Friday, April 25, 2008

DGR Interview: Forrester’s Charlene Li On Groundswell Impact of Social Media

Many organizations are still trying to develop a strategy to tap into the growing popularity of social media. Charlene Li, a VP and principal
analyst at Forrester, has been one of leading experts for the past decade on how smart companies are using technologies like blogs, social networks, RSS and Wikis to drive awareness and sales.

Li has teamed with fellow Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff on a new book titled Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, which will be released next month by Harvard Business School Press.

Demand Gen Report recently caught up with Li to get further insights into some of the best practices, case studies which are featured in Groundswell, including how these strategies can and should be adapted for B2B marketers.

DGR: Groundswell talks about how different business functions can play a role in social media--with marketing talking and sales energizing by connecting enthusiastic customers. Ultimately do you think the conversations driven by social media will serve as a demand generation source for B2B marketers?

Li: Absolutely. One of my favorite examples is what Emerson Process does with their blog, They highlight industry experts inside the company as a way to show thought leadership and expertise. It also helps by creating content that’s then highly indexed by search engines. This pushes the prospect closer to contacting Emerson. They also track sources for leads, so are able to connect leads back to their blog, even on a contributing basis.

DGR: The book highlights examples of how some leading companies such as Best Buy, Intel and Bell Canada are using social media and Web 2.0 technologies like Wikis to empower employees. Do you think this internal use is more applicable to larger companies or can it be applied across a variety of models?

Li: Social technologies can be used successfully at any level of the organization, at any size of organization. We highlighted primarily well-known brands in the book, but these efforts typically started out with individuals and teams and then spread throughout the organization. For example, Josh and I used a wiki to research, coordinate, and manage the writing of the book. We’re also using a wiki to coordinate the marketing efforts between us, Forrester’s marketing and publicity team, and Harvard Business Press’ marketing and sales teams.

DGR: You provided a lot of great real-world examples of how companies are using social media to tap into the power of their customers. What are the differences between a B2C social media presence versus the opportunities for B2B marketers.

Li: B2B marketers often think they are marketing to companies – they aren’t. They are marketing to people at companies. In that way, B2B marketing in the groundswell looks a lot like B2C marketing, just at a smaller scale. In fact, I believe that B2B marketers have an advantage in the groundswell – the people you are trying to reach are inclined to have a relationship with you because they want to be listened to, be supported, and embraced because they see a direct correlation and benefit back to their businesses.

DGR: The book mentions that there are so few role models in B2B, why do you think B2B has trailed and are there any other good examples of B2B groundswell beyond the ones mentioned in the book?

Li: Because of typically longer sales cycles, marketing in B2B tends to be focused on sales support and promotion, rather than having a direct conversation and dialog with customers – after all, that’s the job of sales. So it’s a new skill that B2B marketers need to learn. That said, there is usually a natural community of people in any vertical targeted by B2B marketers. For example, retailers have a common interest, common problems, common customers that you can potentially identify and address. That’s half the battle for B2C marketers – they never quite know when consumers are in the mood to buy a product.

DGR: Groundswell makes the point that social media is not just about technology, and emphasizes that technology should not be the first part of formulating a social strategy. How important is technology though and can companies differentiate their social presence by being more innovative with their use of new technologies?

Li: New technologies can definitely be a differentiator, but it’s not going to be of much use unless it’s deployed in a coherent, strategic way. All too often, we find companies enamored with the latest “shiny object” technology, and deploy it quickly. Instead, companies should think first about what they want to achieve, and then the right technologies to deploy. We’ve found one of the most powerful –and overlooked – technologies to be (drum roll, please)….discussion forums. My favorite example of this is TiVo, who tapped into an existing community at, which is run on old fashioned forums. The key difference – TiVo is participating in that community – which it doesn’t own or control – in a significant way. Most companies don’t participate at all in the forums they host themselves, let alone external forums. That’s the bigger challenge – deciding what to do.

DGR: A lot of B2B marketers view a blog as key part to being part of the conversation. Is that enough and what other steps or guidelines would you suggest a marketer consider before going forward with a blog?

Li: A blog can be a very powerful tool in your social strategy arsenal. But it’s a tool, not a strategy. Treat it accordingly and start with a strategy, then decide if a blog can support it. Here’s an example: A company came to us asking about setting up a blog, and it turned out they really wanted to support their customers, who had a wide variety of customer service issues. A blog can address these issues one at a time, and serve as a useful archive, but in looking at the diversity and number of requests, we recommended that the company start first with a discussion forum, and link it tightly with the blog. The blogger would write about trends he spotted in the forums, and also send people to the forums to discuss a specific topic.

DGR: Groundswell talks about the "collaborative, fluid world" that will foster over the next 10 years. How do you think that will change the world of marketing and sales? Do you anticipate customers having a more active role in product development, for example, and do you see a need for even more personalized marketing?

Li: Marketing will change tremendously because you will need to be engaged wherever your customers and prospects are. That means you can’t limit your engagement to marketing channels – marketing will take place with every single potential customer engagement point. That fundamentally changes the notion of a “channel” that can be targeted and bought. As such, you need to personalize marketing, not in terms of 1 to 1, but in terms of engagement. It’s more akin to “personal” marketing, where your most active, engaged customer is participating with you in driving sales, providing support, and offering product development ideas.