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The wisdom of your customers

December 27, 2010

There’s a wonderful episode of Radio Lab called “The Invisible Hand” that talks about the wisdom of crowds. (I plug Radio Lab a lot. You really should give them a listen, and $5 if you like it. They do awesome work, and your contribution added to mine will ensure they can continue).

Anyway, back to the post. In the episode of Radio Lab, they tell the story of Sir Francis Galton, a scientist tested the theory of the wisdom of the crowds. Here’s the Wikipedia version of the story:

“In 1906 Galton visited a livestock fair and stumbled upon an intriguing contest. An ox was on display, and the villagers were invited to guess the animal’s weight after it was slaughtered and dressed. Nearly 800 gave it a go and, not surprisingly, not one hit the exact mark: 1,198 pounds. Astonishingly, however, the mean of those 800 guesses came close — very close indeed. It was 1,197 pounds.”

The point is, even thought individuals didn’t know the size, the crowd did

Okay, that’s a neat parlor trick that makes us all stop and think for a minute. Yes, this wisdom of the crowd study has been replicated over and over (jar of jelly beans, guess how many), but still – what does this have to do with Social Media?

People like to share, it says so in the title of this blog. And they are sharing more and more each year. In essence, they are collectively sharing their opinions on everything. The crowd is spreading wisdom, if only we figure out how to listen. The NY Times has a bit on people who are listening:

“According to a number of recent studies, it now seems possible that the networks’ millions of posts and status updates are adding up to something culturally and financially priceless.”

Here’s one of the research papers. Essentially, they used Twitter to predict the success of Hollywood movies. And they did it well. The crowd knew the answer.

Again, parlor trick?

Or is the wisdom of crowds on display for marketers?

I think the answer is yes. first of all, there’s already wisdom on a micro-level. Brands that have successfully built communities of people who like them can already simply ask for opinions. What do you think of this? What would you do for this? Would you buy this?

There’s an obvious marketing angle to asking ‘fans’ for opinions about products. Even if the data isn’t used, it makes fans feel more inside of the brand. It indicates that the brand is listening (even if the brand isn’t really listening, and the posts are done by an intern).

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Because that is actually asking people something, which taints their response. The better manner of getting an opinion is getting it without asking. Even better, since there’s something to this ‘wisdom of the crowd’ stuff, the answers will actually be wise.

Which isn’t something that happens in your basic focus group.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2011 11:33 am

    Thanks for another great though provoking post, and again for another great year. I appreciate your willingness to pass along your wisdom and insights.


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