Mad Men in the Groundswell? I don't think so.

Perhaps one of the reasons I like social media so much is because it seems to go against the very foundation of traditional marketing practices. Reading Forrester Research’s “Groundswell” you almost feel like you’re reading a self-help book for how to be a good friend rather than a book on how to launch a successful social media strategy. Succeeding at social media is all about being authentic, patient, flexible, a good listener, humble, and collaborative (I’m not making this up–that list is lifted straight from the conclusion of the book).

My madman avatar making a presentation on how to adapt traditional marketing to social media.

An illustration of my Mad Men avatar making a presentation on how to adapt traditional marketing to social media.

Contrast this with AMC’s portrayal of traditional advertising through their hit series Mad Men and you’ll understand why social media has old-school marketers in a tizzy. Don Draper is the king of advertising at the New York marketing powerhouse at the “Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency.” He knows best and confidently convinces clients of the right strategy, dazzles execs with daring designs, and woos women with his debonaire style and poise.

Don Draper wouldn’t last a minute in today’s social media market. For one, his credibility would be shot as soon as a blogger revealed his dirty little secret that he is able to hide from his clients, colleagues, friends, and even his wife. In the world of social media, often your efforts to hide something make a story blow up as a bigger scandal than if you had let the information go public yourself. Take Digg Founder Kevin Rose’s decision to remove a link to a blog detailing the copyrighted processing key code to HD-DVDs. The community fought back. In a matter of days the code was posted on more than 3,000 sites. The fact that Kevin had removed the link became the news. Kevin gave up, and blogged about his decision. The next day, there were 605 news stories about the incident.

Don would also have to learn that before you can be successful in the world of social technology (what Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff call “the groundswell”), you have to be willing to fail big and keep your plan flexible. It’s important to focus on the relationships and the conversation you are provoking in your community more than on the shiny new tools you are using. You can’t get enamored with new technology without first finding a way that it fits into your overall strategy and meets a specific need of your community.

Why do I get the feeling that Joan would have understood the groundswell better than her male colleagues?

Why do I get the feeling that Joan would have understood the groundswell better than her male colleagues?

Li and Bernoff recommend working to understand your audience before doing anything to engage them. It is is essential to understand how your targeted audience participate in the groundswell – are they creating content, commenting on existing content, reading content only, or disconnected completely (and note that according to Forrester’s latest research, 18 percent of U.S. internet users want nothing to do with social media). They recommend starting with a POST Method — considering the people you hope to reach, your objectives and how you will measure them, your end-game strategy and then finally, when all other factors have been well determined: the technology.

Also unlike the self-absorbed branding practices of Mad Men’s heyday, the groundswell will see through bullhorn brand broadcasting in an instant. Social marketing has to be more subtle and integrated into a product the people find value in. This explains an increase in product placement on sites, TV shows, movies etc. The groundswell is savvy to the in-your-face marketing that brings Don Draper his glory. If the people sense you are out to sell something, they will go elsewhere. Sites like do this seamlessly–they sell Tampax and Always in a non-obtrusive manner while providing American pre-teens a space to have real conversations and just be themselves.

Finally, Don would need to understand that part of being successful in the groundswell is not just asking for people’s opinions because you want them to see yours. You have to put the community’s contributions to good use. Bell Canada does this well with their community tool ID-ah! The community allows employees to suggest improvements, then vote for their favorites. The top-voted ideas are then implemented–showing employees that the online community is more than just a place to vent.

So Don, if you or any of your contemporaries are out there, remember that social media marketing is nothing like advertising forty years ago. Today it’s all about provoking great conversation, showing the community you are what you say you are, and truly listening to what others have to say. If you do that, the groundswell will reward you.

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