By Peter Alba, Head of Innovation, Alba Innovation Centre

In today’s ‘techie’ age, having a global voice is easier than it has ever been. Not so very long ago, the only people who got the chance to perform on a global stage were those that the media thought worthy, interesting or downright naughty! Nowadays, we can all have a bite at the global cherry thanks to social media.

The likes of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn have given a whole new meaning to the word community and everyone and their dog, it would seem, can create a community tailored to their objectives. On the face of it, this might make creating a community or a crowd seem like a bit fun, but if you’re a start-up, you shouldn’t underestimate the power of this relatively new phenomenon.

Building a crowd online tends to get categorised into two different camps: crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Crowdsourcing, at its very simplest, involves getting people together online to share their knowledge, their desires and their wisdom to either make the world a better place or to achieve a more specific objective. It was out of crowdsourcing that crowdfunding was born, and that led to crowds being sourced to raise funds for either good causes or for giving start-ups the leg-up they need to get their businesses rolling.

When it comes to crowdsourcing an audience for your product, there are huge advantages in making the effort it takes, no matter what stage of development you’re at. Reaching out to a crowd to test your idea is a great, and normally free way to do the best possible sort of market research you can do. Also, using your crowd to help you refine and develop your product means that you have a ready-made band of advocates and potential buyers when you come to launch. But how can you do it? Here are some top tips:

It’s never too early to start. If you’re a tech entrepreneur, it’s never too early to start to develop a following. Even if you are at the stage where you’re still doing the ‘day job’ but you know one day that you’ll launch your innovation, you can be starting to build your crowd in the meantime.
It’s all about you. Right from the very start, you need to create a brand and bear in mind that you are that brand from the day you have the idea. Right from the start you have to build a database of every contact you have and link these into all the social media.
Spread your reach. Once you have exhausted your existing contact list, it’s time to sniff out a niche crowd for your business. The way to do this is to search for people who care about your area of specialism. Using groups and advanced searches, this is much easier than you might imagine. And when you’re doing this, don’t forget that your audience is global, not just on home soil.
Listen. When you’re building a crowd online for your product, it’s important to listen as much, and arguably even more than you speak. By listening to what your crowd is saying, you’ll not only learn about what they want from your product, you’ll also learn what annoys them about the solutions that are open to them right now. This is powerful stuff. This allows you to tweak your product, service or software to precisely meet the needs of the market.
Speak with wisdom and caution. Once you have your following and have listened carefully to them you can start to speak on a global scale about what you’re doing. You can do this by writing expert articles, blogging or simply engaging directly by publishing short social media updates about what you’re doing. While you’re doing this, make sure you don’t show too much of your hand, but give enough information to encourage engagement and demonstrate your expertise. Remember that creativity is a great way to gain competitive advantage, so get creative.
Be open-minded. Crowdsourcing might be something you do with a specific objective, such as selling your product, service or software, but if you keep an open mind, there may be lots of other benefits that come from it. Investors might come out of the woods and possible partnerships might be born, so be open-minded and stay on your toes.
Stick with it. Building a crowd isn’t an overnight trick that will transform your business. It takes time, it takes tenacity and it calls for creative thinking, but it’s well worth the effort.
Don’t be afraid to ask. Once you have your crowd, don’t be afraid to ask them for their views, for their feedback and even for things like images and content you can use to reinforce your brand. Once engaged, your fans will love to help you, but don’t forget to give something back.