Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff’s “Groundswell” – Ch. 1-6

            In the first half of Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, the authors lay out the what and why of the groundswell, its component technologies, how to use it in a way geared towards your customer base based on the “Social Technographics Profile,” how to devise strategies for “tapping into” the groundswell based on the POST process (people, objectives, strategy, technology), and some of these strategies.

            They define the Groundswell as “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations” and give numerous examples of the trend as well as past and present websites and applications that support it (from Napster, Rotten Tomatoes, Bit Torrent, Linux, and Craigslist to Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Digg,, Wikipedia, etc.).  They explain that the groundswell is happening now as a result of the coincidence of three factors (people’s inherent desire to connect, the economics involved in the traffic generated by those connections, and the technological [Web 2.0] advances that have enabled so many more connections now than ever before) and that organizations ignore the groundswell at their peril, since ignoring it is like ignoring the customers who are using it (perhaps to the detriment of the organization).

            The authors go on to describe the big principle for understanding the groundswell (“concentrate on the relationships, not the technologies”) as well as its main technologies.  These technologies are categorizes as follows: 

  • People creating:  blogs, user-generated content, and podcasts
  • People connecting:  social networks and virtual worlds
  • People collaborating:  wikis and open source
  • People reacting to each other:  forums, ratings, and reviews
  • People organizing content:  tags
  • Accelerating consumption:  RSS and widgets 

They also list five key questions to ask in order to determine whether a new technology is likely to become a successful part of the groundswell: 

  • Does it enable people to connect with each other in new ways?
  • Is it effortless to sign up for?
  • Does it shift power from institutions to people?
  • Does the community generate enough content to sustain itself?
  • Is it an open platform that invites partnerships? 

Then they describe the six major categories of groundswell participants (in descending order of involvement: creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators, and inactives) as well as a variety of motivations for groundswell participation (maintaining friendships / social pressure, making new friends, affinity, paying it forward, altruism, prurient interest, creativity, and need for validation), stressing the importance of understanding what categories your customers fall into and which motivations drive their groundswell involvement.

            Li and Bernoff then discuss the steps necessary for a company or organization to properly engage with the groundswell, following the POST methodology:


  • People:  Who are your customers, and how do/will they engage with the groundswell?
  • Objectives:  What are your objectives for engaging with the groundswell (listening, talking, energizing, supporting, embracing)?
  • Strategy:  How do you want your customer relationships to change, and how will you measure success?
  • Technology:  Which groundswell technologies fit your strategy? 

These steps are followed by four general points to keep in mind for any groundswell approach: 

  • Create a plan that starts small but has room to grow.
  • Think through the consequences of your strategy.
  • Put somebody important in charge of it.
  • Use great care in selecting your technology and agency partners. 

            The first objective – listening – is compared with the standard corporate function of research, but is argued to be much more effective when done within the chatter of the groundswell (e.g., in blogs, forums, ratings sites, etc.).   Examples of the two main listening strategies – 1) setting up a private community (National Comprehensive Cancer Network) and 2) brand monitoring (BMW Mini) – are discussed.  Reasons for listening include: i) finding out what your customers think and say that your brand stands for, ii) understanding buzz trends, iii) saving research money while increasing its responsiveness, iv) finding sources of influence in your market, v) managing crises, and vi) generating new product and marketing ideas.  Results often include: a) a shift in the company power structure (towards the person with the data), b) a tendency to become addicted to short-term data and a need to balance it with long-term strategies, c) an inability to hide behind previously unquantified bad ideas, and d) a need to start responding to what you’re hearing.

            The second objective – talking – parallels with marketing in the standard corporate world; it has the advantage of allowing you to converse more personally with your customers and to have them converse with each otheroften at much lower cost (and the challenge of requiring engagement in a 2-way dialogue with customers rather than one-way at them).  Again, major talking strategies (four) are listed along with examples and tips for success – 1) posting a viral video to address awareness issues (Blendtec, Tibco), 2) engaging in social networks and user-generated content sites to increase word-of-mouth (Ernst & Young recruiting, Adidas, Pizza Hut, Motorola), 3) joining the blogosphere (especially for companies with complexity problems, like HP and Emerson Process Management), and 4) creating a community (especially for companies with hard-to-access customers, lie P&G’s feminine care group).

            While Groundswell does not hide its intention to promote Forrester Research, it does serve a very useful function for those (especially leaders and managers of businesses, not-for-profits, etc.) who are skeptical about the internet’s promise or even fearful of its implications for their particular business or interest.  The benefits of internet technology, Web 2.0, and the like often seem obvious from a consumer (i.e., “former audience”) perspective, but they can appear to come at the expense of the producer (i.e., the company or organization providing the product or service in question).  Groundswell shows that, on the contrary, businesses can truly seize on the new customer interactions made possible by the online world, not only in a separate additive way but also to boost already-existing relations in a multiplicative way.  Various blogs are starting to analyze the importance of this trend in social media marketing.


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