I reviewed Groundswell, by Forrester analysts Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, (thank you Jeremiah Owyang for offering me a review copy) for two purposes. The first was in my quest to find a good overall strategy book to use for my upcoming classes in new technologies for PR and marketing. The second was to, hopefully, learn something new (given I am so immersed in the field of social media, I am always on the quest for new empirical insights vs. the same old rehashed assumptions). I am happy to inform you that the book is a success on both fronts. I am indeed going to use it as a core text in my fall classes. On the second point, the book nicely mixes data analysis, case studies and a strong eye for spotting and describing trends. The result is a refreshingly well written, interesting and fact-based book that doesn't hesitate to make definitive statements while serving as an essential guide for senior managers.
I would say that the authors have demonstrated their ability to listen (they interviewed lots of people for the book) as well as a gift for storytelling. For example, their description of Dell's movement from Hell to IdeaStorm is great. I think it is because this and the other case studies in the book tend to revolve around individual people. From Rick Clancy of Sony, introduced at the beginning of the book, to Bob Pearson and Lionel Menchaca of Dell, and others, we get a glimpse into their thinking, their challenges, their anxieties and their drive. In other words, we see leaders at work. The one exception to this -- a case study about an initial failed effort -- remains anonymous, and, quite honestly, fell flat for that reason. There is real authenticity in their case studies (stories), which is rare in business books. Given that the book is about engaging with people through social technologies, this is a crucial point.
As with most business books, you will find a variety of checklists, such as four "techniques for talking with the groundswell" and five suggestions for "getting started with a community." While I often find the endless lists of business books boring (who wants to read lists for hours on end?), happily, these steps are nicely rounded out with both context and case study support, and don't simply appear as pompous aphorisms.
I also found it refreshing that Li and Bernoff are not afraid to take definitive positions. They baldly state, "Your brand is whatever your customers say it is." and "Strategies based on deception are doomed to failure." and "The groundswell swallows up people who don't have the right approach." There is no hedging or waffling in this book.
Groundswell is a book about strategy. You won't find in-depth discussions of the technologies they are introducing, but you will find enough detail to give you both a basic understanding of what it is (blog, wiki, viral video, tags), and, more importantly, what its impact is on traditional institutional power structures. This is one of the features of the book I really liked. The clear discussion of how social technologies impact power relationships is quite good. While the authors keep their discussions clear and simple, there is a lot of thought going on underneath (in fact, they have me thinking more deeply about the power shifts they record, but that is a discussion for another time). That was satisfying to me, as too many business books seem like fast food, quick and easy, but with an empty core.
Finally, they address one of the thorniest issues of social technologies - ROI. In every section, they attempt to assign real numbers, based on the case studies, as to how ROI was calculated. While acknowledging the difficulty of measuring engagement, and the lack of professional consensus on measurement techniques as a whole, they do offer useful guidelines and examples.
Bottom line: This is an excellent strategy primer for senior managers and executives seeking to better understand the changing world of marketing and communications in the face of social technologies (and a serious wake-up call to the reluctant ones among them). It provides a variety of planning and action-oriented checklists and highlights potential pitfalls. Most importantly, the book is designed to help managers put together a strategy based on people and relationships vs. technology. In the end, as the authors remind us, it is the relationships that count.