In 1906, the Victorian-era mathematician Sir Francis Galton attended a local fair in Western England. As was common in the day, there was a competition to see who could come closest in guessing the weight of an ox, and 800 villagers submitted their best guess. Galton, ever the statistician and curious to see how the group did, found the average of the crowd’s submissions came out to 1,207 lbs, just nine pounds off from the actual weight of the ox.

In other words, the group provided a stunning 99% accurate prediction. Galton published his findings, and thus was born the phenomenon known as “the wisdom of the crowds.” According to Galton’s research, a crowd is a more accurate forecaster than a handful of experts and can solve problems more efficiently than one individual.

Fast forward a hundred years and we’ve seen brands use this idea of collective intelligence to accomplish everything from more accurate weather forecasts, streamlined government and a better way to navigate our travel.

Companies have since learned to leverage the crowd to inform new product innovation and better engage with their target audience. Starbucks, for example, embraced collective intelligence to refine its in-store experience and even develop flavor offerings like pumpkin-spice-flavored coffee and skinny beverages. LEGO encourages its audiences to submit product ideas, with some lucky designs becoming actual LEGO products available for sale. Given these brands’ success with crowdsourced data, it’s no wonder why organizations are rushing to find their own crowds to draw wisdom from.

Because of social media, brands have increasingly easy access to some of the largest crowds available—no more wasting time trying to survey crowds of consumers (or asking 800 villagers for their opinions). But before brands can start using insights from their social crowd, they need to make sure the crowd they are sourcing from is indeed wise.

Brands need to expand their boundaries to crowdsource intelligent ideas

What makes one social crowd wiser than another? When determining which crowd to source insights from, marketers should consider the four main characteristics author and journalist James Surowiecki lists as necessary for collective intelligence: diversity, decentralization, independence and aggregation.

First, a wise crowd must be diverse to ensure different perspectives, experiences and levels of expertise are accounted for. The ubiquity of social media across many different demographics can provide brands with access to a diverse set of data. With insights from social crowds readily available, brands are better equipped to create products and services that appeal to a wider audience. In addition to catering to diverse consumers, marketers can avoid creating campaigns or products that could potentially offend portions of their target audience.

Next, a wise crowd should be decentralized. This means marketers should be using insights and opinions sourced from a variety of locations—and social media affords brands the opportunity to gather consumer information from across the globe. When Ben & Jerry’s launched its “Do the World a Flavor” campaign, they leveraged social media to accrue 100,000 new flavor suggestions and were even able to identify local flavors specific to different cities.

A biased audience can do more harm than good

Diversity and decentralization are just half of the requirements necessary to make a crowd wise. In addition to accessing a diverse and global audience, brands also need to ensure their crowds are unbiased and marketers have the tools they need to analyze social data.

Collective wisdom is largely contingent on independence, or thoughts and opinions that are free from outside influence. This is potentially the trickiest to navigate when it comes to social media, where consumers can succumb to groupthink and automated messages can skew peoples’ opinions. At the same time, however, social media encourages people to share their unbiased opinions; just spend a couple minutes there, and you’ll see consumers freely speaking their minds.

The key to extracting wisdom here is to identify what your authentic and independent data sources are, then determine which external factors or influencers you want to include or exclude from your data sets. Applying these filters before you start your data analysis can help eliminate unwanted biases and guarantee your customer insights are based on independent thought.

Finally, marketers need a scalable method for aggregating consumer insights as brands leverage bigger and bigger social data sets and an organization’s needs evolve over time. For Galton, aggregating insights was a straightforward calculation of the average weight of the villagers’ guesses. While this works well for purely quantitative data, trying to manually analyze both quantitative and qualitative information on social media is significantly more challenging. To this end, marketers are increasingly using tools like social listening to harness the full collective and predictive power of the crowd.

Social listening in particular is uniquely suited for this task as it allows brands to quickly aggregate the diverse, decentralized and independent thoughts and sentiment taking place on social. With listening, brands can distill thousands of disparate data points into actionable insights and organizations can truly begin to make use of collective intelligence in some fascinating ways.

From forecasting to crisis response: how brands are putting crowd wisdom into action

An intriguing study from Georgetown details how the many voices on social media can be used to achieve one of business’s most important objectives: accurate sales forecasting. In this case study, researchers monitored Twitter for purchase intent and coupled that data with positive sentiment indicators for major consumer brands. In examining the data gathered from the Twitter crowd, correlations were drawn that the crowd was indeed able to predict upcoming sales.

Consider how building materials manufacturer James Hardie uses crowdsourced wisdom to conduct trend analysis and product research. The team at James Hardie has embraced the overarching presence of social to gain business intelligence. With social listening James Hardie was able to engage in audience and trend analysis, using common themes found in customer conversations to predict what’s coming up on their industry’s horizon. Even better, the company can take the insights it uncovers and use them to optimize its business operations outside.

And that’s not all crowd wisdom can do for an organization. The United States Post Office uses social listening to surface concerns and recognize patterns in social conversations during natural disasters. This then allows the social team to predictively create editorial content tailored to the needs of those impacted and improve operations.

Ultimately these types of use cases represent proactive ways organizations can gain a competitive edge when they listen to the social crowd. Now that the tools to gather and analyze this data both at scale and efficiently are readily available, forward-thinking marketing professionals would be wise to take action.