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April 25, 2008

Economies of scale in the very personal groundswell

by Josh Bernoff

There’s a fundamental contradiction at the heart of groundswell strategy.

We’ve told you that it’s a big error to treat everyone in the groundswell as if they were the same. That’s why we find the beehive metaphor inappropriate. People’s contributions are as different as they are.

On the other hand, corporate development for the last 50 years, at least, has been an ongoing search for efficiency. Mass production means cranking out the same product a hundred thousand times at a high degree of quality. Advertising succeeds by giving the same message to everybody. Customer support representatives read from the same script, because the company can’t treat employees as interchangeable unless they treat customers the same way.

As a result, to many of our corporate clients, groundswell strategy seems like a step backwards. “You want us to deal with people as individuals?” they say. “We spent the last 30 years computerizing everything so we can avoid just that!” 

Here’s the secret. When you start a groundswell project, you will be treating people as individuals. But very soon, you’ll be able to get economies of scale. How? By enlisting those same customers.

For example, Dell told us (the story’s in Chapter 8 of Groundswell) that when they started their most recent support forum, 1999, they knew they’d need moderators. They pulled 30 support reps off the phones and converted them into forum moderators. Those support reps answered questions online, just as they had been on the phone.

Already, Dell was getting more efficiencies, since each answer could be read by dozens or hundreds of other people searching for it on their support forum.

Now, five years later, the support forum is many times larger than it was then. And the number of moderators is no longer 30. It’s five. And that’s because the members of the community are moderating it themselves. 

It’s the same in marketing applications. You seek out influencers – bloggers or key people in discussion forums. You connect with them, treat them as important. And they spread your messages into forums that echo and react to those messages, hundreds of times.

Cymfony monitors brand chatter. But the result isn’t just a number – it’s sentiment, together with specific posts you want to pay attention to. MotiveQuest does the same along dozens of dimensions. You don’t have to deal with individuals, but you can, if you determine there are some who deserve your attention.

So as you seek corporate scale economies in groundswell applications, remember these principles.

  1. As applications grow, economies appear. Seek them out. You’ll need them to deal with a huge application.
  1. Use members of the community to moderate, regulate, and manage the community. It makes them feel good, and it saves you time. This is how Wikipedia became so huge. Every discussion forum and Facebook group has people like this – recruit them and empower them. (And they nearly always work for free!)
  1. Use technology where possible. Visible Technologies finds the influencers in your market. Salesforce.com’s idea software lets you turn your customers into an innovation engine. Vendors are springing up all over to solve these problems – paying them is cheaper than hiring people.
  1. Don’t avoid the exceptions, seek them out. You’ll learn more from them than from the “masses” – they’re the creative ones. They can make the most trouble, or generate the most positive energy, depending on how you treat them.

This is just a start, but you get the idea. Feel free to add your own scale principles in the comments.


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Tom O'Brien

One more scale principle - see where the energy is and feed into that. For example if there is a vibrant community already raging - don't build one - figure out how to become a valuable member of the existing community.

Also - read Groundswell on my (very delayed) plane trip yesterday - and I'm going to post a review - for now, this picture is in my decks:



Blake Cahill

Josh - appreciate the mention of Visible Technologies. Finding influencers is important but of equal and greater significance is the process of conversation facilitation (naturally in a transparent fashion) that organizations have with these influencers. Conversation must be conducted by brand passionate’s and/or SME's in order to have a meaningful contribution. Otherwise, it just falls flat. This is one of the reasons why Dell and others have been so successful with respect to social media engagement – it’s genuine, personal, engaging, contributory, and helpful. Templating engagement just doesn't work - organizations need to personalize their interactions and add value to the conversation. To your point - people are not bees!!

Blake Cahill

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