“A groundswell is rising. Are you ready?”

I just finished reading Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s Groundswell, and in five semesters of graduate study, I’ve never been so jazzed about an assigned reading.  This book set off all sorts of light bulbs for me; for the first time, the importance of creating a definitive online communication strategy really clicked.

So, what does “groundswell” mean? The authors explain that the groundswell consists of two elements:  people and technology.  The phenomenon itself is defined as an exploding social trend “in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other.”  It encompasses all online communication:  social networks, blogs, message boards, customer reviews, etc.  Since it stems from our inherent human desire to connect, Li and Bernoff claim that the groundswell isn’t going anywhere.  The case studies and arguments in Groundswell make it very clear that the companies that plan to stay afloat better get on board, or they’re going to sink.

Groundswell is full of great recommendations and how-to’s, but two recurring themes struck me as universally valuable:

  • Objectives are key.  The authors shared an anecdote about a client intent on starting an online community solely because a competitor had done so.  When pressed for a specific objective, the client couldn’t come up with one.  “Everyone else is doing it” might indicate that you’re missing out on something, but you need to take a pause and plan before launching a community without knowing what your customers are ready for and what your own objectives are.  Li and Bernoff refer to this as the POST method:  people, objectives, strategy and then technology.
  • Listen! Tapping into the groundswell isn’t about broadcasting your messages to the largest possible audience.  We’re not talking about old-school mass media here.  It’s about conversation.  It’s about dialogue.  But most importantly, it’s about listening.  As the authors write, “your brand is whatever people say it is.”  People are talking about your brand online.  You don’t want to be the last to know what they’re saying.

While reading, I was reminded of last year’s Nestle/KitKat Facebook crisis, during which time the corporation broke nearly every rule of the groundswell.  In the book, the authors stress the importance of flexibility, because like it or not, sometimes bad things happen.  Like Dell with its combustible laptop batteries (she types nervously on a Dell laptop), Nestle probably never anticipated an enormous online backlash, centered on its Facebook fan pages, regarding its palm oil supplier.  But rather than listening and responding quickly and honestly to those expressing their concerns—in reality, just 1.25% of Nestle’s palm oil came from the supplier in question, and the company had already decided to cut ties—Nestle moderators responded with hostility, and when things got even more out of hand, waved a white flag and shut down the KitKat page.

Li and Bernoff write that “groundswell thinking means constantly adjusting to and learning” from these crises.  Letting a Facebook page become overrun with detractors, responding terribly and ultimately deleting the page doesn’t scream of flexibility.  I certainly hope Nestle learned from the incident, and adjusted their online communications strategy accordingly.

Back to the book:  I want to find things I majorly disagree with, arguments to tear apart, anything to make this less of a Groundswell love fest, but I can’t.

My only gripe:  the book is geared toward those with a product to sell.  I’d love to get Li and Bernoff to weigh in on best practices for those in the nonprofit sector (like Doorways for Women and Families, my “client” for the semester*), but most of the lessons can be adapted for those who are trying to spread a less commercial message.  For instance, Doorways already has a presence on several social media sites, but its objectives aren’t exactly clear.  Is it trying to reach new or existing donors?  Volunteers?  Clients?  Partners?  Is it simply trying to raise awareness of issues relating to domestic violence and homelessness?  Right now, it seems like the group’s on these sites just to be there—which isn’t a bad thing, but to get the most out of the groundswell, Doorways should set some goals (if it hasn’t already).

And for sure, listening is good advice for everyone—for-profits, nonprofits and all people.

*I’m not officially affiliated with Doorways in any way; I’m just a fan.  I’ll be analyzing its online strategy and developing a social media plan for the organization for the course I’m currently taking.

About nicole

Communications professional; sporadic blogger; lover of DC, dogs, food, family, and prematurely graying twenty-somethings.
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2 Responses to “A groundswell is rising. Are you ready?”

  1. Thanks Nicole for linking back to our writing, and for your comments on Groundswell. Charlene Li is doing great job in Altimeter and as an author. Read Open Leadership to get even more perspective of people, technology and communication in various kinds of organizations.
    Failures such as the Nestle one are good learning experiences for us all since they emphasize the complex change process the organizations need to deal with before they can really benefit from the customer driven vehicle. We have a long way to go.

  2. nicole says:

    Thanks for your comment! I’ll add “Open Leadership” to my reading list. I really enjoyed “Groundswell” (if you couldn’t tell), and I’d love to get more of Li’s perspective.

    And oh boy, was that Nestle incident a disaster or what? But what a great case study!

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