With greater diversity also comes a greater collective intelligence
Crowds can be a powerful force and can influence the outcomes of many events. Harnessing crowd power in business can bring disproportionate benefits. Unlike employees, a randomly drawn crowd does not have a bias towards the company using them. Their collective intelligence can bring a new perspective to problems that an internal team may have been struggling with for a long time. Sometimes all it takes is a new pair of eyes to make a link or find the missing piece that a company or an entrepreneur has been looking for all along. We look further into why crowds can be considered the largest superpower.
Crowds have sheer power delivered by strength in numbers
When a large group of people come together, they can create a force that is difficult to ignore. They may not have to do more than simply sign a petition. The size of the crowd can make it impossible for those in power to ignore their demands, leading to change and progress.
Here is a recent example of crowd power in action. The drop in the number of UK train passengers, largely due to the number of people now spending some days working from home rather than commuting to an office every day, caused the Government to instruct the UK train operators to find ways to cut costs. They responded by announcing they would close manned ticket offices at almost every station. These closure plans were scrapped after negative feedback from train user consultations and intense public pressure forced the Government to backtrack and tell the train companies to drop the idea.
There are other times when simply stepping forward to be counted is not enough, and crowds need to mobilize and take action. When a group of people come together for a common cause, they can create a movement that can change the course of history. This mobilization can lead to sit-ins, and other forms of peaceful protests, or can escalate to civil disobedience in efforts to bring about change.
The impact of more strident and visible action, and the level of disruption caused, have to be carefully gauged. On one hand it can alert a larger number of people to the issue involved, and generate a wider groundswell of support. On the other hand, it can antagonize individuals and alienate large numbers of people, who are then more resistant to the desired changes. The power of crowds can create other crowds that either support or challenge their motivations.
Crowd power and charities
Some believe crowdsourcing will replace the traditional charity structure. Non-profit charities still have business-like structures, and need to pay people to fill necessary roles. Yet they are demonized by donors if their proportion of income spent on fixed costs including staff and admin climbs too high. Charities are caught in a circle of paying low wages and having to do the best they can with staff who are not always the best available.
Crowdsourcing, on the otherhand, can eliminate much of the overheads. Rather than hiring people on a long-term basis, crowdsourcing simply asks for people to step forward with the critical skills or information that is required, and rewards them directly for doing so. Staff costs are thus transferred to incremental costs when a particular fundraising drive is required in response to any particular incident or event.
Advertising is another contencious area for charities. Even when there is evidence that money spent on advertising a charity generates a positive return, there are donors who complain “I don’t give you my money for you to spend it on advertising.” This is a show of negative crowd power among donors, and it encourages charities to just keep on doing what they have always done, without experimentation or innovation- which is the antithesis of using crowdsourcing to get the best return from crowd power.
Charities may also regard crowdfunding for disaster appeals as ‘bad competition’ that siphons off some of “their money”. The truth is that anyone can set up a crowdfunding appeal, and they can do so without having to get board level approval, sign-off in triplicate, and so on. They are usually up and running faster than a charity can turn things round. There are numerous crowdfunding platforms that host appeals for worthy causes, and charities could do well to embrace the concept of how to harness this 21st century phenomenon of online crowd power in a more positive way.
Crowd power in business
In a notable example, crowd power forced Anheuser-Busch to backtrack in the U.S. when an attempt to promote Bud Light within the LGBTQ community in 2022 resulted in temporarily losing its status as the country’s best selling beer. A social media promotion by the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney prompted a boycott of the beer by its more conservative drinkers.
An associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has researched boycotts of packaged goods. She found that while people may be willing to change their behavior for a few weeks, they are much less likely to change their long-term behavior.
Perhaps Anheuser-Busch should have stuck to its marketing plan more resolutely. Instead, it announced that two senior executives were taking leave of absence, and that future Bud Light promotional efforts would concentrate on sport and music. Overall, the brand is in decline, and that will continue unless it is positioned to have more appeal among younger drinkers. However, money talks, and the company’s total U.S. Q2 2022 revenue was down 10%, mainly due to lower sales of Bud Light. Crowd power can spark innovation, though there are times when it can also be an obstacle to brand development.
Crowds have greater diversity, and can find different solutions
Crowds can be made up of people from all walks of life, with different backgrounds, experiences, expectations and perspectives. This is particularly true of online crowds who, of course, can be physically and geographically based anywhere. This wider diversity enables rich and varied discussions with contributions that can help arrive at more creative and innovative solutions than a homogeneous group of people would deliver.
With greater diversity also comes a greater collective intelligence. This means that the wisdom and knowledge of the group can be greater than that of any single individual. By pooling resources and knowledge, crowds can come up with innovative solutions to complex problems.
Collective intelligence is also harder to fool. This can be experienced in crowdfunding campaigns, when answers to questions posed by any individual are posted on a forum for all to see and comment on further. You can’t fool all the people all the time.
Diversity and collective intelligence are key factors that explain the success of open innovation programs, which include prize challenges, to achieve innovative breakthroughs beyond the scope of in-house teams or established and recognized experts in any business or interest sector.
NASA has enjoyed success by using prize challenges for a number of years to develop innovative devices for use in space exploration. As an example, a prize challenge to develop a foldaway radiation shield for spacecraft was won by a visual arts perfomer rather than a space scientist. Tapping into wider and more diverse knowledge can also accelerate product development, and find solutions for less cost than running Research & Development departments or appointing a commercial third-party consultancy.
In conclusion, crowds can be a powerful force due to their ability to mobilize, exert social pressure, increase visibility, tap into collective intelligence, and disrupt the status quo. While crowds can have both positive and negative effects, they have been instrumental in creating social and political change throughout history. Today, the power of crowds can be harnessed by businesses on demand to develop innovative commercial and competitive benefits.