You know about the wisdom of experts. But the future is increasingly about the wisdom of crowds — or, at least, communities. Research into the key influences on B2B decision-makers puts “peers” at the top (or near the top) of the list. That’s not surprising. We are starting to see it in the consumer realm now, too, as the attention of the young shifts from television to MySpace, YouTube and a host of other community building sites on the Web.

In the world of complex business decisions and solutions, we turn to peers to help us confront the many risks, opportunities and variables that lie before us. The bigger the decision — and the bigger the stakes — the less likely we are to act unilaterally. In fact, unilateral action probably isn’t even an option when we are speaking about a complex, high ticket solution.

What does all this mean for marketers? It means we are going to have to tap into, reach out to and (when possible) participate in “communities” that influence decisions. One of the most powerful community driven organizations these days is the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Executive Board. This company is challenging the business model of traditional strategy consultants by combining “shared-cost research economics and a membership-based client model.” CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, CIOs and Human Resource Officers can now turn to hundreds of their peers for advice on just about any business problem they might be facing — all facilitated by the Corporate Executive Board (which has seen revenues grow at 30% annually in recent years to $362M in 2005).

Donovan Neale-May, a former Ogilvy & Mather executive who was quick to see the pattern, started a marketing community called the CMO Council. Through his firm Global Fluency, he is now launching and facilitating new communities in the IT arena such as the BPM Forum and the Software Economics Council.

In a recent presentation for B2B Magazine, he pointed out that IT decision-makers and decision-influencers tend to congregate in several types of communities:

  • Platform-Based (Open Source, Java)
  • Vendor-Driven (Microsoft, IBM, Intel)
  • Functional Role (Systems, Networking, Help Desk, Developer, etc.)
  • Customer/User Community (Vertical Industries, Solutions)
  • Applications Focus (CRM, ERP, Database, Etc.)
  • Standards Advocacy and Support
  • Tech Sector Associations and Coalitions

He says they “tend to flock” to online communities, shows and conferences, regional meetings, chat rooms, bulletin boards, news and discussion groups, and blogs. If you (as a marketer) want to engage them, Neale-May contends you should:

  • Foster and Penetrate Communities
  • Build Affinity Networks
  • Syndicate Technical Content Online
  • Relate to, and Address, the Pain
  • Promulgate Word of Mouth
  • Champion their Role and Function
  • Co-Innovate on Products
  • Gain Product Validation and Review
  • Reward and Recognize
  • Host and Tost

Considering another point he makes (that IT organizations tend to be lousy at demonstrating the business value and ROI of their activities), I would suggest there’s yet another way to engage them: Help them build compelling business cases.

“Markets are made up of diverse people with different levels of information and intelligence, and yet when you put all those people together and they start buying and selling, they come up with generally intelligent decisions,” argues James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds.

Seems we are about to learn just how wise — and powerful — crowds really are. Specifically, we are going to have to tap into the power of communities if we hope to thrive in this internetworked, interconnected new era. Communities of peers — and committees of colleagues — will influence tomorrow’s most important decisions. We become thought leaders — assuming a position of thought leadership and market leadership — by feeding, facilitating and capitalizing on this increasingly powerful dynamic.