Last week, I had a meeting with a staff person at a public service organization with a traditional approach to interacting with customers. He is interested in experimenting with social media for customer service and communication. But the organization as a whole react with fear and anxiety at the thought of using internet tools. Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Benioff came immediately to mind. The book is targeted at business people whose companies fear engaging with their customers online, but are attracted to the opportunity — or don’t have much of a choice.
Groundswell lays out step by step processes for engaging with “the groundswell” – the masses online who are talking about you and your products whether you want them to or not. The beginning of the book is a catalog of fears – exposes, PR disasters, digital mobs, displacement by internet services. The rest of the book is a how-to-guide for stepping into the roiling waters and engaging the groundswell.
A few things I liked about the book.
* The authors give good counsel about starting small, experimenting, and being patient. The well-known success of the Dove “Evolution” viral video took place after the champion spent two years laying the groundwork for it. Building social media takes time, and cultural adaptation takes time.
* Your customers want what your customers want. A company imagines that its customers are interested in their products; and the customer is cares about what they care about. The best example was the forum sponsored by P&G. Young teen girls don’t want to talk about menstruation, they want to talk about their lives, and the forum provides a supportive environment for them. And by the way provides information about products.
* How does this help my business? Each section has a sample business analysis to help champions cost-justify engaging the groundswell.
One core Forrester technique used in the book is simultaneously helpful and somewhat iffy. A survey segments the behavior and preferences of customers by market and company. Organizations can use these demographics to choose which social media techniques to use to engage their customers. Customers are characterized as “creators”, “critics”, “collectors”, “joiners”, “spectators” and “inactives” based on their use of tools: a blogger is a creator; someone who rates things on Amazon is a critic, someone who bookmarks things is a collector. To some extent this is basic channel analysis. A business whose customers aren’t on Facebook, or even online, shouldn’t be wasting their time on Facebook. A business whose customers are active raters has a significant opportunity to incorporate ratings into its online presence.
The flaw in the tool is that the the characterizations are moving targets. This is definitely true about tools. Facebook is only four years old, and its demographic has increased in just a few years from college students to business networkers. And it may be true about behavior as well. It is a well-established observation that large communities have only a few percent active participants. Most people lurk, a few people take small actions, and a very few are highly active. This doesn’t take into account learning. How many more people take photographs because of flickr and digital sharing services. How many people start by watching youtube videos, and eventually make and share videos? I would be surprised if there wasn’t mobility among the categories. Some people move up the engagement curve as they learn and model after their friends. Some people move down the curve as they focus their attention on other things.
While the authors do a good job telling corporate readers that it’s not about them, the structure of the book has that focus. The book is targeted at Forester’s customer base: big consumer products organizations desiring and fearing web 20. Forrester identifies their fears and sells them reassurance and good advice. For organizations who are in this situation — like the staff member at the nonprofit – this book really hits the spot.

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