Why Groundswell Is Still My Favorite Social Strategy Book

…Vacation…time at the beach, and time to catch up on reading…At this more relaxing time of year, it’s interesting to note that of all the business books vying for my attention on the ol’ bookshelf at home, I’m using my free time to re-read a book, which I read almost cover to cover, a year and a half ago, when I began blogging and tweeting.

That book was one of the earliest books I read on social media, and for me, it’s still one of the best, especially if you’re looking for guidance on not just how to get started, but on why getting started is so important, in the first place.

The book remains unique among the many books available on new media because it is written for the entire enterprise, not just for one discipline. It shows how relationships with customers are always more important than tools, and it provides Forrester’s tried and tested process for developing (and evaluating) social strategies.

In its concluding chapters, it describes the internal corporate transformation, so necessary for attaining social business objectives as well as the individual mindset that helps ensure success. All this–with numerous case studies, relevant examples, and supporting ROI data, presented in a highly readable, conversational style.

That book, of course, is Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s now classic Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies.

The Groundswell, Defined

Twitter. Facebook. LinkedIn. If you’re still wondering about the groundswell, what Li and Bernoff  describe as “a spontaneous movement of people using online tools to connect” (p. x), then this is the book for you. So, exactly what is the groundswell?

Simply put, the groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other instead of from companies…The groundswell phenomenon is not a flash in the pan. The technologies that make it work are evolving at an ever-increasing pace, but the phenomenon itself is based on people acting on their eternal desire to connect. It has created a permanent, long-lasting shift in the way the world works. This book exists to help companies deal with the trend, regardless of how the individual technologies pieces change. We call this groundswell thinking (x).

How the Book Is Organized

Groundswell is organized in three parts:

  • Part I: Defines the social trend known as the groundswell and describes the basic technologies (such as blogs, social networks|virtual worlds, wikis and open source, forums|ratings|reviews, tagging, and rss|widgets) in the groundswell, according to how people use them and what they mean for companies. It also describes a tool that allows people in business to examine and then create strategies based on the groundswell tendencies of specific groups of people (see Chapter 3, The Social Technographics Profile).
  • Part II: Defines the four-step POST process for creating strategies—people, objectives, strategy, and technology—and reveals why starting with technologies is a mistake. It further defines the five primary objectives for groundswell strategy:
    Listening to the Groundswell (Research). “Explains how to use the groundswell for research purposes, with tools like private communities and brand monitoring” (p. xii).
    Talking to the Groundswell (Marketing). “Shows how to use the groundswell for marketing and PR, with techniques like user-generated video, blogs, and communities” (p. xii).
    Energizing the Groundswell (Sales). “Illustrates a key strategy—charging up your best customers and enabling them to recruit their peers, through techniques such as ratings, reviews, and communities” (p. xii).
    Helping the Groundswell Support Itself (Support). Provides a strategy for saving money and gaining insight by helping your company’s customers support each other, through for example, community forums and wikis.
    Embracing the Groundswell (Development). “Explains how to accomplish the most powerful goal of all—including your customers as collaborators in your company” (p. xii).
  • Part III: Describes how the groundswell spreads with a customer-centric organization and provides steps for organizations to prepare for a transformation. It provides strategies for nurturing the internal groundswell, including internal social networks, collaborating on wikis, and contributing to idea exchanges. It concludes with a scenario on the future of the groundswell, as well as steps on how to develop the right attitude for groundswell thinking.

Highly Recommended Reading, Especially for Enterprise 2.0

I’ve been noticing a bit of a backlash, on the word “strategy” these days, in the social media community. It’s becoming a catch-all phrase, with lots of folks claiming to be strategists, in the same way that a year and a half ago, everyone was a social media expert. However, if we go back and review Groundswell— for many, still the bible on social strategy—we are reminded of what developing a strategy is really all about…

Social Strategy, Defined

According to Li and Bernoff, a social strategy is a measurable plan for meeting objectives, on how a company wants to change its relationship with customers.

Changing Relationships through Social Technologies

Does your company understand how it wants to change its relationship with customers, through social technologies? What are your company’s objectives? Are you interested in listening to, talking to, energizing, helping, or embracing customers?  How do these goals tie back to the way your customers want to engage with you?

Post Method: A Process for Developing Strategies

Li and Bernoff provide the POST method (p. 67-68), a systematic framework for assembling your plan. Also valuable are the series of questions for evaluating new technologies (see The Groundswell Technology Test, p. 35).

Five Objectives for Groundswell Strategy

The chapters in Part II. Tapping the Groundswell, fully illustrate each of the five primary objectives for groundswell strategy, with compelling stories from the people who make the groundswell. Here, the authors take an inclusive approach, illustrating how groundswell thinking and objectives apply across the organization’s various disciplines.

These objectives are linked to existing business functions in your company (Research, Marketing, Sales, Support, and Development), “except that they’re far more engaged with customers and include more communication—especially communication that happens between customers” (p. 69).

Transforming Your Organization

Through Part III. The Groundswell Transforms, Li and Bernoff provide what may be the most useful strategy tips of all, with ways to nurture groundswell thinking, within your own organization.

The approach here seems especially relevant to Enterprise 2.0, and builds on the advice in the earlier section, “What about business-to-business?” which reminds readers that “businesspeople are people, too” (p. 70).

In business to business settings, picking an objective first is still the best practice. You can listen to, talk to, energize, support, or embrace your business customers—businesspeople—just as you would consumers. And if you don’t start with a clear objective, you’re just as likely to go wrong (p 71).

The Groundswell, as a State of Mind

Li and Bernoff conclude by providing tips on not so much what to do, but rather on how to be; that is, they describe how to develop the right attitude for making the transition to groundswell thinking. These principles (p. 240-241) are what make Li and Bernoff’s book so timeless, and well worth re-reading, before you develop any social strategy or choose your next tool:

  1. “Never forget that the groundswell is about person-to person activity. This means you must be ready to connect to people you haven’t met.”
  2. “Be a good listener.”
  3. “Be patient.”
  4. “Be opportunistic. Start small and build on success. Get moving when you get a green light or have a great idea.”
  5. “Be flexible.”
  6. “Be collaborative.”
  7. “Be humble.”

Related Links

About This Blog: Copyright Information

Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog

A Collaborative Writing Model for the Social Web


In my last post How to Deploy Social Media ~ a Call to Arms, I promised to explore the activities and social media tools that as a technical communicator, I can use at each stage of the product development life cycle to collaborate with members of my user community, as we develop audience-centered content for the social web.

The stages that I am using as a writing framework are “awareness, attention, engagement, execution, and extension” (as described in Chris Brogan’s post: Pirate Moves-From Awareness to Extended Action.)  I am also using as a model the five stages that apply to almost all software usage:  unaware, interested, first-time use, regular use, and passionate use”(see Joshua Porter’s Designing for the Social Web: The Usage Lifecycle).

Both Brogan’s “continuum” of relationship-building stages” and Porter’s “Usage Life-Cycle” mirror the five traditional stages of the writing process: prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and submitting. In the sections that follow, I interweave these related processes, providing specific examples of how I would use social media tools for collaboration, at each stage of the life-cycle. I also incorporate examples of how Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff used social media tools in their collaborative writing process, drafting the BusinessWeek Bestseller, Groundswell.


According to Brogan, “If you’re selling the coolest software [or Peg’s note: software documentation] in the world, but no one knows that, how are you going to sell it? [or Peg’s note: get someone to follow your instructions?] What comes first is awareness.”  For Porter, this is the Unaware stage in the usage life-cycle: “This isn’t so much a stage as it is a starting point.”

Here are some ways technical communicators can use social media tools to increase awareness of their documentation initiatives and to encourage collaboration with their primary and secondary audiences:

  • In addition to traditional Release Notes (the documentation users are most likely to refer to), use podcast or video to highlight information about new features, guidelines for use, inter-operability issues, operational notes and restrictions, and software problem reports.
  • Use podcast or video to supplement the How-To Use this Doc Set (a guide that often accompanies lengthier doc sets).
  • Use a blog or forum to make users aware of legacy docs and to solicit feedback for improvements, recommendations on how to organize the doc set, and input on the preferred medium for delivering online help.
  • Use a combination of social media tools (including the blog, wiki, forum, mini social network, and twitter) to complete an audience analysis & gain more detailed understanding of primary and secondary audiences, as well as the purpose of all content deliverables.
  •  Distribute a documentation plan, via a wiki, so community members can anticipate exactly what deliverables you plan on providing content for and can provide input on what types of content they would most prefer.
  • Welcome community members and ask for their help collaborating on content, by revising content via the wiki, adding new content, and helping to edit content.
  • Use Twitter to announce when you’ve posted any new content, podcasts, or video to your blog, forum, doc wiki, or company website.


Brogan describes the Attention stage as “a bit more than awareness. It means that people are giving you a little bit more of their time. They expect something back for this, be that entertainment, or a perception of value, or a sense of participation.” Porter describes this usage stage as ‘Interested: These people are interested in your product, but are not yet users. They have lots of questions about how it works and what value it provides.”

Here are some ways technical communicators can use social media tool to increase attention and participation from their content collaborators:

  • Post early outlines of the content and solicit feedback on the doc blog, wiki, and user forum.
  • Include “talk pages” parallel to each wiki page, where contributors discuss (and sometimes fight over) what ought to be included (Groundswell, p. 25).
  • Ask users for real-world examples or scenarios that they want the doc to help them solve.
  • Share any bookmarks, related to background research on the technology or product you are documenting, through social bookmarking sites. Authors Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, of Groundswell, used social bookmarking in this manner to share links about their research and book on Del.icio.us. [del.icio.us/the groundswell].
  • Ask your community members (reviewers and co-authors in the next two stages) to share their technology and product-related bookmarks, allowing them to become collaborators with the technical communicator, not just in the writing, but also in the research stage, of the writing process.


Engagement, to Brogan, is ‘the sustained interaction between you (or your product or brand or service) and your buyer [again for the technical communicator, the doc user]. Use tools to maintain two-way interactions. Look for ways to engage in a participatory way.’ For Porter, ‘First-Time Use’ involves “people using your software for the first time, a crucial moment in their progression.”

Here are some ways technical communicators can “capture, maintain, and manage collective knowledge” (Technical Communication in a Social Media World) and use social media tools to further engage their content collaborators:

  • Post complete drafts to the wiki and solicit comments.
  • Use discussion boards, based on primary & secondary audiences, as a way to discuss topic threads in greater detail. For example:  Intuit’s quickbookgroup.com forum for small business owners, using its QuickBooks product (Groundswell, p. 26).
    As Li and Bernoff suggest, provide users a place to provide tips, similar to www.ebaywiki.com. (Groundswell, p. 26).
    Collaborate with users to develop a glossary, for example: glossary.reuters.com (Groundswell, p. 26).


In the Execution stage, Brogan states “we’re talking about the actual event, or the purchase, or the delivery of information.” Porter describes this stage as “Regular Use”: “These people are those who use your software regularly and perhaps pay for the privilege.”

Here are some ways that technical communicators can use social media tools to execute their content delivery:

  • Incorporate all review comments from the community and post a completed draft to the doc wiki.
  • Transition into a more moderator-like role, facilitating as community members rewrite the content and directing members to appropriate content.
  • Organize content on the social web through tagging, enabling others to more easily locate the documentation. For example, when creating Groundswell, Li & Bernoff organized the web using delicious “to create a set of tags for each chapter, neatly organizing Web sites and articles we’d found.” [del.icio.us/the groundswell].
  • Use RSS and widgets to inform your community members of significant updates to the audience-centered content. According to Li and Bernoff, RSS and widgets “give people the ability to consume and process more social content” (Groundswell ,p. 32).


Chris Brogan describes Extension as “a way of moving from what happened to what happens next” and “the feeling that your buyer was part of something.” Porter calls this stage Passionate Use:  “These people are the ultimate goal: passionate users who spread their passion and build a community around your software.”

Here are some ways that technical communicators can use social media tools to extend their community-building efforts and to make an impact, not just on the next iteration of the content, but on improving the product:

  • Continue to revise and fine-tune the content, acting in a more editorial role.
  • Continue to use the blog, user forums, and doc wiki, as a place to receive documentation feed-back.
  • Actively solicit customer feedback through surveys and follow-up calls.
  • Complete usability tests of the doc with members of the community, showing the live testing process through podcasts, to heighten a sense of participation and investment in the product.
  • Report back to Product Management what documentation topics are most active on the social web and consider those as likely places to review, improve, or add-on to the product’s functionality.


In summary, the life-cycle approach for designing audience-centered content for the social web could work this way for technical communicators (or any collaborative writer):

  • During the Attention and Interest stages, convince community members to locate, follow, and contribute to the user instructions.
  • During the Engagement stage,”capture, maintain, and manage collective knowledge,”  enabling the community to rewrite the content later (see Technical Communication in a Social Media World).
  • During the Extension stage, reinforce passionate usage of both the content and more importantly, the product.
  • Though I propose these examples from the perspective of a technical communicator, the same life-cycle approach applies to most other software development disciplines and is the best framework for deploying social media in the large enterprise.

What are your thoughts on the collaborative activities that I propose for technical communicators, at each stage of the usage life-cycle? If you represent a different discipline, what social media tools would you use at each stage, as relates to your different goals? Would this collaborative writing approach still apply in agile development settings, where both the product and documentation are delivered by module, in short, iterative cycles?