The Groundswell rises again

The update.

Forrester Research releases an update today to Groundswell, which continues to serve many marketers as a how-to guide for thinking through social business. Groundswell is now available in paperback and contains two new chapters: “tapping the groundswell with twitter” and “attaining social maturity.”

Josh Bernoff

I was an analyst at Forrester when the book was originally published; since then, I’ve been thinking about social business from a different point of view. A few years have passed and we’ve all seen the “social” industry evolve, so to find out more about the updates, I asked Groundswell co-author, mentor, and former colleague Josh Bernoff some questions about the updates.

Q: Business books run the risk of becoming outdated before they get from concept to print. Yet Groundswell has retained its relevance after three years in print. Why?

Charlene and I worried a lot about the longevity of the book when we were writing it. As a result, we concentrated on the themes a lot more – like focusing on objectives, and starting with relationships – and not so much on the specific technology details which change so quickly. (This is how any good marketer ought to think, anyway.) This is one reason Groundswell is still relevant three years later while a book on, say, MySpace, seems very dated. The other reason is we concentrated on stories about consumers and businesspeople, and stories don’t become obsolete the way technology advice does.

Q: What is the best story you’ve heard of Groundswell’s impact on a company or business professional?

I am still hearing, years later, about people who had this “aha!” moment on reading the book and finally got some traction with their management to start developing social applications. I knew we had a hit on our hands when I ran my first workshop with a major financial services company and saw how, with a little encouragement and a framework, they did so well at coming up with imaginative applications. But my favorite is still probably AFLAC, because the CIO Gerald Shields brought us in, we ran a workshop, and they came up with ideas like a independent sales rep community and a community for payroll administrators. What I loved about that engagement was, they brought us in again several months later and pitched me with their ideas – and I’d seen how well they had developed them.

I have to give honorable mention to the work with did with Wal-Mart, because I got to see the most senior executives from the world’s biggest company (including a table full of lawyers) grapple with the ideas.

The paperback edition of Groundswell is available today, with two new chapters on Twitter strategy and “social maturity.” How did you select these two topics for greater exploration?

It was easy. These were the two types of questions we got most frequently. Twitter was brand new when Groundswell came out, so we didn’t talk about it much beyond predicting that it would be successful (got that right!). And the question of how companies develop as they approach social became a lot more visible as we got further into the corporate embrace of social applications. This happened just as my colleague Sean Corcoran wrote a great report on the topic, so I adapted that for the Social Maturity chapter.

Regarding Twitter.

The new chapter on “tapping the groundswell with twitter” provides a straightforward outline on how to use the service and great advice in line with Twitter’s own recommendations for business. The opportunity is obvious when you see the statistics: Twitter users are highly active and influential.

The Social Technographics Profile of tweeters


Among the best practice examples Bernoff provides, three stand out to me based on challenges I see my clients facing today:

  • AT&T: using Twitter in a regulated industry as a very large (266,590 employees) organization
  • McDonalds: solving for corporate vs. local engagement
  • TurboTax: dealing with highly time-intensive issues. (Dachis Group helped establish this program; for more details, read this case study.)

My questions for Josh regarding new new Twitter chapter:

You mention ways that Twitter can be used for Groundswell objectives – listening, talking, energizing, supporting, and embracing. All of these are useful to companies, but they don’t make Twitter any money. How does use of Twitter’s advertising options (promoted tweets, accounts, and trends) fit in to the framework, if at all?

I find it interesting that a successful Twitter ad has to be inherently shareable, so Twitter advertising strategy ends up as an extension of Twitter marketing strategy in general. It’s part of the intersection between advertising and social, which works best when the advertising is something people want to share (like the Evian Babies video).

In 140 characters or less, can you explain the value of tapping the Groundswell with Twitter? (and perhaps why Twitter wasn’t Facebook or FourSquare instead?)

People use Twitter for everything, because it’s so lightweight. They want to talk to you. Listen! Respond! (It’s easier than Facebook.)


Tomorrow, I’ll focus on the new social maturity framework and what’s after Groundswell.

Separate content from platforms

Today's widely used framework describing media opportunities consists of three parts: paid, owned, and earned. These terms describe the nature of content and are often used synonymously with the platforms on which they are served.

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When it comes to social media, content and platform usually find themselves lumped together in the earned media category. This leads to confusion during the activation planning process, limiting strategic options for brands. It's easy to believe that customers are inevitably in control if anything on a social media platform is considered earned media.

A better approach for brands lies in separating platform strategy and content planning. Platforms evolve constantly, whether technology evolution, user behavior, or regulation change. Content should take advantage of platform context while supporting business objectives. Every platform has earned, paid, and owned opportunities:

  • Television: media coverage (earned), advertising/advertorial (paid), niche networks (owned)
  • Word-of-mouth: brand advocacy (earned), BzzAgents (paid), employee ambassadors (owned)
  • Social media: posts/tweets/likes (earned), social ads (paid), sponsored communities (owned)

When content and platform are considered separately, social media begins to break down similar to a molecule under a microscope. In fact, under close investigation it starts to look a lot like a combination of digital media + traditional content models, catalyzed by current cultural trends.

Why fail fast is bad advice

Every now and then, we all get involved in a conversation that's already in progress. Most people will listen and ask questions to establish context and meaning. Without comprehension, remarks can be misconstrued and advice misapplied.

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A popular piece of advice in social media is "fail fast." Or even extended to "fail fast, fail forward, fail better."

Don't believe it.

This advice makes a lot of sense to the research & development function. These are the people tasked with product innovation, experimentation, and helping bring concepts to commercialization. A great example is Sir James Dyson, an inventor who recently wrote In Praise Of Failure.

This advice doesn't make much sense in the marketing function. Why? Because these people are tasked with building customer relationships. Failure for these professionals – particularly in social media – means:

  • Being company-centric not customer-centric
  • Dishonest and disengaged communication
  • Inability to meet campaign targets and sales goals
  • Wasting resources – budget and time, in addition to opportunity cost

Marketers who fail usually get fired. This isn't some structural injustice that needs to change – it means that poor performance gets what it deserves.

Does this mean companies shouldn't experiment with emerging technology and new opportunities? Not at all. Smart marketers plan investments similar to financial asset allocation, where growth opportunities are strategically layered into a strategic plan.

Here's what fail fast really means, as written by venture capitalist Mark Suster:

Fail fast = quit and give up easy = spaghetti against the wall = no clear strategy going into your business = no ability / willingness to try and pivot as market conditions change = easy way out = today’s management mantra that will be laughed at in 10 years. 

Fail fast if you want – but just be aware of who's recommending it. Personally, I prefer helping brands succeed instead.

got social strategy?

I’ve been forwarded some links over the past few weeks linking to surveys reporting that somewhere between 50 – 70% of responding companies have a social strategy.

My take: so what?

Without a strategy – regardless of whether you’re in the majority or minority – a business will be placed at a competitive disadvantage, by definition and default. Moreover, every social strategy needs a solid corresponding activation plan; after all, strategy comes before tactics.

A social business strategy should cover the use of social media externally, collaboration internally, and partner relationships in between. Organizations in turn must have proper structure and culture in place to make efforts worthwhile.

Not everyone can or should “own” a company’s strategy, but every business should have one. But that’s one of many nuanced questions that one must address within a social strategy – and a discussion for another post.


Aggregate or be aggregated

An idea has been floating around in my head ever since we began working with Workstreamer.  Or maybe not just an idea as much as the seed for a manifesto.  Perhaps just a strategic principle.

Aggregate or be aggregated.
It’s been bugging me for months, with roots in the portal wars of the mid-1990s.  At the time every internet company’s obsession was eyeballs.  AOL, Excite, Yahoo!, Lycos, et al. were busy fighting to become your browser’s default web page by aggregating the best content.

Then we had the rise of e-commerce.  I built and managed PUMA’s online stores, watching comparison shopping engines like MySimon and Froogle fight for attention as one-stop product information aggregators.

Most recently, social networks have become relationship aggregators.  Friendster, then MySpace, now Facebook.  Maybe Twitter will continue its meteoric rise and topple Facebook.  It actually doesn’t matter.

Here’s why.  The path to maximum value capture for all of these companies is by pwning a space.  The more you dominate, the more money you make, and the less you want someone else siphoning off your eyeballs, affiliate clicks, or active users.  So services establish barriers, API limits, etc. – and they ultimately end up as walled gardens, valuable only to those who don’t eat apples and are content to frolic inside.  This won’t work in the long run because information wants to be free.

And Google is the master aggregator.

All those portals that didn’t work out?  Google.  Need click-throughs to product listings?  Google.  Walled garden social network?  In 2007, Facebook opened up to public search.  Earlier this year, Twitter changed its title structure for better search indexing.  Here comes everybody…no wait, it’s just Google again.

There’s a lesson in here for brands, and it’s not “bow down to your Gmaster.”  Fred Wilson recently blogged, “aggregation is the central element of distributing content on the web.”  Steve Rubel hails the end of the destination web era.   Jeremiah Owyang lets you know about your irrelevant corporate website.  Let’s face it: your corporate website is sunk cost.

An answer is inherent in social business design.  It’s not command-and-control, nor is it inmates running the asylum.  It’s a measured approach to how people, process, and technology can be applied to create value.  It’s about proactive aggregation, not reactive right-click copy protection.

Aggregate or be aggregated.

Comments on The Next Digital Era

I'll be in New York mid-week to moderate a PR Week conference panel and asked for your thoughts on the content.  Thanks to everyone who contributed!  Here are highlights from your responses.

1. What's next for the communications industry?
  • A mobile, sematic web and the personalisation of data. - Ubergill
  • Social media fatigue, large-scale burnout as a result of always-on and partial attention deficit leading to relationship breakdowns across the board. - Annalie Killian
  • Organizations that do not adapt will be seen as disingenuous through no fault of their own. We're really moving to a critical time where customers have outgrown those serving them. - Cory Hendrickson
  • I think the next big thing is the realization of the power that the little guys now have, that does not require waiting around for traditional media. - Angela Connor
  • Un-mergers along functional lines that change business models for different parts of the very broad communications industry. - David M
  • 2009 will be about tools to cut through all of the noise and teaching best practices so that our messages resonate. We will see more filters and more strategy behind brand participation. - Aaron Uhrmacher
  • The biggest (and most painful) next thing for the industry is a complete shift in the skill sets, experience and approach of successful communications practitioners. - Jay Gaines
  • The communications industry needs to ensure complete marketing integration with all aspects of media, including traditional and online venues. - Julie Arnold
  • Measurement. Measurement. Measurement. - Jeremy Frank 

2. What's the biggest development in the social media space that affects all organizations? 

  • How much search matters, and the fact that everyone is now a publisher and has influence. MSM would never want to lead on that they've lost control…they have. - Adam Singer
  • At some point we will see a huge enterprise level level of adoption. - Marc Meyer
  • With the rise of so many individual publishers, it is increasingly difficult for enterprises to "push" their brands onto a market. – James Cioban
  • In short, the explosion of self-publishing tools, services and technologies. - David Politis
  • The shift from 'marketing to' to 'marketing with' the consumer, the rise of infinite influencers. - Gunjan Rawal
  • Wiki will lead the economy to create from shared communication with the user, up innovation in business models, opening our processes and creativity to work together hundreds of creative minds. - Rodrigo
  • “Marketers as media” will be the norm rather than the exception in communications efforts moving forward. - Nick Mendoza

3. What's the most underreported trend in the business world that you think deserves more attention? 
  • The older guard/senior management at large corporation (Fortune 500) are often technology-averse. Look at the picture of the Detroit leaders in the White House last week and tell me how many even can define social computing. - Steve Poppe
  • The death of conventional communications. The newsfeed will do to messaging what the video did to the radio star. - JoeC
  • The tension between wanting to promote a company's culture in which employees are active participants in social media and the issues associated with it when an employee participates an is "off-message." - Zach Braiker
  • At many companies, the personal brands of team members are surpassing the value of corporate brands more and more quickly. The result is a transient workforce. I can only imagine the implications. - Scott Hepburn
  • As more companies start to "get" social media, they are insisting on building their own communities.  I personally believe they should use what's available, where people are already gathering, to hear what folks are saying and join the discussion. - Jeannie Walters
  • A decline in overhead costs as a huge development for the communications industry. Social media continue to obliterate the traditional economics of media production, distribution, collaboration and R&D. Organizational functions that were once money- and time-suckers become increasingly inductive. - Josh Shabtai  

Great insights.  Over the past six months, the level of conversation here has increased dramatically.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts and letting me share thoughts with you.

UPDATE:  You can view cached real-time reactions to the whole conference on Twitter

PR Week: The Next Digital Era

PRWeek - The Next Conference
Next week, I'll be in New York to attend PR Week's "The Next Conference," described as a one-day summit on the most important trends in PR.  Edelman has invited me to participate and I'll be moderating a panel called "The Next Digital Era," which includes Steve Rubel from Edelman Digital, Mark Donovan from comScore, and Tom Arrix from Facebook.

The panel description:

"A sneak peek at the digital trends and tools that will reshape our industry, from the 'movers and shapers' who are already changing the game.  How social networks like Facebook will transform your marketing and communication strategies, what's really happening with mobile, and why search will change the way you manage your company's reputation."

The panelists have been asked these questions and I'd like to get your take on the issues:
  1. What's next for the communications industry?
  2. What's the biggest development in the social media space that affects all organizations? 
  3. What's the most underreported trend in the business world that you think deserves more attention? 

So here's the deal – I can register a couple people for the conference as guests.  If you're interested and available to attend (it's in New York at the Waldorf=Astoria, Wednesday 19 November), please leave a comment in response to one or more of the questions (I'd prefer one great answer vs. three tepid ones).  Best answers will receive my comps as a reward.


Update (11/17): Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  I'll post again to highlight all of the insightful comments and have offered the passes to Steve and Jeremy.

BzzAgent: Is WOM a Form of Social Media?

The word-of-mouth experts over at BzzAgent have taken an idea of mine and run with it.  Which I love, because it helps shed light on how to make the prior work even better.

A couple months ago, I posted a framework for measuring social media.  BzzAgent has taken the concept and published some thoughts on how to use the framework to measure the socialness of media, in addition to success in areas of attention, participation, authority, and influence.

The end of the report includes a framework that would pair nicely with The 22 Step Social Media Marketing Plan to help you plan and launch your social media strategy.

To learn more, check out Is WOM a Form of Social Media? over at BzzAgent.

How to set an ego trap

I’ve been thinking lately about what I call the social media ego trap.  In a nutshell, social technologies use game mechanics to get users hooked on participation.  People often get addicted to ego-stroking system feedback, until they can temper their usage (addiction?) in terms of utility vs. serendipity.

But what if you’ve got something to sell?  What if you want to set an “ego trap” yourself?

Let me show you a few traps that have already been sprung, maybe we can learn something from them.

Andy Sernovitz is a word-of-mouth marketing genius.  He also set a perfect ego trap to promote a marketing workshop for his company, Gaspedal.  Andy recruited a network of bloggers to promote his event.  For free.  Who fell into the trap?  Stowe BoydSusan BrattonTara HuntSteve Hall.  And 28 others.  If you look at the related posts, all of these bloggers are promoting Andy’s “special event” that’s “limited to 50 people” and “not usually offered to individuals” and “this low of a price.”  (If this seems silly, you need to click through the links and read the offer in context.)  Damn, I wish I’d thought of this idea.

So why did it work?  The offer was simple.  It was personalized.  Andy is credible; he’s one of the founders of WOMMA.  It was positioned as a scarce resource that bloggers could offer their readers, with a discount.  By the way, I’ve heard Andy speak – his seminar is well worth the price.  (Be sure to use a discount though!)

Dave Balter happens to be a word-of-mouth guru as well.  Coincidentally, he and Andy don’t get along very well – maybe it’s an ego issue?  (I digress.)  Dave set a great ego trap recently to promote his new book, The Word of Mouth Manual: Volume II.  Dave recruited a network of bloggers to promote his book.  For free.  Who fell into the trap?  Rohit BhargavaTom PetersJohn MooreJohn Jantsch. And 15 others. (Yes, there were 20 bloggers total.)  If you look at the related posts, almost all of these bloggers are promoting Dave’s book talking about how they’re in a select group of 20 people.  Those posts aren’t about you – they’re about how important the bloggers themselves are.  “Look, I’m in a hand-selected group of 20 bloggers who are going to promote this book for free on Dave Balter’s behalf.  I am special.”  (If this seems silly, you need to click through the links and read the posts in context.

So why did it work?  The offer was limited.  It was relevant to the bloggers and their readers.  I haven’t read the book and probably won’t, because I prefer to read hard/soft covers, not PDFs.  But don’t let me stop you from downloading the book for free and gaining some knowledge.  You can even join the special 20 (now 28) by creating a unique URL to promote the book on your own site.

One last example:  The Power 150.  Originally a hand coded list by marketer Todd Andrlik, it was purchased by Ad Age.  Todd set an unwitting ego trap by ranking “the top marketing blogs in America.”  Who fell into the trap?  Many, many bloggers – including Todd himself.  At one point, he appealed to his own readers to help boost his ranking on the list.  Today the list ranks 826 blogs.  Presumably, the other 676 just aren’t as powerful.

Why did it work?  Game mechanics – competition and a somewhat objective comparison scale (except for “Todd Points.”  I may lose some of my 12 after this post.)

OK, let’s review.  Here’s how to set an effective “ego trap” with your own offer:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Make it scarce.
  • Personalize it.
  • Use numbers.
  • Appeal to the head…and the heart.

Steve Rubel sums it up:  “I actually like the thrill of the chase and serendipity. I want to be first. This is something that has fueled the egos of reporters for years – partly because it sells. Heck, count me in.”

The old saying tells us, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”  Let’s update that for today’s world and recognize that the way to a blogger’s keyboard is through their ego.

Why social media sites want “users,” not just “customers”

What if you own and operate a social media property, like recent commentor C.H. Low of Orbius?  Well, it’s true that people will always be “people.”

But owner/operators are actually looking for “users.”  Some people detest the term user, but the analogy fits.

O’Reilly’s Jimmy Guterman blogs, “…there are only two industries that refer to their customers as users:  high tech and illegal drugs.”  Now, I’ve never dealt illegal drugs.  (Except for playing Dope Wars on my old Palm Pilot.)  But I can surmise how the industry works, primarily from watching American Gangster and reading Malcolm Gladwell:

  • A dealer uses the product, but only to ensure that it works
  • Mavens provide peer-level affirmations of quality.  Connectors help publicize and expand distribution.  Salesmen are, naturally, salespeople.
  • A dealer must protect the franchise.  They set up territorial boundaries and reselling only happens with authorization.
  • Users do not share in the profits of the operation.  Their benefits are limited to product use.
  • A dealer wants a user to become addicted, i.e. locked in.  But not to a point of overdosing and thus generating zero future value.  However, if this happens, markets are large enough to find new customers.  Sometimes territories must expand to fuel the franchise’s growth needs.

Brands must be careful to not become unwitting distributors of dealer content.  That’s why you don’t need a “Facebook strategy” or a “Twitter strategy.”  You need a business plan and marketing strategy instead.

Individuals must be careful to not develop addiction to either technologies or applications.  Unfortunately, addiction is very real and not limited to grey areas like a gambling website; can you step away for a full day from your Blackberry, checking your blog stats, or jumping on Twitter?  Staying focused on utility will help.

And owner/operators must stay in tune with their users to create a positive environment.  We’ve already seen examples like Facebook changing Beacon’s opt-out approach, MySpace working with state AG’s to protect children, and Twitter curbing spam accounts.

Sites having users works, as long as a healthy value exchange ensues.  I’m a grocery store customer and a potato chip consumer.  But I’m a social technology user, and I’m OK with that.