Charlene Li on Flaming Laptops, Sleeping Technicians, and the Streisand Effect

Fast Interview: The author talks about why power is shifting from companies to people and why trying to stop it is like “trying to take pee out of a pool.”


Good morning, boss. Here’s the situation: Bloggers are circulating photos of one of our products bursting into flames. A video of one of our service personnel sleeping on the job is becoming a smash hit on YouTube. And remember that cease-and-desist order we sent last week? Well, somebody posted it on the Internet, and it’s gotten more hits than any of our marketing campaigns. Welcome to the brave new world of the social Web, says Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research. In her new book, Groundswell, Li and co-author Josh Bernoff describe how the world has been transformed by social technologies and how companies can cope with an atmosphere where they no longer control their own brands. In this interview, Li explains why companies might want to hire some good bloggers, why sending in the flaks and lawyers isn’t such a good tactic anymore (are you listening, Barbra Streisand?), and why at the end of the day companies should think people, not technology.


What do you mean by the term groundswell?

A groundswell is this social trend that’s happening because people have social technology in their hands and they can connect with each other and get the things they need from each other rather than from companies and institutions. Companies are feeling out of control because people have this power.

So imagine you’re the CEO of a company and your brand is getting beat up by people posting embarrassing videos. What do you do?

Hopefully, before it’s even done that you know what people are saying about your brand. Let’s say it’s Comcast and your technician has fallen asleep on someone’s couch what do you do? You get out there and put out a rebuttal: This is not acceptable. I recently did a Google search on Comcast and that video was number eight. It has lasting impact. When bad things happen like that, there’s only so much you can do to contain it. Could they have done some parody of it? Who knows. But the thing they could not do is turn it off. The first thing a CEO wants to know is, how do I get that off YouTube? How do I send them a cease and desist order? You can’t.

What’s an example of a company that responded effectively to one of these crises?


What Dell did with their laptops catching on fire. They launched their blog right after that. Initially they were not talking about it, but then they came out with a blog post that said simply “flaming notebook.” They talked about the fact they were aware of it, were checking into it, and linked to pictures of it catching on fire. It wasn’t like they could sweep it under the rug and ignore it. So they said, “Let’s deal with this head on.” They went on to manage that whole battery recall process through the blog.

What’s a good example of somebody that screwed up their response?

In the book, we talk about Barbra Streisand and her house. There was a couple that was photographing the California coast. They put up all the pictures and one of them happened to have Barbra Streisand’s house. Her lawyer sent a cease and desist letter saying take it down. So they put that letter up and the letter went all over the place. Now more people know about her house and can see pictures of it than if she had just let it alone. It’s called the “Streisand Effect.” It’s akin to trying to take pee out of the swimming pool.

In engaging the groundswell, you urge companies to follow four stages in the acronym POST: People, Objectives, Strategy, and Technology. In other words, people first, technology last. Do many companies get this backwards?

They absolutely do. Companies will come to us and say, “We need a blog.” Ok, great. Why do you want a blog? They go, “Well, our competition has a blog. Or my CEO wants a blog.” It’s rarely with a good understanding of what kind of relationship they want to build with the people they’re trying to reach. Focus on the relationship first.


And maybe they find out they don’t really need a blog.

Yeah, it happens all the time. I have one great example where somebody came in and said, “We really want to support our customers and want to have a blog.” As they talked about this, I said, “you don’t need a blog, you need a good old fashioned discussion forum.” The most overlooked tool in the Web 2.0 arsenal is the discussion forum.

When summarizing how to respond to the groundswell, you say that the point is not necessarily what to do but how to be. What’s the distinction?

What do you stand for? That is the foundation of any relationship. If you don’t have a good sense of who you are, it’s hard for people to have a relationship with you.

How will social networking look five years from now?


Instead of going to a certain place like Facebook or MySpace to be social with your friends, your friends will go to wherever you need them to be. If I’m reading a book review on Amazon, I’ll be able to see my friends’ reviews — even if those reviews are written on a blog someplace else. There will definitely be platforms, but the key thing is they won’t be walled gardens.

How are existing business models falling short when it comes to marketing in this new world?

Most people, when they go into these social networking channels, think of it as another marketing channel. They treat it as, “Okay, here’s another place we can put banner ads to drive people to our site” rather than saying, “How can I build virality into this?” They’re not personal conversations. When somebody reaches out to you personally, you’re much more likely to engage, to internalize the brand and therefore become a spokesperson for it.

How do you make that personal connection when there are literally millions of people out there?

You can use viral videos on Facebook. It could be like what Ernst & Young, the accounting firm, is doing on Facebook. They’re recruiting students on college campuses, so Facebook is a natural place for them to be. They send out advertisements targeting various campuses and encouraging students to come to the site. There’s a discussion board and a lot of comments on the wall. They can ask a question and somebody from E&Y answers them. The people doing it are the top people who run North American recruitment for Ernst & Young. That’s very personal.


Where do you see groundswell going in the years ahead?

Social networks will be like air. The groundswell will be anywhere and everywhere you want it to be — even in places you don’t want it to be as a marketer in your company. The message we want to get across is that the groundswell is inevitable. You can ignore it at your own peril. You can acknowledge it and play nicely with it. Or you can choose to thrive in it. Companies who can put aside their fear of losing control and tap into the power of that groundswell will really benefit from it.