Defining creative crowdsourcing (crowdsourcing of creative activities)


“Creatividad”, an ad for an insurance company from Peru (via

In the first year of writing a PhD thesis, you’re basically asked to define key terms and to set up a research question. I’m particularly interested in crowdsourcing, and more particularly crowdsourcing of creative tasks. This post proposes to define the term creative crowdsourcing, or crowdsourcing of creative activities, as it hasn’t been defined yet (to my knowledge). I would love to have your thoughts about the proposed definition, it can only help me refining it in order to improve my doctoral dissertation!

What is crowdsourcing?

That’s a tricky one already! There are various different definitions of crowdsourcing, including the seminal definition from Jeff Howe (“the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call“), to very broad definitions like the one proposed by Ross Dawson (“tapping into the power of many“). A very interesting wrap-up is offered by Estelles-Arollas and Gonzalez-Ladron-de-Guevara (2012), who identify 40 different definitions of crowdsourcing. They propose a “synthetic” definition which is very long…

Crowdsourcing is a type of participative online activity in which an individual, an institution, a non-profit organization, or company proposes to a group of individuals of varying knowledge, heterogeneity, and number, via a flexible open call, the voluntary undertaking of a task [which] always entails mutual benefit. The user will receive the satisfaction of a given type of need […] while the crowdsourcer will obtain and utilize to their advantage that what the user has brought to the venture

I chopped off some pieces to keep it as short as possible, but given the diversity of applications of crowdsourcing, it might have to be broad to encompass everything. Similarly to Daren Brabham, the authors argue that Wikipedia, YouTube or Flickr are not crowdsourcing websites! I do agree with this view, because crowdsourcing is initiated and controlled by an organization, which issues an open call to a crowd of diverse contributors.


  1. Crowdsourcing is the open externalization of a task
  2. Crowdsourcing is initiated and managed by an organization
  3. Crowdsourcing is open to a large and diverse crowd of potential contributors

What is creativity?

Theodore Levitt said that creativity is not enough for a company to innovate, but it seems that it’s still an essential element! Creativity is a much utilized word today, especially when it comes to innovation, advertising and/or marketing. In psychology, creativity is defined as the ability to produce novel, original work that fits within task constraints (Amabile, 1983; Lubart, 1994). This is a very broad definition and encopasses a lot of things: “novel“, “original“, “work” or “constraints” are all terms that can have multiple interpretations! A very interesting refinement of the concept of creativity is proposed by Unsworth (2001), who argues that creativity is a multidimensional construct.

I think that among the four dimensions of creativity that she describes, the type of creativity that is closest to crowdsourcing is responsive creativity. Responsive creativity is externally ­driven, and is sollicited when people respond to the requirements of a specific problem (Unsworth, 2001). In crowdsourcing, the problem is well-defined: submission format, task requirements, time constraints… participants have to fit into a certain frame to unfold their creativity. Hence we can say that crowdsourcing leverages peoples’ responsive creativity.

I think that creativity is not only a psychological trait, but also a skill of self-expression. Those people who are creative and skilled enough to translate their creative ideas into visualizations are at the core of innovation, as the authors of this paper underline. Hence, it’s probably useful to think about creativity not only as a psychological concept, but also as a set of productive activities. Designers, filmmakers, artists, writers… all these creatives are working in the creative industry. Creative tasks are indeed among the most crowdsourced tasks today (Burger-Helmchen & Pénin, 2011; Schenk & Guittard, 2011), and creative industries are highly impacted by crowdsourcing.

Organizations rely on crowdsourcing for two reasons: cost reduction, which is common, and the research of strategic creativity, which is new (Lebraty, 2009)

What are creative industries?

creative industries

Image via

Creative industries refers to a range of economic activities which are concerned with the generation and/or exploitation of creative work: advertising, design, fashion, film, software, or radio are some of them. In Creative Industries: Contracts between Art and Commerce (2000), Richard Caves uses the term to descibe these various activities for which creativity, as we defined in above, is the major production resource. A year later, John Howkings brought out The Creative Economy (2001), and then Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class, which posits that creativity is a fundamental resource to create and sustain competitive advantage.

Howkins’ extensive list of creative activities comprise:

  • advertising
  • architecture
  • art & crafts
  • design
  • fashion
  • film
  • music
  • performing arts
  • publishing
  • R&D
  • software & video games
  • toys & games
  • TV & radio

A lot of the above activities are impacted by crowdsourcing today, including advertising. In a 2009 article about crowdsourcing in Advertising Age, Garrick Schmitt says that the advertising industry has to embrace this change, not to fight it frontally. Even though his definition of crowdsourcing is too vague (“the online distribution of certain tasks to crowds of experts and enthusiasts”), he clearly states that “crowdsourcing of creativity is proving that a great idea can come from anyone, anywhere. The question then is not whether [the advertising] industry needs to adjust, but how quickly“.

For a lot of Howkins’ list of creative activities, I can think of crowdsourcing applications. This list can comprise permanent platforms or unitary projects:

I have probably missed several projects. I’ve also taken out the creative activities for which I don’t know a lot of examples, like arts & crafts, software & video games, toys & games or TV & radio… I’d be glad to get some help from you! I also took out R&D, knowing that R&D is heavily affected by crowdsourcing (games on Kaggle, contests on Innocentive or NineSigma, branded contests by OSRAM, Siemens… for an extensive list, check out IdeaConnection’s website). However, I think that R&D leverages peoples’ scientific creativity rather than peoples’ artistic creativity, so I would argue that we’re talking about something different than everyday and artistic creativity (Runco & Bahleda, 1987).

So, what is creative crowdsourcing?

The above points proposed a definition of crowdsourcing, of creativity and a delimitation of creative activities. I know of a couple of crowdsourcing typologies: some of them take into consideration the crowdsourcing process, others look at the activities performed by the crowd, and each of them describes creative crowdsourcing in a way: Brabham (2010) talks about peer-vetted creative production, Penin and Burger-Helmchen (2011) describe crowdsourcing of inventive activtiesSchenk and Guittard (2011) call it crowdsourcing of creative tasks.

Only Schenk and Guittard explicitely name a type of crowdsourcing applied to creative tasks: “crowdsourcing of creative tasks refers to cases where creativity and uniqueness have a value per se“, they say. It can be either selective (like contests) or integrative (like marketplaces) ; the examples I listed above are also both of selective and integrative. However, I think that selective projects can be isolated as a category per se, as the world’s biggest brands use this form of creative crowdsourcing today – and the trend is probably only in its infancy.

Here’s my proposed definition of creative crowdsourcing:

Creative crowdsourcing happens when an organization uses the internet to externalize the execution of a creative task to a crowd of individuals

What do you think about it? Do you think that creative crowdsourcing, as a concept, makes sense? Or is it just one particular application of crowdsourcing, a technique that is used in a variety of forms today? As I’m still in an early phase of the PhD work, I’d appreciate every comment by crowdsourcing-interested people out there! Thanks a lot 🙂


Amabile, T. M. (1983). The social psychology of creativity: A componential conceptualization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 357-­376.

Brabham, D. C. (2010). Crowdsourcing: A Model for Leveraging Online Communities. In A. Delwiche & J. Henderson (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Participatory Cultures (Vol. 85, pp. 2-22). Chapel Hill.

Caves, R.E. (2000), Creative Industries: Contracts between Art and Commerce, Harvard University Press

Estellés-Arolas, E., & González-Ladrón-de-Guevara, F. (forthcoming). Towards an integrated crowdsourcing definition. Journal of Information Science, Retrieved from

Florida, R. (2002), The Rise of the Creative Class. And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life, Basic Books

Howkins, J. (2001),Howkins, John (2001), The Creative Economy: How People Make Money From Ideas, Penguin Business

Lebraty, J.-F. (2009). Externalisation ouverte et pérennité. Une nouvelle étape de la vie des organisations. Revue Française de Gestion, 192, 151-165.

Lubart, T. I. (1994). Creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.) Thinking and problem solving (pp. 289-332). New York: Academic Press.

Penin, J., & Burger-Helmchen, T. (2011). Crowdsourcing of inventive activities : definition and limits. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 5(2/3), 246-263.

Runco, M.A. & Bahleda, M.D. (1987). Implicit theories of artistic, scientific and everyday creativity. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 20, 93–98.

Schenk, E., & Guittard, C. (2011). Towards a characterization of crowdsourcing practices. Journal of Innovation Economics, 7(1), 1-20.

Unsworth, K. (2001). Unpacking Creativity. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 286-297.


  1. Excellent! I like the definition. Not sure how long we’ll need one, or how long people will be interested in the subject, as tasks are increasingly opened up to larger audiences and crowdsourcing might just become the norm to get things done. But for now, it think your definition is of value and spot on. You seem to know all creative crowdsourcing players, but for focused directory of all companies out there servicing creative challenges taditionally done by advertising agencies, check out


  2. “externalize the execution of a creative task ” is problematic, because it smells of internal intent. The bigger question is ” the nature of the task”. Crowds have their own intent. So you can have an internal intent and task it out or you can make your task to figure out the intent of the crowds. These are two different things.

    Creativity it self is highly problematic area. You may find this interesting :


    1. Thanks Sivam. You say that “crowds have their own intent” but I think that crowdsourcing is not self-organized, it’s initiated by a central organization (a company, a government etc). To me, self-organizing crowds like the Wikipedia community do not fall into the “crowdsourcing” definition. Is that what you meant?


  3. hi yannig,
    Really comprehensive and clear post you wrote. I can not decide whether I would consider creative crowdsourcing an application or an actual concept. I would choose to call it a concept, as the term crowdsourcing is too broad and scattered already. furthermore, you seem to be able to differentiate it quite clearly from the generic term. This will also help to provide more focus in the rest of your work I guess. Good luck!


    1. Thanks Joyce,
      you’re right, not sure whether it’s a concept or an application. I think it’s two-fold actually: “crowdsourcing” as I define it is a proposed concept, and “creative crowdsourcing” is one of its applications. Thanks for your comment!


  4. […] Creative crowdsourcing has been used by brands as early as 2006, as our timeline shows. These two early examples have not been described very often, and we think they are worthwhile being highlighted as successful crowdsourcing initiatives. By engaging young audiences, and even giving them full creative ownership over the brand, Pepsi’s Creative Challenges and Google 4 Doodle show that creative contests are an effective way to engage consumers in local markets. […]


  5. […] Creative crowdsourcing covers a large range of potential content depending on the level of originality and expression of creativity expected from the community of creators. Creative expression is the consequence of the question addressed to the community by a company. This question reflects the expectation of a brand with respect to how the output will eventually help the company in various areas such as Product development, Branding, brand Positioning, Packaging, or Creative content creation. […]


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