Groundswell in Review

Reviewed by Melissa Cheater, Academica Group Inc.

Authors: Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff

Groundswell is a must read if you are involved in marketing, sales or communications. I recommend this book for the advanced social media junkie as well as the beginner.
Groundswell is a crash course in

  • the new communications technologies that are no longer really “new” so much as “here for good,”
  • the ways that people are putting these technologies to use,
  • how to spot the next big technologies, and
  • ways that companies are winning and losing in the new media environment.

Li and Bernoff also outline the P.O.S.T approach to social media implementation. The book is packed with stats and case studies galore. This review will summarize the main takeaways of the book, with a few added notes from my own experiences as a daily inhabitant of the groundswell and some higher ed perspective.

Groundswell (def’n): “A social trend where people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.”

For higher education, this means that prospects are getting information about your school from not just official marketing materials and representatives, but also from each other, current students, alumni, employers, parents and counsellors – and anyone else with an opinion on the subject. They are getting their answers from the groundswell rather than you – and when they do consult you, your answers are cast to the groundswell for verification.

Traditional sources of information are still valuable – the viewbook, calendar, program information, campus visits, email and direct mailings – these all still have an important role and are still being used by prospects during their decision period. The groundswell does not ask us to abandon the old way of doing things – it simply means acknowledging that prospects are consuming large quantities of information that you cannot brand, angle or control – on top of the traditional diet of viewbooks, tours and official homepages.

Li and Bernoff start with the “People, not technologies” anthem that might seem like a constant refrain to social media gurus but is still a earth-shaking realization that everyone in the field HAS to accept. Technology is an enabler, but not all technology will be the right answer for your institution.

Example: Blogs offer increased visibility, a platform to answer customer questions, a place to comment on PR problems and way of collecting customer feedback and insight. Blogs are a fantastic technology if your goal is improved search visibility and a more open conversation with your clients. The technologies you implement should be picked to meet your goals, and also should be picked according to your resources. A blog will not work if you are not interested in hearing from your consumers. It will not work if you do not keep it lively and up to date. And it will not work if your target audience simply does not read blogs.

The crowd is more powerful than any single company – Wikipedia leaves Britannica in the dust in terms of number of entries, and web traffic (aka influence). The online world may be “virtual” but can actually impact the offline world – its knowledge, and its economy. Whether or not you or your organization have explored social media, you are both being talked about. 25% of online Americans read blogs, and 11% write blogs (Groundswell p.19).

I remember when I first registered for I was wrapping up my fourth-year thesis back in 2006 and needed to figure out the terms used for things like comments (wall posts), homepages (profiles), shared content (posted items). I dropped in my full name and email address and looked happily at my blank profile – then noticing “Photos Tagged of You.” My peers who signed up for Facebook ahead of me had already been uploading pictures of me – and tagging them! When I registered, my profile was immediately cross-referenced with these photos. Before I even created an account, I was linked to personal photos thanks to my Facebook friends.

Back to Groundswell, Li and Bernoff recommend starting small with social media. Identify a need and consider which technologies would have the support (users) they need to flourish, and then go from there. Add new technologies gradually and constantly stop and review how your approach is working. I fully agree. A full-on social media strategy can be as bulky as your overall marketing or recruitment plan – and can take just as long to put together and have approved. The thing with web and social media is that your cutting edge plan will be last year’s fad by the time you run it by your team, manager, their director and the worries of hesitant technophobes. Rather than changing the world in a day, start with something small, relevant, cheap and strategic and push it through. Follow each success with another small move forward. The great thing about online work is that you can change directions on a moment’s notice – there are no boxes of misprinted course calendars to fill up your storage. Think of the web and social media as a direct mail piece that you can edit after it has been sent.

Groundswell Typology of Social Media Uses:

  • Creating (expression, commentary)
  • Connecting (social networks)
    25% of online Americans visit a social network at least monthly (p.22)
    22% of teenagers check daily
    Victoria’s Secret has more than 250,000 Facebook friends
  • Collaborating (wiki’s, open source)
    22% use a wiki at least monthly (p.25)
  • Reacting (review sites)
    20% read reviews (p.27)
  • Organizing (tagging, social bookmarking)
    7% of online Americans use tags (p.29)
  • Accelerating Consumption (RSS feeds, widgets)

The Groundswell Social Technographics profile (STP):
Li and Bernoff break users into six categories…

  • Creators
  • Critics
  • Collectors
  • Joiners
  • Spectators
  • Inactives

Many of these terms were already in use but are becoming more and more widely recognized in the industry – with the STP and P.O.S.T. method becoming sort of a social media bible for many.

The Groundswell P.O.S.T. method*:

  • People (technographics)
  • Objectives (your goals)
  • Strategy (how, and what do you need?)
  • Technology (see how it comes last?)

*This is a fantastic approach. I do, however, think that you should hammer down your goals (O) before you start thinking about your audience (P) and strategy (S) – which is why I recommend O.P.S.T. instead.

Part of your planning should acknowledge that social media will change your relationships. Will this be OK? Are you ready for change? Also stop and consider your brand and whether or not it is liked. Opening the floodgates to user-generated content could be a disaster if your approach violates the rules of the community (be it the web at large, the blogosphere or Facebook), or if your company simply is widely disliked. The old days of brand bibles are fading – more and more, “your brand is what your customers say it is.” (Groundswell p.78)

Your school, or organization, has a choice about how they use the groundswell. Li and Bernoff outline five types of participation, starting with simply listening and peaking at embracing (including your customers in development). In between there is Talking (participating, contributing content), Energizing (asking supporters to become brand advocates), and Supporting.


Not surprising given their background, Li and Bernoff recommend focus groups and surveys throughout your work. Participants are very likely to reveal things that you haven’t even thought to explore (or have included as a safety question but assumed you already knew the answer – only to find out the contrary!) These are ways to monitor your brand, campaign or project in a controlled environment but you can also fly under the radar by subscribing to monitoring services (such as Google Alerts and Technorati). Somewhere in the middle of formal research and data mining is the option to set up a private community (either on your own server or on a site such as where you have access to user data and content.


Mass media is SHOUTING, the groundswell is a conversation. We live in an ad-saturated culture that seems to have deaf ears to TV ads and direct mailings. It turns out that the new way to grab attention is to simply speak at a normal volume, therefore sneaking by our “ad filters” that are expecting flashing colours and excited salespeople. When you enter the groundswell, do so with the intention to have conversations with consumers. In the groundswell, the company and the consumer are equals and the company is expected to take part in two-way communication.

An active, healthy groundswell needs support and participation. Sometimes the most effective way to jump start your community is to build it within a pre-existing community. Don’t rebuild if you can simply tap into what your consumers are already doing for you. Even if a .com-hosted solution makes the most sense, try not to turn your back on pre-existing communities who could potentially be interested in your content.


Energizing is the third level of company participation in the Groundswell – “finding enthusiastic customers and turning them into word-of-mouth machines.” Consider this:

  • 18% of online US consumers are “creators” – they are writing blogs, speaking out with podcasts and making laugh with online videos.
  • 25% are critics (they might not have their own blog, but they are contributing reviews to sites such as eBags, Amazon and TripAdvisor
  • 50% are reading the content and reviews produced by the above

According to Li and Bernoff, 80% of user submitted reviews tend to be positive.

Energizing means increased uncontrolled conversation about you or your brand – are you ready for this? Do you have supporters to energize? These are important questions. If you do decide to energize, focus on connections and empowerment rather than restrictions and damage control. Control is not the perk with energizing. The perks are that energizing is believable, self-reinforcing and self-spreading – and sometimes much cheaper than other approaches.


Product development is hard, so why not let your customers help you? Facebook did a great job of using its own technologies (fan pages, photo sharing, newsfeed alerts) to include its users in the development of the new Facebook profile. Embracing your users might be something like the open environment for sharing progress and collecting feedback that Facebook employed, or it might be formal market research such as focus groups, surveys or user testing.

Dove’s “Evolution” campaign on YouTube earned double the traffic of its superbowl ads. Dell used its corporate blog to dampen the disaster of the flaming laptop. Best Buy’s BlueShirt nation turned scattered retail employees into a supportive, engaged community. Li and Bernoff urge “rather than think about the things that can go wrong, think about the… lost opportunity.”

Groundswell Tip: Fail cheaply. Social media is quick, easy and cheap. Avoid making a bureaucratic strategy nightmare with baby steps, senior exec supporters and education for major decision makers.

Groundswell Code:

  • Be a Good Listener
  • Be Patient
  • Be Opportunistic
  • Be Flexible
  • Be Collaborative
  • Be Humble

Groundswell is clear account of social media and the opportunities and risks that are emerging for organizations. Li and Bernoff’s passion for the subject shows and their experience is proven by the strength of their methods (P.O.S.T.) and the army of social media leaders who have taken up groundswell and its recommendations as their guide in the new world of public information.

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