"The groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations."

- Groundswell, page 9

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, principal analysts at top research firm Forrester Research, have written an invaluable how-to guide for organizations and businesspeople on how to approach social media. Grounded in meticulous research, Groundswell is written clearly and simply. Each chapter opens with a personal story and contains multiple case studies, making it incredibly easy for readers to understand and absorb the book’s insights.

Although Groundswell was published in 2008 – and three years can seem like three lifetimes in this fast-paced technology world we live in – the book remains highly relevant for anyone seeking to make sense of “this social media thing.”

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Relationships Are King

"Concentrate on the relationships, not the technologies. In the groundswell, relationships are everything. The way people connect with each other – the community that is created – determines how the power shifts."
- Groundswell, page 18

Li and Bernoff make it very clear from the beginning: it’s about relationships, not technology. The technology changes faster than we can keep up with. Take social networks, for example. First, we had Friendster and MySpace, and now we have Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Regardless of the technology, one common thread remains: people want to connect; they want to maintain and build relationships.

The book describes many instances when these powerful groundswell connections and relationships have successfully challenged the status quo. New Line Cinema had to include a new line in the movie Snakes on a Plane for its star, Samuel L. Jackson because online fans demanded it. Fans of the NBC show Jericho postponed the TV series’ cancellation by banding together online and coordinating the delivery of $50,000 worth of peanuts (that’s 20 tons!) to the producers of the show. There are hundreds of these stories being created and distributed, and they cannot be ignored. To do so would be at your organization’s peril.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Shift Your Thinking

"Marketers tell us they define and manage brands. […] Bull. Your brand is whatever your customers say it is. And in the groundswell where they communicate with each other, they decide."
- Groundswell, page 78

The groundswell gains its power from its community, its users. Your organization can say they make the best luggage in the world, but if customer reviews complain about the zippers breaking and the exterior plastic cracking, then your marketing is as good as nonexistent. Why? Because the rise of the internet and free flow of information has enabled and encouraged consumers to obtain information from each other, which they view as more trustworthy than the information they receive from companies trying to sell them products in the first place!

The groundswell is happening, whether you want it to or not. To embrace the groundswell, your organization needs to undergo a significant mental and oftentimes, strategic shift. Particularly for your marketing department, it means a shift from simply shouting (traditional advertising) to listening, talking, and engaging (groundswell marketing).

Becoming a part of the groundswell may mean hearing things about your brand that you might not want to hear. It may mean having to admit you’re wrong or having to respond to customer complaints. But it can also mean gaining strategic insight to improve your product or create marketing that resonates with your target audience. Your organization needs to be ready and willing to accept both outcomes. Your customers are talking about your company, brand, and products, whether you’re present or not. Wouldn’t you rather be there to listen, be a part of the conversation, and act when necessary?

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life


"I saw that Sears has started [an online] community, and I wondered if we should do one, too… I’m not really sure [what my objective is], but if Sears is doing it, I’m sure we need to be looking into it."
- Groundswell, page 65

So often we witness organizations jumping into the social media pool without properly understanding it and end up floundering, or worse, drowning. Companies jump on Twitter and Facebook because, well, everyone’s doing it. Li and Berhoff caution against this misguided non-strategy. Instead, they recommend the POST method:

  • People – what are your customers, and your employees, ready for?
  • Objectives – what do you hope to achieve?
  • Strategy – how do you want to influence your relationships with your customers?
  • Technology – what applications and technologies should you use?

Note that technology comes last, after the first three have been decided. That’s because it doesn’t make sense to build a customer wiki, for example, if your objective is to listen and monitor what people are saying about your brand online, because a wiki’s outcome is collaboration, not listening.

This might seem overly simplistic, but take a look around at the haphazardly put together Facebook pages and barely active Twitter accounts. It’s clear to me that many businesses today jump on the social media bandwagon without first clarifying and understanding the POST framework above.

Though Groundswell is targeted at and written for executives, managers, researchers, marketers, and strategists in large organizations (case studies range from Best Buy and Dell to Unilever and General Motors), the content and research are invaluable and highly actionable for anyone who “doesn’t get social media” and is looking for a great resource to help them not only understand, but also plan ahead.

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Mijay Pavon

ABOUT Mijay Pavon

As the previous Director of Partnerships & Facilitation at Actionable Books, Mijay played a key role in launching the Actionable Consultant Program (ACP)...
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