“Groundswell” an influential book on new age marketing

A book I devoured recently that in many ways changed my view of what works in todays world of marketing.If you so much as dip your toe in social media, you’ll hear about the groundswell. Coined by Forrester Researchers Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff in Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, 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.” In this book, the authors 1) advise companies to adopt groundswell thinking, 2) encourage exploration of social technologies to tap the groundswell., and 3) instruct how to plan and execute groundswell engagement. Ultimately, however, the book is less about what to do and more about how to be. Groundswell is a mindset.

People can get what they need from each other without technologies;barter has been on the rise during the recession. Social technologies allow for those exchanges to increasingly happen among strangers, in larger numbers, and with greater impact. In the process of exchange strangers become less strange, people satisfy their and others’ needs better, and, curiously, something bigger than the sum of groundswell parts arises.

Most, if not all, of the book’s content is online, on the Groundswell blog and scattered around the blogosphere, quoted, rehashed, expanded, built upon… Comprehensive overviews of social technologies, the social technographics ladder, the POST (People, Objectives, Strategy, Technologies) method framework for groundswell engagement planning, strategies for tapping the groundswell (listening, talking, energizing, supporting, and embracing), are all out there. The source book packages all the information in a single, non-hyperlinked place (which is what makes books great).

The principal takeaway for sustainable companies and their marketers is that groundswell thinking, exploration, and engagement is principally about relationships. People are the first element of POST. More importantly, “concentrate on the relationships, not the technologies” is “the principle for mastering the groundswell”. People and relationships are the core of social sustainability. The authors make no explicit connection between the groundswell and sustainability and no sustainable companies are showcased, but perhaps that’s the part of the book left for future research. Regardless, once you engage with it, the transformative power of the groundswell will turn your company into a more socially sustainable one anyway.

Because groundswell is about people and relationships among them (us?), the list of people’s reasons for groundswell participation stood out for me. It seems success in groundswell engagement depends on satisfying any or combination of these needs:

  • keeping up friendships
  • making new friends
  • peer pressure – to avoid being left out
  • paying it forward – to help others in reward for past or in hope for future help to self
  • helping others (the altruistic impulse)
  • watching others (the prurient or voyeuristic impulse)
  • expressing oneself (the creative impulse)
  • validating own knowledge and expertise (the validation impulse)
  • connecting with people with similar interests or views (the affinity impulse)

This may all sound theoretical but the authors back their talk with many examples. The use of case studies, showcasing how companies have used social media well, is, in fact, the most positive aspect of the book. I get tired opening my Reader every morning to see the stream of brands-don’t-get-it and this-company-screwed-up blog posts. The book shows brands do get it and companies do succeed in the groundswell, with different people, with different objectives, with different strategies and with different technologies. As the authors put it, “there is no ‘right way’ to engage with the groundswell”. Hence, groundswell is nothing to be scared of, just follow these three  steps:

1.    Read the book (you’ll wish you’d read this book before you started)
2.    Start small and build up to scale while measuring impact
3.    Take it step by step (strategy by strategy, technology by technology) and learn and adjust as you go

And, be transformed in the process. Because change for the better is a beautiful thing. Thanks be to Peter at his Sustainable Marketing Blog.


  1. Great review, i’ll be buying the book soon. I’m based in Canada and the Groundswell is all the rave here but people still think social networking is a fad, I don’t agree.

  2. I always inspired by you, your views and attitude, again, thanks for this nice post.

    - Norman

  3. I must digg your article so more people are able to look at it, really useful, I had a tough time finding the results searching on the web, thanks.

    - Murk

  4. This is the best article I have read, thank you, I have learned a lot of knowledge in this area.

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