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Why You Shouldn’t Run From Crowds

Crowds can be scary places, but in the context of the digital world, they can be your best friend. Keaton Swett explains the origins of the popular phrase the "wisdom of crowds," and how crowdsourcing can be a game changer in today's rapidly changing gig economy.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Keaton Swett will be speaking at IIeX North America 2019 in Austin, TX. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more. 


When most people think of crowds, an immediate negative association comes to mind. Even images of chaotic scenes like Black Friday Shopping or Tokyo subways at rush hour can be enough to raise one’s blood pressure! While it’s true that physical crowds can be a source of distress and anxiety for many, I want to focus on the utility and power of digital crowds as they relate to the consumer landscape.

To start, let’s hearken back to the early 1900s. It was during this period when British polymath Francis Galton began to unlock what would come to be known as the “wisdom of crowds.” In 1906, he visited a farmers’ fair where a certain contest caught his eye. Anyone who came closest to guessing the weight of a butchered and dressed ox would win a prize. Nearly 800 fairgoers had ventured a guess, but Galton was less interested in the winning estimate. Instead, he thought it would be more interesting to see how the “crowd” fared by looking at the totality of guesses. After running a statistical analysis on all 800 numbers, Galton discovered that the average guess of all participants was a mere one pound difference from the actual weight of the ox! Not only was the average of the crowd’s guess closer than that of the eventual winner, but it was also closer than any of the guesses made by professional cattle experts at the fair.

In the same way, Galton’s analysis showed the collective power of a crowd to generate a remarkable result, crowdsourcing can be applied to traditional consumer insights practices to obtain similarly impressive outcomes. A big reason for this is accessibility. There has been a pronounced rise in crowdsourcing platforms that offer companies a broad array of options to consider when adopting a crowdsourcing strategy. Whether it’s focusing on a specific audience (ex. Millennials, designers, etc.) or narrowing by skills or geography, the landscape of crowdsourcing solutions is diverse enough to satisfy the needs of companies as they explore new ways to engage consumers.

The increase in crowdsourcing solutions is not a surprise when you look at how young professionals across the world are operating within the gig economy. More and more consumers are leaving the confines of organizational life to instead pursue a lifestyle that is built around independent work. In fact, up to 162 million people in Europe and the United States, or roughly 20-30% of the working-age population, engage in some form of independent work as a way to generate or supplement their income. Crowdsourcing represents an excellent venue for these workers, as participation does not have to be tied to a physical location and the uses for crowdsourcing can span a variety of skills and industries.

From the corporate consumer insights perspective, crowdsourcing holds the same appeal and flexibility as it does to independent workers in the gig economy. For starters, a crowdsourcing project can easily be framed to the needs and criteria of the corporate sponsor. There’s no one size fits all template that must be adopted to achieve successful results, so whether it’s digging for specific feedback, brainstorming for new ideas, or validating previous work, a crowdsourcing model can accommodate many use cases that might normally be pigeon-holed into traditional methods like surveys, focus groups, or in-depth interviews. Furthermore, by tapping into a broad and diverse crowd of participants, companies can uncover a spectrum of insights, instead of risking the dreaded focus group “bullies” who can monopolize feedback and skew results.

It’s true, crowds can sometimes be scary or inconvenient, with a perfectly justified negative connotation. But when it comes to companies flexibly and effectively engaging consumers to draw out insights, using the power of the crowd should be a serious consideration. Just as Galton found wisdom in looking at the holistic crowd-focused data at the fair, so too can companies find wisdom and key insights by focusing on the crowd instead of the few.

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