Groundswell: here I am adding to it

21 May

GroundswellRichard Bailey has a problem. This middle aged public relations lecturer struggles to keep up with all the latest thinking affecting his subject area. Books, articles, podcasts, academic journals, blogs. The answer? He listens to the groundswell. The word on the social media street said ‘you must read Groundswell by Forrester Research analysts Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff.’ So he has.

There’s much to admire in this book but the formulaic American-business-book-style parodied in the paragraph above becomes rather grating for this reader.

The book’s strong central concept – the groundswell – is a strength. It removes the focus from technology (eg blogs, podcasts, videos) and turns instead to relationships. ‘The groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations’. This scares marketing managers, scares PR practitioners and makes chief executives very, very afraid. Hence the need for this book.

Groundswell could be the one book these senior people should read to cover the trend emerging from a succession of books following in the wake of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Here’s my pick: everything written by Seth Godin, We the Media, Naked Conversations, The Corporate Blogging Book, The Long Tail, Wikinomics, Punk Marketing, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, Now is Gone, Here Comes Everybody. I’m also looking forward to Chris Anderson’s forthcoming Freeconomics.

Groundswell provides a good summary of what’s gone before, and contains some valuable case studies. But fileting the book for lean new ideas, I’ve only found the following.

The ‘Social Technographics Profile’ (chapter 3) is a useful tool for assessing the stage of engagement with social media in a target community. How many are content creators, how many are critics, collectors, joiners, spectators or inactives? This tool will become an essential step in assessing whether organisations should engage in social media activities.

The other idea I liked was the concept of ‘psychic income’ (the authors acknowledge that this idea has been around since the 1920s, but it has a new significance now). This is a way of explaining why some people are willing to devote so many of their spare, waking hours to contributing to social media forums when there’s no payback in terms of salary. One contributor to a Dell support forum has been logged in ‘for an equivalent of 123 working days a year… He has read nearly a quarter of a million of other people’s messages, and he has posted over twenty thousand times.’ These super-users are the people you want to enlist – not enrage – in your social media activities.

The international, research-based perspective is useful too. Broadly, Europe lags behind the US; and everywhere lags behind South Korea. But in such a well-researched book, calling Hugh McLeod ‘an American blogger’ is a bad – if minor – lapse (page 234). His biography shows that he has worked in New York, but like many creative Madison Avenue types McLeod is British (specifically, Cumbrian).

You guessed it, McLeod is menioned for his role in the blog-based Stormhoek wine promotional activities. One of the many mostly-familiar case studies in the book.

Groundswell is a useful book with some helpful tools. But if you want an exciting read with big ideas on almost every page, then I recommend Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.

4 Responses to “Groundswell: here I am adding to it”

  1. Josh Bernoff 21/05/2008 at 3:38 pm #

    Thanks for your review. Hope you enjoyed “fileting” the Groundswell.
    A few comments.
    We’ve found storytelling about people to be more effective in communicating powerful ideas than plain old pronouncements and statistics. Hence the narrative style. It seems to be working — people are reading, enjoying, and acting on the ideas in Groundswell. A lot of them, based on the sales numbers.
    We appreciate the new ideas you’ve highlighted. In Groundswell we tried to give people practical advice about how to ACT in this space, rather than trying to dazzle our readers. In dealing with corporate executives this down to earth tack on an overhyped space has been quite productive. I wouldn’t object if someone felt like calling us groundbreaking, but if they called us useful, that’s much higher praise.
    I like Clay’s book, too — a great read. If you’re looking to act on the ideas in it, he mostly leaves that to people to figure out for themselves — that’s why I think there’s room for Groundswell alongside of thinking like his.
    As for Hugh McLeod, in my interview with him, he never characterized himself as British (or Cumbrian). I asked the folks at Stormhoek to review the statements we made about them and him and they never objected to our calling him American. I’m sure your right but you know us Americans — always claiming the smart people as our own 😉
    For people who want to read more about the book, see our microsite at

  2. Paull Young 21/05/2008 at 3:49 pm #

    Superb review Richard – the opening parody par is right on the money. I’ve reccommended Groundswell to many corporate clients & prospects, it’s a great primer for what social media (and hence my agency) could do for their business. I also wouldn’t craft a strategy on social technographics alone. There’s more important things happening out there in communities than what you can uncover by placing people on a graph in artificial categories. There’s more important reads out there for students, and I’m going to get stuck into Shirky now on your recommendation.

  3. Greg Smith 24/05/2008 at 6:44 am #

    As another middle-aged lecturer, I was also looking for something that encapsulates all that is assailing us. Thanks, Richard. I even ordered it (and from the UK, to boot). I just hope I find the time to read it. 🙂 Regards.

  4. Helena Makhotlova 15/06/2008 at 12:26 pm #

    I have just made an extended order on Amazon, thanks to your recommendations and I’m looking forward to good reading for pleasure (not dissertation!) in the summmer!

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