Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff

Probably the best thing about Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies is its cover, by Stephani Finks (I hope I linked to the right profile on Facebook). The contents aren’t too shabby either — the book officially bumps Naked Conversations from the top position in the Marketing 2.0 category in my mildly-famous World 2.0 canon post. As you know if you are a regular, I am a sucker for a good metaphor, and when it is accompanied by visual imagery that gets it just right, and clearly conveys the high concept at hand, it’s a you had me at hello situation. Let’s deconstruct the ‘hello’ for a minute, before diving into the review.

Why does this cover work so beautifully for a book about tapping into social media?

The Cover

Think of the default imagery evoked by the dictionary definitions of ‘groundswell’ — a deep rolling/swelling of the oceans or a wave of popular sentiment. The first, literal, meaning conjures up a raging, tumultuous oceanscape. The second, a sociological metaphor, suggests an overpowering and disorganized crowd of the Burning Man variety. The respective associations are tsunami-scale chaos and destruction and anarchic demagoguery-fueled nihilism.

The cover art brilliantly avoids these anxiety-inducing associations, and manages to suggest instead a broad and deep movement of unleashed energy, fueled by a fundamental seismic shift. The simple base graphic of radiating shockwaves from an epicenter gets at the power, while gently de-emphasizing the transient anarchy and violence (and incidentally, suggesting a ‘rising above the noise’ of 2.0). The title word, simply and asymmetrically broken into two, by evoking thoughts of undersea fault lines and dissonance, tersely conveys the idea, “something fundamental has changed, and has created a powerful instability.” The lime-green color, along with the off-center positioning of the discrete visual elements, leaves figure-ground blending gestalt space at the center of the cover. This perfectly gets at the decentered and cheerfully (rather than grimly-political) ironic zeitgeist of the 2.0 revolution.

The minor design details are done right as well — the lower-case title at once suggests a 2.0 design aesthetic, and the vox populi nature of the dynamic.

Five stars on the cover. I hope Harvard Business Press paid Stephani well.

Thankfully, unlike the godawful blue ocean metaphor which provoked my one and only polemic on this site, the substance of the metaphor does full justice to the brilliant cover, so let’s talk about that.

The Book

That atypical detour aside, let’s do the review — overview, highlights, quickie chapter-wise summary, and finishing up with some warnings about what is otherwise a very good book.

I am pretty formulaic about how I judge business books in my first pass. Li and Bernoff, both of Forrester research, know their stuff and get the basics right; this is a well-constructed blend of abstraction and anecdote, plug-and-play process suggestions and you-need-to-actually-think advice, data and axiom. The tone is unapologetically didactic. This is an attempt at an instruction manual, not an invitation to conceptual debate. And like any good instruction manual, it isn’t shy about proposing definitions upfront:

Groundswell: A social trend in which people use technology to get the things they need from each other rather than traditional institutions like corporations.

You could argue with that, but it’s good enough as a starting point for somebody looking to act rather than debate. The authors do overreach a bit and claim to provide “a clear perspective on the whole trend, not just pieces of it, with clear strategic recommendations.” Though they do provide lip-service to many “pieces,” the bulk of this book is about managing your engagement, as a corporate manager, of the market-facing aspects. But that’s a pretty big subset of pieces to take on. There is no definitive treatment of the “whole trend” yet, but there are better breadth-coverage books. Also, by my definitions, which are pretty good I believe, the book is not about strategy — it is about operations and tactics. The strategy book too, has not yet been written.

The Highlights

I’ll do only two highlights.

As I said, the strength of the book is in its treatment of market-facing aspects, viewed from the point of view of certain categories of corporate managers — mainly those in marketing, PR, customer support and sales. Three important market-facing roles — supply-chain, purchasing and HR/talent acquisition — are not adequately covered. This is not to suggest that the book is irrelevant to other (non-market-facing) functions. Other sorts of managers will find this a very valuable treatment, to the extent that their functional roles are ultimately wired to the market through these first-contact roles.

The book is neatly organized around the groundswell metaphor, and suggests a mental model of the prototypical social-media-enabled human population as an organic entity with a life of its own, with a complex behavioral, structural and functional profile, but predictable and capable of being influenced. The book’s concepts are arranged around this organic metaphor (more detail in the chapter-wise summary). Highlights:

Highlight #1: The Social-Technographics Profile

Much of the data-substance of the book is derived from a compact instrument for understanding the differential characteristics of a population, compared to a sensible default (typically, but not always, the whole population). The analytical method of the book is to start with the people (relevant prosumer, producer or consumer population), and segmenting them into six non-exclusive and non-exhaustive categories, creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators and inactives, each defined by a prototypical online social behavior. This is not a personality-psychology segmentation such as the Clifton strengthsfinder, but neither is it a vacuous taxonomy of the which Sex-in-the-city character are you? variety.

The value-for-money part of the book is the analysis based on the rich data Forrester has collected around this model. But the key piece that makes this a very smart instrument is the way they use it for differential analysis — figuring out how one population is different from another, viewed through the lenses of these behaviors. Is population A more or less critical or creative than population B? This creates some actionable leverage and competitive advantage, as opposed to a vanilla undifferentiated strategy that works off broad, base-population analysis, or worse, a one-size-fits-all analysis that assumes everybody will contribute to a wiki, for instance. Very helpfully, the book’s website has provided samples for reviewers to use. Here is one:


Take a moment to understand how to read that chart. Example: 48% of all US adults are spectators (they consume social media), while 67% of men aged 18-27 are likely to be spectators, which is 139% of the base, in relative terms.

Now that’s the kind of market intelligence around which you can build an engagement strategy.

Highlight #2: A Day In the Life of the Ubiquitous Groundswell

This is a cute, but seriously thought-provoking little two-page story in the last chapter of the book. It imagines the workday of a senior manager coming into work on December 1, 2012, and smartly using groundswell listening/talking technologies/practices to very rapidly react to a fashion trend, sparked by a Paris Hilton-like character (hilariously named Helena Trampp; suggesting Ivana Trump as well) by introducing a new line of mauve shoes, with an amped up product-lifecycle clockspeed. It is a neat illustration of the possibility of business models that can take advantage of even very short-window revenue opportunities.

This story concretely illustrates the assertion made by Tom Hayes in Jump Point, where he points out (serendipitously using an oceanic metaphor in a different way) that the world is not flat; that it is awash in tsunami-like shifts in value generation across the global economic Web. This story graphically illustrates how you might surf on the tsunami to end all tsunamis — a big, spiky, short-lived fashion-fad.

Quickie Chapter-Wise Summary

Part I, comprising three chapters, introduces the broad themes and the social technographics profile, anchored by an image of influencing the groundswell primarily by using its own energies, jujitsu style.

The jujitsu metaphor marks an important point — the groundswell metaphor isn’t used in a ‘raging oceans’ way (that’s Tom Hayes’ ocean metaphor) at any time — think, rather, of a Leviathan-esque creature created by waves (rather like the desert sandstorm creature in The Mummy). This is probably what made me really like the book, since my own thinking is heavily influenced by Leviathan-like metaphors, and I am working on a book concept based on that style of thinking. The legacy of system dynamics and Jay Forrester style thinking is also evident, but is fortunately underplayed.

Part II, comprising 6 chapters, systematically elaborates on this useful ‘organic ocean-creature’ metaphor in the first four chapters on tapping, listening to, talking to and energizing the groundswell. The next two chapters cover deeper modes of engagement: helping the groundswell support itself, embracing the groundswell. This part covers everything from management advice, to recommended vendors for different applications, to case studies, and nitty-gritty advice on how to design user review mechanisms.

Part III has a passable chapter on how connecting with the groundswell transforms your company, a throwaway/weak one on the groundswell inside your company (by far the weakest chapter), and finishes strongly with a good forward-looking future of the groundswell chapter which contains the little story I highlighted, among other good bits.

Surgeon-General Warnings

So much for the good stuff. As I said, the book is excellent at operational and tactical aspects of managing social media. It is weak in doctrinal and strategic aspects.

  • The POST model: the authors propose the people-objectives-strategy-technology sequence of engagement as axiomatic (“If you don’t enter the groundswell with a specific objective, you will fail.”) While this is a good first heuristic, you’d do well to be a good deal more experimental in many situations, and navigating with a I’ll know the value when I see it opportunistic attitude rather than steering by a fixed objective. I’ve know successful cases where it’s been TSOP and other permutations.
  • Mixed messages about agility: While the book generally advocates agile, plan-as-you-go tactics and iterative, start-small approaches, this message is ambiguously delivered. For instance: “If an executive is pushing for rapid deployment of a social technology, push back; insist that the effort cannot move forward until you’ve agreed on a clear objective tied to business goals. ” This suggestion is a recipe for disaster at an experimental/learning stage of capability maturity, and will lead to analysis-paralysis. There are ways to experiment and engage in de-risked ways without clear goals in mind. That’s another story, however.
  • False sense of ROI security: Referring to the same quote, the book also suggests a premature commitment to ROI considerations. There is significant pressure today to manufacture such evidence, even if it entirely misses the locus of value addition. While this is valuable practice for a more mature era (I am engaged in one such exercise right now), the results should play second-fiddle to qualitative/right-brained considerations. Social media isn’t yet (and may never be) a drive-by-numbers game beyond isolated operational loci. I would argue that for most social media proposals at most companies, in most functions, ROI calculations are currently impossible even locally, let alone at strategic, enterprise-impact levels. Even the best-practice companies aren’t that mature in social-media capability. While the book does offer some interesting little sample localized ROI computations, it would be a mistake to insist on an ROI-driven strategy. Fortunately, most of the actual anecdotal examples in the book don’t exhibit the clarity of purpose that the authors demand.
  • Dangerous framing of technology: I’ve noticed a tendency on the part of consultants to skip over the technology itself as if it were a matter of minor detail. Saying “it is the people/sociology” makes you seem wise and above the geeks. True and false. The technology qua technology does not matter. You can leave your geeks to understand and work with XML-RPC and Ajax. But the technology as a medium in the McLuhan sense does matter. It shapes the social behavior that it enables, amplifies some things, suppresses others. Possibly the least useful part of the book is a rather insipid formula for dealing with future technologies. It is mildly insulting to the creativity of technologists to assume you can pre-emptively accommodate and think through any disruption they might throw at you.
  • Non-recommended uses: As I said, the book does over-reach a bit in its claims to breadth, so make sure you look for guidance elsewhere where it is weak. Wikinomics is a good source for understanding the landscape at a doctrinal level. Jump Point does a good job of conveying the nature of the technology. Generation Blend does a nice job with the crucial generational-demographics angle. Nobody has yet written a good treatment of the macroeconomic aspects, but there are places to start.

Plenty more interesting things to say, but I’ll stop here. If you are a manager and looking for the operating manual, this is a pretty good first book to buy.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Thanks so much for this detailed and thoughtful review. Very impressive.

    We and you are clearly at different places on the scale of “do it and the value will become clear” vs. “do it with a specific goal in mind” schools of thought on social applications. But I am not totally out on the far end — I recognize there is a lot of serendipity in social activity. It’s just that in working with corporate clients, they make the mistake of going forward without clear goals far more often than going forward without enough flexibility in outlook. Worth thinking about, though.

    Regarding the cover — when Stephani sent it to me originally, it was zoomed in at 200% and I had an immediate visceral dislike to the bright and shocking color scheme. But after showing it around to many others I realized I was wrong. Thank god I was open to the positive reactions from others. It stands out and with luck may become iconic. Right now it’s one of my favorite things about the process of doing this book. And if you look at Harvard Business Press’ other books, you will see this is a departure. They are using us, I think, to go for a higher level of graphical creativity.

  2. Thanks for the comment Josh. I agree, cluelessness and flexibility in outlook are not the same thing, and having an objective is definitely better than the former :)

    Extremely glad to hear HBP may be experimenting with a 2.0 aesthetic — have also noticed their smart flight-duration-sized pocketbooks. A press to watch I hope, though I haven’t liked the last couple of books I read from there, besides yours.


  3. Hi Venkat,

    Thank you for a very helpful summary. And its really graet to see nice comment from the author. Looks like author is implementing groundswell and is a critic in this world( roles given in groundswell) …