I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the power of groups in solving problems. I imagine most people who have sat through long meetings would agree that group-think doesn’t always work. However, after nearly 10 years of leading brainstorms, I’ve come to realize that the secret to success in dealing with a crowd is learning how to tap into their energy, enthusiasm, and talents.

A few months ago, James Surowiecki – author of The Wisdom of Crowds – reminded me about the ability of a group of people or crowd to solve problems, make decisions, and predict the future. Speaking at this year’s Communicators Network Conference in Los Angeles, Surowiecki employed examples ranging from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to behavioral studies of college students to show that a group of people is almost always wiser than one individual – even the very brightest individual. The masses, it turns out, are quite smart at solving problems. 

At Weber Shandwick, we work with many organizations that tap into crowds to generate ideas, gather information, and test approaches. This type of work, known as crowdsourcing, has proven successful for organizations ranging from Pepsi Refresh to Global Giving. We are excited every day by work we are doing, but we wanted to know more about the results others were seeing. Specifically, how did crowdsourcing ideas and solutions impact the corporate social responsibility (CSR) work of companies? To find out, my colleagues partnered with KRC Research to interview more than 200 top executives at large companies who are responsible for CSR or philanthropic programming.

What we learned was that 44 percent of executives already tap into the wisdom of crowds by using crowdsourcing to provide ideas and help in decision-making. Among those executives, an overwhelming 95 percent reported that it was valuable to their organization’s CSR programming.

When asked why crowdsourcing matters, executives said it:

  • Surfaces new perspectives and diverse opinions (36%)
  • Builds engagement and relationships with key audiences (25%)
  • Invites clients and customers from nontraditional sources to contribute ideas and opinions (22%)
  • Brings new energy into the process of generating ideas and content (16%)

Companies approach crowdsourcing differently, but successful efforts share some key traits that can help us all navigate a smart strategy. Lucky for us, these traits are ones we are quite familiar with (in fact, we likely learned them from our parents and teachers):

  1. Listen. Everybody wants to be heard. Listening is a discipline and for some can take practice.
  2. Be Responsive. Engage in a personal way that lets people know they matter.
  3. Tell Stories. People love good stories. Talk about the crowd and how they are making an impact. One powerful story can have a major effect.
  4. Invite. Don’t assume that you throw the best party and that there will be lines to get in. Be creative and considerate in asking people to participate.

And, importantly, don’t let technology drive your decisions. Our research showed that Facebook is currently the most popular social networking tool for communicating about CSR. Not a huge surprise there. But, just putting up a Facebook page isn’t a strategy.  Take time to think about how you are going to build and maintain new relationships with the crowd. What is it going to mean for you and what does it mean for them? Set a goal to reach.