For Ben Miller, co-founder of Washington, D.C.–based consumer research firm Popularise, the difficulty of figuring out what should be built and where has been apparent since he was a kid. "My dad was in real estate development, and everywhere we would go, he’d be talking to people in the neighborhood and asking what they’d like to change about it," Miller recalls. "I always found that really embarrassing as a kid, but now I get what he was doing. He was just trying to figure out what he should build."

Fast-forward a couple decades, and Miller found himself facing a similar question: He and some partners had acquired an old building in Washington, D.C., and weren’t sure what to do with the space.

"The community engagement process is so broken," he said on a call with Builder last week. "You go to a community meeting, and only a few people show up." What’s worse, he says, is that those that do come are a far cry from a representative sample of the community’s population. "Normal people don’t spend five hours on a Friday night in a church basement, so the ones that do come are going to heckle you with questions," which not only leads to delays, but also fails to offer a realistic idea of what the community would support.

Instead, Miller and his investment partners decided to bring the forum to the people through a Web-based poll that gave neighborhood residents the chance to submit ideas for what they’d like to see go into the space and vote for their favorite options. They got 15,000 responses.

Sensing they had found an unmet need—both on behalf of builders curious to know what potential customers were craving, and on behalf of community members eager to give input on what would add the most value to their neighborhood—Miller, along with co-founders Daniel Miller, Kenny Shin, and Brandon Jenkins, established Popularise.

"One way to find out what people want in their community is simply to ask, ‘What do you want?’" Miller says, and that’s precisely what Popularise does on behalf of builders and developers.

Here’s how it works: A builder or developer sends Popularise some information on a project—whether it’s plans, photos, or examples of other communities the builder is aiming to emulate—and a question to be posed to people in the neighborhood. Questions can range from how to fill retail space to what amenities potential residents would most value to the types of homes potential customers would want to buy.

The team at Popularise then creates a customized marketing plan to drive traffic to an online voting board where community members can either submit their own idea or vote for their favorite among a list of options. To get the word out, Popularise will often work with local newspapers and bloggers, and then allow social media to create a buzz. (Just last week the company launched a campaign for a Seattle project and had 15,000 Facebook impressions by the next day.)

So far, Popularise has mainly been used for retail and mixed-use projects, but Miller says he’s beginning to see more interest from residential developers as well. He’s currently working on a project in Colorado being built for 30,000 timeshare members. Its developer is interested in crowd-sourcing to learn what amenities residents would like to see included. Miller is also in talks with a pension fund advisor who funds master planned communities across the country.

But whether it’s commercial or residential, "virtually all great real estate development has an experiential aspect to it, which lends itself to what we’re doing," Miller says, adding that that’s particularly true of infill projects. "What drives urban residential is a sense of place. If you’re trying to pick between two residential projects, you’d rather live in the one with the awesome little café than the one with a bank." That concept is something that can be difficult for the business side of development to understand, he says. "If they have a little retail space and the option to do a cool restaurant or a Subway, they’ll say, ‘We’d rather do Subway because Subway will pay $2 more per square foot,’ when in reality you could make up that money in other ways."

Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Seattle, WA, Greenville, SC.