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May 04, 2010

Groundswell: what's in a name?

Coverby Josh Bernoff

I continue to be amazed that people are still finding Groundswell relevant, two years after we published it in April of 2008.

I've watched in delight as people have adopted the name as we intended -- to refer to the whole constellation of social technology phenomena, from Amazon reviews to YouTube. A twitter search on "groundswell" reveals people still discovering it, debating it, and just internalizing it as a word in the social context. Groundswell is also now pretty well established as a term for an uprising attended by social phenomena, for example, a groundswell of outrage or a groundswell of support. Cool.

Even as I watch this, I know there are uses of the word that would get a reaction from me and my employer, Forrester Research. For example, if you tried to publish a book called "Groundswell, Part Deux," you'd hear from us. And if you created a "Groundswell strategy workshop" we'd certainly have to talk. Why? Because you would be confusing people, purporting to deliver on intellectual property that we own.

One person you'd think would be tempted is Charlene Li, since she wrote the book with me. But the copyright belongs to Forrester Research, and Charlene is both smart and reasonable. She is certainly prominent in the social media world, but after leaving Forrester she never promoted herself with the word Groundswell, beyond identifying herself as coauthor, and she is building her own intellectual property.

I'm writing about this because I'm very interested in your reaction to something that happened recently around the word Groundswell. IIR is putting on an event this week in Boston, called "Social Media & Community 2.0 Strategies." The people running the show invited Charlene, and started billing her talk as "What is the next Groundswell?" They also invited three past winners of the Forrester Groundswell Awards to take part in a main-stage panel. Check the Web site: Groundswell is a significant part of the promotion of this event, and they never asked our permission for that.

I volunteered to moderate the panel of award winners, which I'm doing. I feel very close to the people who have won the awards, having participated in the judging, and I feel I can do a good job of helping them to reveal what has made them special.

But I remain ambivalent about the outright use of Groundswell to promote this event, which we do not sponsor or participate in beyond my appearance. I thought a nice solution would be to ask them to help me out with a free event ticket for a colleague as a favor in return, but they were steadfast that they wouldn't do that. Apparently what we own, they can use, but what they own, they won't share.

So I put it to you, gentle readers. What's the right response? Embrace it as free promotion? Draw a line in the sand and say "don't step over this or you'll have to deal with us?" With the rampant borrowing and repurposing of content online, this is a real issue, not just for us, but for any company that owns any kind of brand or media. I'm very curious about your perspective on it.


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This is an interesting question, Josh. According to my Webster's dictionary (yep, still have printed one) a groundswell is, "a sudden gathering of force, as of public opinion." And this dictionary was published before your book, so you didn't actually come up with the word. So, I guess the question is whether it's OK for IIR to use a word that's been in use in the English language for some time in publicity materials for their event. I don't pretend to know the law, but you might have trouble proving that they are misappropriating intellectual property from you, Charlene or Forrester, especially with both you and Charlene participating in the event. That may seem like implicit approval. You would have had a better chance of getting concessions from IIR if Forrester had refused to allow you to participate unless the publicity materials were changed. But what you asked for was an opinion, so on that note: I think IIR's use of "groundswell" in the social media community could be inferred as an extension of your intellectual property and, even if it isn't defensible in court, it's a shady way to do business.

Josh Bernoff

jgraziani: Hey, we're not trying to claim we invented the word.

It's just people who are explicitly referring to the book that get my attention.

Bruce Kasrel

I am not seeing the issue here: Forrester does not own the word Groundswell and they are not explicilty representing themselves as owners of the Groundswell marks. This would be like some conference where Sandra Bullock and Denzell Washington spoke at and they said a conversation with Oscar Winners. As long as they don't make it seem like they are the Motion Picture academy or endorsed by them, then it is fair use in my eyes. There might be a legal interpretation that is different than this but I would tred lightly on using the big stick unless it is a really blatent misuse otherwise don't be surprised if the Grounswell comes back to bite you...

Josh Bernoff

Bruce, thanks for the comments.

It's an interesting example you use, because in fact, the academy awards people DO police use of the word "Oscar" in this context.

P.S. This blog post is my version of "treading lightly"


Are they referring to the book? Or is it more that the book created a name for something that exists beyond it?

I'm having trouble communicating what I'm trying to say but I would guess that there are people who believe they are participating in the groundswell that has been occurring over the last few years and may not even know your book exists.

Maybe, to some, a groundswell is more of a movement that was already happening regardless of whether a book was written about it. I realize you may have put a name to that movement but has it reached a point where it goes beyond what was written?


embrace it and be thankful.

Bruce Kasrel

My point about the Oscar example was when it is used in conjunction with a person, not the show or the awards per se. Agreed that AMPAS would not let anyone use Oscars in an overarching context, but it is OK to attach to a prior winner. Here is an example I pulled from the web:
After looking at the site, I actually agree with you that the home page layout and use of Groundswell does cross the line. When it is just listed as a title for your talk, then I don’t see an issue (you are part of the talk so a reasonable person would assume you are OK with it). When it is up leveled to some sort of section of the whole show (as it appears on the home page), then it does imply association with the show organizer. In this case, this is use of Oscar in the broader context and would be a no no.
The other issue with Charlene seems pretty hard to call infringement. She is a co-author of the book and would be hard to say they are really stepping on your toes here. Here the Oscar analogy applies at the person level and thus is fair use.
I guess this is an academic discussion at this point since the show is going on now, but an interesting topic none the less. BTW, the Twitter hash tag for #groundswell is obviously not under your control as it tracks some sort of religious meet-up.

Jim Flanigan

Josh, just like every other brand today, you may own it legally, but you no longer control it. Control is at odds with the Groundswell. Embrace it. Heck, encourage it.

Pat Bannan

Josh- I have to say that you (and Forrester since you are their employee) really put a low value on the whole concept of "Groundswell" as some sort of intellectual property when you offered to exchange it for a free ticket to the event.


There is the brand "Groundswell" and there is the word "groundswell." The brand has a preference, image, benefits and organization behind it. The word has a definition. You are worrying about the brand, don't. People get the distinction. As you know in social media, the more you protest against brand reference/usage, the more stimulate negative word-of-mouth. To name a seminar using the word "groundswell" is not bad-aren't people currently asking (in the media, on blogs, etc.) "What is the next Facebook"? What is the next Twitter?" it provides a frame of reference-a frame of reference built off your brand-not a bad thing! Additionally, hearing the name might remind people they don't have the baseline data for the seminar and buy the book in preparation-or after!

Barak Kassar

Josh, larger question aside for a sec, I agree with Pat Bannan's comment. If you guys really put a value on this, you pegged it pretty low by pegging it to a conference ticket---regardless of the conference. You also sent(d) a mixed message (likely expressing the ambivalence you acknowledge) by showing up as a moderator. Now, looking at the bigger question. You wrote the book, you have the blog and you rode and will continue to ride the wave. The weird and wonderful world of web search will ensure that you/Forrerster will accrue value from others using the word for a long time --- and in the meantime you are starting a new wave with a new book! I think you have the model and the platform. Don't worry. Be happy :-)

Dave Briggs

It's annoying but I think it's something you just have to live with I suspect. Them not giving you a ticket to bring a colleagues along sucks. But looking at their website, it's not like the word Groundswell is everywhere on it, it's fairly discrete, so could be worse.

Like others say, people who attend the conference who then google the word groundswell will end up here - happy days.

Josh Bernoff

The variety in responses here is fascinating.

Pat: wasn't exchanging our IP for the cost of a ticket. Just was hoping that the conference would treat me nicer after what they chose to do. Nope.

I guess this is where I come down. Next time, I hope the company asks for our collaboration rather than just plowing ahead heedless.



My advice is to embrace this as wonderful free promotion of your insightful book, and the natural progression of the Groundswell itself. You coined a phrase that so aptly described the phenomenon that it will eventually become so widespread no one could possibly police the unauthorized use of the terminology.

Go with the flow, and consider yourself the creator of something historical and extraordinary.


Mauricio Tortosa

Josh, it is super relevant you ask this. I think you should consider it is free promotion as long as people give you credit for the Groundswell fair use.

Chris Herbert

Hey Josh, I wouldn't worry about it. Forrester, in my opinion, is my analyst firm of choice and your book is the best I've read and is more relevant now then it was two years ago.

My advice is for you to continue building your Groundswell brand by doing exactly what you are doing with this blog post. Being open and direct about what you think and asking for input from your community/readers.

Keep developing your IP and thought leadership around what Groundswell means today and what it is evolving into.

Continue to lead the pack dude.


loved the book, but i must say - its Charlotte, NC (page 215)

Josh Bernoff

Wow, friendraiser, I'm embarrassed. First time anyone has pointed out that error in 2+ years. Sorry to insult a whole city full of people!

Feyzi Bagirov

Great book! I enjoyed the methodological approach to the social media marketing described in it!
I bought a hard copy, and I am wondering if it is possible to get a pdf version of the book from you guys?

Thanks, Feyzi

Josh Bernoff

@feyzi We're not distributing the book in PDF form.

Merv Adrian

Hey, Josh - I think the conference organizers are off base in not acknowledging Forrester in their verbiage, especially since they are referring to the awards, which are a Forrester thing. And to refuse admission to a colleague (I'm assuming an analyst, who in most cases ought to be able to request media access anwyay) is churlish and petty. That said, it IS more promotion for a Forrester branded meme, and anyone who digs in will naturally be pointed back to Forrester. I think you win.

ronald van den hoff

Let them use it. When I google (Netherlands/Europe) 'groundswell' the first page is 'yours', so spread the word and let others do it!

Ezra Adams

That sounds like a huge amount of free publicity. I'd offer to sell them a copy of the book for every conference attendee for pennies over cost. Set up a special online forum just for those conference attendees to visit and add their comments. Promote the session in my own materials (just like you did).

If a product that's two years old is still getting this attention (rightfully so, I think), I'd continue advancing the title as a Brand. I don't think you'll find bad publicity from this.

You are right, though - their treatment of the intellectual property is interesting, and probably worth some thought for future implications. I think that it says something about the event & its organizers that they didn't address those issues.

It certainly says something to me - that my impression of Groundswell as an important work was correct, and I will do well to implement its ideas and watch its creators for further insights.

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