Book Review: Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff


I learned about Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies (2008) by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff from the HBR IdeaCast Episode 91: Be a Social Technology Provocateur.  I was intrigued enough to check it out from the library that employs me but it was quickly recalled.  Luckily, I had gotten far enough to sign up for the Groundswell blog where I learned that Forrester was giving away 100 copies of the book to bloggers for review.  I was lucky enough to snag a copy and I’ve finally read it so I can fulfill my end of the bargain.

The basic gist of Groundswell is that new social networking tools allow the general public to greatly influence how companies and products are viewed by people at large.  The authors 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,” (p. 9).  Many companies see this as a threat but the authors encourage organizations to embrace social technologies to give them competitive advantage in business.

Now I’m someone who recoils at the concept of “viral marketing” in particular and really the whole corporate-consumerist ideology in general, but what impresses me about this book is that it comes down to people.  This is not about marketers telling people what to buy, it is about engaging people and learning about what products/services would enrich their lives, how to respond to problems, and even how to influence the purchasing decisons of other customers.  One interesting notion is that while corporations have “product managers,” they rarely have “people managers” although that’s going to be necessary to continue in business in a groundswell environment.  They even make a good point that the customers, not the company, own the brand.

“Marketers tell us they define and manage brands.  Some spend millions, or hundreds of millions, of dollars on advertising.  They carefully extend brand names, putting Scope on a tube of toothpaste to see what happens.  We bought this brand, they say.  We spent on it.  We own it.

Bull.

Your brand is whatever the customers say it is.  And in the groundswell where they communicate with each other, they decide,” (p. 78).

Many executives want to join the groundswell and think it is as easy as putting a blog or comment pages on their website.  The authors warn that engaging the groundswell requires planning with particular goals in mind or one’s efforts will fail.  Groundswell is like a manual for managers that offers case studies, lessons from those cases, and how those lessons may be applied to one’s own business.

I’m obviously not a corporate executive, but I read this book from the perspective that libraries can benefit from the instruction of this book.  Like corporations, libraries would do well to listen to the ideas of their biggest supporters, respond to concerns of those having problems with the library, and engage people in making the library a better place for everyone.  I’d suggest this book be read by any librarians interested in ideas for transforming the library in the web 2.0 world.

Groundswell : winning in a world transformed by social technologies by Charlene Li. Boston, Mass. : Harvard Business Press, c2008.

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