or mobile, you learn another language by translating sentences, with the whole thing designed to be friendly, effective and gamified. No ads, fees or subscriptions. How do they do it? You're translating text that some company (like CNN or Buzzfeed) is paying Duolingo to translate. You get to translate Buzzfeed articles for free, make Duolingo some cash...and you will thank them for the privilege!
So what else do we do anyway that could be turned into a profitable business? Checking weather is one. Most Android phones have barometers, so an app that accesses users' phones isn't just crowdsourcing weather, it's gathering weather data at an extremely localized level. In exchange for submitting your current weather, the entire weather status and forecast is enhanced, much like Waze's traffic reports. Secondary benefits accrue to farmers, commodity traders and retailers. (I'm surprised no one has given away Square-style phone plug-ins that have a thermometer, barometer and other -ometers. Freebie dongles scattered across the country would create the most precise, localized and real-time weather in the market. You can send me the royalties for the idea via Square Cash.)
Another example is outdoor activities. There is no shortage of apps that will track your hiking, running and cycling routes. Good ones enable other people to see routes you've uploaded. But a YoWDIA hiking app would automatically track your hikes, compare and contrast with other local hikes, algorithmically create optimal hikes based on frequency of hikers on each stretch, and even show you a map of all potential hikes with real-time foot traffic. And the data can be used by city planners, forestry workers, bike manufacturers and many others.
These examples teach us what a successful YoWDIA business model requires: it has to be an activity people are already doing, the product has to be nearly friction-free to use, the product has to provide benefit to each individual user, the collective usage must yield additional or enhanced benefits to the user, and the collective usage also provides a secondary benefit.
Keep in mind that the secondary benefit could be capitalistic (Duolingo's translation service) or altruistic (a bird watching app's aggregate data used by ornithologists tracking migratory patterns). Either way, YoWDIA is a powerful business model with built-in network effects and the potential for disrupting a multitude of industries.