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Entering the Groundswell September 21, 2009

Posted by moving4word in Creating a Social Media Plan, Uncategorized.
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Unless you’ve been living in complete isolation for the last ten years (and if you have I’d like to know how you found this site), you can’t deny that social media tools like Facebook, Digg, and blogs are changing how people communicate. However, maybe less obvious are these tools’ implications in the business world. As described by blogger Matthew Hodgson, many business executives are hesitant to adopt social technologies because of fears of insecurity and appearing unsophisticated.

 In their book, Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, Forrester Research analysts, Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li address these fears and provide a manager’s guide to creating a social media strategy.

According to the authors, “the groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get things from each other, rather than form traditional institutions like corporations.”

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Groundswell by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li

Using numerous case studies from companies including Best Buy, Dell, and Sony, Bernoff and Li discuss how organizations can adjust current practices to remain relevant to consumers and benefit from the growing groundswell.  

From early in Part 1, the authors emphasize that companies should focus on the relationships, not the technologies. To maximize media efficiency, organizations must understand who their customers are, their interests, and their social media habits. For example, Forrester Research has developed their own profiling tool, “The Social Technographics Profile,” which categorizes groups of people as social media creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators, and inactives. Matching the target audiences’ engagement level will allow companies to develop more fitting social technologies.

Tapping the groundswell involves a four-step planning process symbolized by the acronym POST. Managers must first consider People, Objectives, Strategy, and lastly Technology. Once the audience has been identified, organizations should define their primary objective, which the authors suggest should involve listening (i.e., finding out what people are saying about your organization), talking (i.e., engaging in discussion with customers), energizing (i.e. getting people excited about your organization or product) supporting (i.e., assisting customers with products or services), or embracing (i.e., using feedback for development) the audience.

However, when entering the groundswell, organizations must be willing to give up some control. Failing to use customer feedback can result in a decline in public credibility and ultimately doom a company.

Ultimately, to develop a successful social media plan, the authors suggest that organizations start small, listen first, educate executives about the groundswell, get the right people to manage the strategy, and plan for the next step. Initiating a social media plan can be an experiment in itself. Don’t be afraid to fail, and always remain humble.

Overall, Bernoff and Li’s book successfully offers managers practical advice about how to enter and operate within the groundswell. It’s well written and provides a multitude of fact-based case studies. And although they suggest actionable advice, they never suggest that every business should follow a simple social media formula.

However, Bernoff and Li seem to assume that their readers have no familiarity with social media development. Those who have experience with social technologies may find the book very basic and less helpful.  For example, while tools’ purpose and importance are emphasized, specifics on how to create and use the technologies are omitted.

Also,  Groundswell never steps out and discusses the broader context of social media. Sure, this may not have been the authors’ purpose in writing the book, but it would have been nice to gain a better understanding of why the groundswell is happening now and what it means for our society, history, and culture. Including this kind of commentary would enable readers to see the big picture, and perhaps motivate them to participate in social media just because everyone else is doing it, but because this is a significant societal shift in communications that they cannot afford to ignore.( For more on this, check out NevilleHobson’s thoughts on the cultural context of social media.)

Finally, I believe that, instead of portraying the groundswell as something that we’re all actively constructing, the book presents it as something that we are passively and inevitable being led by. Yes, from a company perspective, joining the groundswell means giving up some control. However, as thoughtfully discussed in the blog, Altitudebranding, we are not being carried by some mystical force. We (like all the other social media participants) can control our role in the groundswell. We can choose which tools we use, the purpose we will use them for, and when we will implement these technologies.

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