How online communities harness collective intelligence

Collective intelligence is what drives us to keep innovating as a species. But what does this mean, and how do online communities help bring it to life?
How online communities harness collective intelligence

The internet should never be any more than a tool used to bring out the best in humanity, and the solutions to our problems must come from us. We’ve talked a great deal in the past about the power and importance of collective intelligence. Bringing people together and harnessing their shared expertise is the reason we started Zapnito, and the reason we’re still going today.

But what does collective intelligence actually mean in practical terms? What does it look like? And how do online communities facilitate it? These are questions we often face, and rightly so. The truth is that online communities harness collective intelligence in a number of ways:

  • Uniting people around a common purpose: creating a hub of knowledge around niche topics
  • Providing space for trusted knowledge-sharing: reliable information from people you can trust
  • Amplifying different voices: allowing new perspectives to be shared on any issue
  • Allowing collaboration and co-creation: Providing opportunities for people to share ideas and work together
  • Offering insight: Collective intelligence means more insight at every level

Let’s take a look at each of these points in greater detail. 

They unite people around a common purpose

You could be the most knowledgeable person in the world on a specific topic. But with nobody to share that knowledge with, and no way of finding people with the same interests, what use is any of it?

Online communities create dedicated spaces for even the most niche topics, allowing people to share their knowledge and collaborate with like-minded people. The borderless connection of a virtual space unites people regardless of distance or time zones.

If you’re already producing a lot of content in a specific field, building an online community allows you to create a hub around that content, making vast amounts of knowledge easily accessible and allowing you to present it in a dynamic and engaging format. This means your audience remains engaged year-round and can continue to discuss and debate with each other. The relationship between expert and audience changes entirely; where once it was one-way and transactional, it is now an open dialogue that allows everyone to contribute and learn from each other. This is what we mean when we talk about collective intelligence - less passive consumption, more discussion.

Trusted knowledge-sharing

Trust is crucial to the success of any business - but in 2021, that trust has become rather scarce. 92% of consumers place more trust in recommendations from friends, family and peers than traditional media, highlighting the importance of integrity and community values. Trust in media, politicians and technology has suffered a decline in recent years, showing that there is a gap in the market for brands who are able to earn a reputation as trustworthy sources of knowledge.

Online communities allow brands to capitalize on these changing values. By engaging customers more deeply in a community setting, brands can become known for consistency and attentiveness, building trust in the process. In turn, they develop stronger emotional ties with customers that encourage them to endorse the brand to their friends and peers. 

Online communities build trust by amplifying the voices of experts on their product or subject matter. Too often on social media we see genuine insight drowned out by noise. Online communities provide a chance for these experts to share their knowledge with the right audience.

Online communities provide a hub of trusted knowledge-sharing, as users come to associate the community with reliable information. They make information accessible and engaging. The boost this has on the trustworthiness of a brand will further its reputation as a knowledge hub, encouraging more contributions and making it easier to harness the collective intelligence of members.

Trust is everything in an online community. It requires trust to make them work, and that trust has to flow both ways. Without that trust, users will not feel empowered to share their knowledge and collective intelligence is lost.

Amplifying different voices

Collective intelligence can only be harnessed when every part of the collective is represented. When voices are not heard, we lose sight of key perspectives that could change the way we think.

Online communities do more than simply amplify experts - they also provide opportunities for a wider range of expert voices. Even taking the most basic measures to honor diversity and make everyone feel included can help produce a more balanced discussion.

Ed Gerstner, Director of Journal Policy & Strategy at scientific publisher Springer Nature, describes diversity in the sciences as ‘absolutely crucial’. In our April webinar with Springer Nature, Ed discussed  the ‘power of inclusion’ that the publisher’s online communities provide it with, explaining, “We had more material than we could ever publish in (a) journal… We were able to provide a platform for the voices of many people.”

Springer Nature also exemplifies the power of online communities to amplify different voices with its ‘Behind the Paper’ program. By allowing researchers to tell the personal stories behind their work, the publisher is able to provide greater visibility to its authors. Seeing the human side of scientific research makes it more accessible to those without a formal background in science, empowering them to contribute and feel heard.

Collaboration and co-creation

Online communities foster collaboration at all levels, from peer to peer interaction to active participation with a brand.

In knowledge communities, such as WildTeam’s WildHub community, the primary goal is to bring together people who otherwise might not have ever met but who possess insight which might benefit others. This is the very definition of collective intelligence being harnessed - the members of a community coming together to form something greater than the sum of its parts through the power of collaboration.

Online communities also open up opportunities for co-creation between brands and customers. Swedish furniture brand IKEA is one example of this, having launched an app in 2020 as they attempted to create a less fragmented digital presence. The app allows users to browse mood boards and see how items would look in their homes using augmented reality. IKEA also frequently engages with customers to find out how their products are being used, in order to tailor their new products to these needs.

Collective intelligence means insights

If we could get you to go away thinking about one word after reading this article, that word would be ‘insight’. Insight is the cornerstone of what we do and what we aim to achieve with Zapnito, but it’s so much more than that; it’s also what the internet was invented for and the reason we strive for collective intelligence. 

Everything we’ve discussed here can be brought back to this theme. By harnessing the power of collective intelligence, brands can gain insight into how their products are being used and received by users. They can build trust with customers, finding out what makes them tick and building an emotional bond that reduces churn. They can develop an understanding of the trends affecting the market through dynamic conversations only made possible through the power of community. They can open themselves up to a broader range of perspectives by amplifying voices that might otherwise have gone under the radar.

While online communities offer tangible metrics and data, many of the key benefits of online communities are difficult to quantify with hard numbers. But they are still important - vitally so. All of these insights help over the long term to drive revenue and speed up company growth, making the pursuit of collective intelligence a financial imperative as well as a moral one.

Collective intelligence was the driving force behind the creation of what we now know as the internet. It’s time for us to get back on track and start harnessing the power of our collective intelligence once again. Join us.