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'Groundswell' Gains a Following

Practical Advice Makes for a Useful Primer on Social-Media Explosion

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In the months it has taken this reporter to punch out her review of Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff's "Groundswell," the book seems to have hit, well, a groundswell. The book and its accompanying blog keep popping up in conversation among social-media experts. I've heard the tome cited on many an ad panel, including at the recent Ad Age Digital Bites event focused on marketing in social networks.

It's easy to see why: The Forrester analysts have prepared one of the most comprehensive and useful primers on the sudden surge in social media. This "groundswell," they write, represents a "spontaneous movement of people using tools to connect, to take charge of their own experience and to get what they need -- information, support, ideas, products and bargaining power -- from each other."

While Mr. Bernoff and Ms. Li introduce the groundswell as an unstoppable force, one that today's companies must understand and embrace, they acknowledge it can be hard for companies to change -- and warn that not every tactic will work for every company. As a guide to (often misguided) marketers about how to go about setting up a groundswell strategy, they offer up the acronym POST:
  • People. Are your customers interacting with social technologies? Which ones? How do they use them?
  • Objective. What does a company hope to accomplish with a groundswell strategy?
  • Strategy. How will those objectives be achieved?
  • Technology. Which vendor or technology can help accomplish the goals?
Sure, a few of the examples will be familiar to anyone who's been paying attention to this space -- Dell, Dove and Blendtec all play prominent roles -- but they offer up other examples whose documentation has been less ubiquitous. South African winery Stormhoek, for example, used blogger outreach and popular online cartoonist Hugh McLeod to grow its business from $1 million to $10 million. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center banded together with other companies to really listen to patients and understand what was important to them. And there's a nice examination of Procter & Gamble's Beinggirl.com community as well, citing P&G's calculation that the measured impact was four times greater per dollar spent than investments in regular media.

In another example, the authors cite Ernst & Young's Q&A section on its Facebook page, where the professional services firm recruits young collegians to careers at the company. E&Y employees responded to questions from visitors to the page, and at the same time created an efficient repository of content addressing what it's like to work at the company that will be accessible by other college grads well into the future. A discussion of the economic benefits that come along with tapping the groundswell is a sign the authors know their audience and the challenges marketing execs face getting buy-in from senior management.

Mr. Bernoff, who came into Ad Age's offices a few months ago to discuss the book, said he thinks the message will resonate just as well in recessionary times because, he said, if done right, social applications are more measurable. "If you don't set yourself up to measure, you've got no one to blame but yourself when your boss comes around and cuts it," he said.

That kind of practical advice is what sets "Groundswell" above the raft of other tomes pontificating on social media, bottom-up marketing -- whatever one wishes to call the concept. Tom O'Brien, chief marketing officer at MotiveQuest, perhaps puts it best in his own (much timelier) review of the book. He compares it to the highly influential 1998 book "Cluetrain Manifesto," which argued technology is allowing consumer-to-consumer conversations to outpace companies' own consumer messages.

"Groundswell," he writes, "is the long-awaited how-to manual for the post-Cluetrain world."

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