Book Report | Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies

Since burgeoning in the mid-2000s, social media have presented a conundrum for businesses and organizations hoping to maximize their brand’s value. On one hand, social media, when skillfully used, offer organizations the ability to reach, interact with, and utilize their consumer base in previously impossible ways. On the other hand, social technologies have a great democratizing power that shifts influence away from traditional marketing departments into the hands of consumers.

This is the problem explored in Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Forrester Research’s Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. Originally published in 2008 and revised in 2011, Li and Bernoff 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” (Li and Bernoff 9).

But how, exactly, is the groundswell useful to companies? According to Li and Bernoff, the answer lies in each company’s objectives. Generally, the authors group these objectives into five categories, which form the backbone of the book itself: Listening, talking, energizing, supporting, and embracing.

Listening to the groundswell helps companies perform customer and market research, while talking allows companies to market themselves. Energizing the groundswell means identifying super-customers who will “supercharge the power of their word of mouth.” Supporting the groundswell means providing the tools and platforms for customer-to-customer help systems, while embracing the groundswell goes several steps further and involves incorporating customers into how a company functions and designs products.

Clearly, there are several layers of complexity to the groundswell that must be accounted for before any interactions with it can take place. But Li and Bernoff do a fantastic job of making the concept accessible. They translate the abstract landscape of social media into real business sense without losing the humanity behind the groundswell. Several real-world case studies punctuate their points, and prove the potency of the concept.

Social technologies have been so ingrained in our daily lives that, for an organization of any size, acting to maximize the benefits and minimize the potential negatives of the groundswell is no longer optional. To do so, the authors recommend beginning with a four-step planning process, “POST:”

  1. People: How will your customers engage with your organization?
  2. Objectives: What are your goals? Do you want to talk to the groundswell for research, energize sales, etc.?
  3. Strategy: How will your relationship with your customers change, and how will customers carry your message?
  4. Technology: Which social technologies will you use and what applications will you build to reach your customers?

The book is a masterclass in navigating the new (at the time) digital landscape of social media. However, Groundswell was last revised in 2011 in large part to explore the growing influence of a social media site exploding in popularity: Twitter. But, a lot has changed in the past 6 years. As noted in the book, Ashton Kutcher had 6 million followers on Twitter when Groundswell was published. He now has 18.1 million. McDonalds had a “big Twitter following” of around 75,000 people in 2011 (197). Today? 3.45 million. Experts are no longer discussing the viability of Twitter as a new social media/micro-blogging platform, but have instead started to wonder how long it can survive.

So, the question of whether Groundswell is relevant today is a valid one. Effusively, I believe it remains relevant because, while the digital landscape may change, mastering the groundswell, according to Li and Bernoff, relies on one tenet: Concentrate on relationships, not technologies. No matter which technologies are invented, evolve, transform, and die in the future, relationships will remain a constant.

The groundswell is our present and our future. Now that the world has been connected by social technologies, it is unlikely to ever be meaningfully disconnected. Li and Bernoff have a very interesting vision of the future groundswell, one that is “ubiquitous,” with complete – and nearly constant – connection. In the book’s final chapter, the authors make predictions on how the groundswell will evolve. Many of their predictions have proved true, like an increased reliance on mobile technology, and news feeds and alerts that are uniquely crafted based on the sites you have visited and the articles you have read. The technologies that already existed when this book was published in 2008, say the authors, will be markedly bolstered by increased participation in the future.

Wireside whole-heartedly recommends Groundswell to anyone working in marketing or PR. Though the book is aged, it has aged well, and will continue to inform our understanding of customer desires, input, interactions, and more as social and digital technologies continue to transform the world.

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