Review: GROUNDSWELL, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff


Solid info and insights, coupled with clear (if sometimes incomplete) case studies make GROUNDSWELL: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies (Harvard Business School Press; 2008) ideal for the C-Suite skeptic and those trying to influence their embrace of socialization. Published last year, and working primarily from data collected in 2007, it holds up reasonably well as a “proof of concept” vehicle, and as such, is a perfect companion to Geoff Livingston’s NOW IS GONE: A Primer on New Media for Executives and Entrepreneurs.

Basically, the “groundswell” is Water Cooler 2.0 — people using technology to share their thoughts and opinions about products and services they love and loathe — and GROUNDSWELL makes a smart, practical case for listening, tapping, embracing and empowering that groundswell for the best competitive advantage of all: a passionate customer.

Co-authors Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, both analysts with Forrester Research, take pains to keep things simple, writing in a style that’s one step above “Social Media for Dummies”, presenting a step-by-step strategic approach to understanding and leveraging their “groundswell” premise which wisely focuses on PEOPLE and OBJECTIVES before technology.

From “Tapping the Groundswell” (pg. 67):

Take a step back and ask yourself: “What are my customers ready for?” and then “What are my objectives?” Once you know that, then you can start planning.

We’ve created an acronym for the four-step planning process, starting with these questions, that you should use to build your groundswell strategy. We call it the POST method, for people, objectives, strategy and technology. POST is the foundation of groundswell thinking–a systematic framework for assembling your plan.

Putting people first would seem like a no-brainer in any consumer-facing initiative, but the reality is most socialization initiatives are driven by technology, a fascination with the “new shiny”, and not on fulfilling consumers’ needs.

While the book is largely targeted towards big corporations — the ROI examples are almost all in the six-figure range, or higher — the POST strategy is applicable to any strategic planning, and many of the case studies offer actionable insights to all, including publishers and writers, for whom the chapter on “Energizing the Groundswell” is an absolute must-read.

[Interesting side note: GROUNDSWELL defines crowd-sourcing as a value-extraction activity (p190). Value-extraction is unsustainable, akin to deforestation and strip-mining. Free content via crowd-sourcing is a core tenet of Chris Anderson’s FREE, and according to him, the future of business. Really?]

GROUNDSWELL isn’t a perfect book by any means, with a few notable missteps and interesting contradictions throughout, like the endorsement of buying word of mouth in “Energizing the Groundswell” (aka, blogola), and pegging the ROI of a corporate blog largely to traditional PR instead of customer support and market research in “Talking with the Groundswell”. To Li and Bernoff’s credit, though, many of the case studies they cite acknowledge the bigger picture that envelops the groundswell initiatives, making it crystal clear that their success came from being part of a broader strategic plan and not a singular magic bullet.

NOTE: Lazy marketers shouldn’t be suckered in by the abbreviated version, Marketing in the Groundswell; the complete version of the book offers the necessary context and will help you to avoid the siloed mentality that plagues so many socialization initiatives these days and has paved the way for social media “gurus”, modern snake oil salesmen with little real-world experience in integrated marketing efforts or generating revenue for anything other than their personal brands.

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2 thoughts on “Review: GROUNDSWELL, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff

  1. BTW Off topic. FYI That WP greeting plugin: “Hello Googler, please sign up to RSS” and I came from Google Reader. This is odd. I am not sure how useful is this. Something in your sidebar is very slow to load. I suspect the recent comments, worth looking into.

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