Sunday, June 01, 2008

Groundswell and

I have to start this post by saying that the book Groundswell is the most important business (or book for business) I've read since I was first recommended Built To Last 10 years ago. Why? Because, like Built To Last, the insights are backed up by plenty of data, and written by authors who have clearly and intelligibly presented something really complex and distilled it into something even an internet newbie could understand. And what does all of this have to do with a defunct Gaming website? Well, friend, I'm here to tell you.

Back in 2000 I launched It was a design portal. A place where I aggregated thumbnails to some of the best-looking websites I came across. I was frustrated with using browser favorites, because I'd always end up searching endlessly through Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator favorites on my work or home computer only to find that the one link I wanted was on the other machine. Making my links web accessible turned out to be a great idea. I wasn't the only one doing it, but it turns out I was ahead of a big wave.

In addition to the thumbnails, had "blurbs" about design events, political views, and other odds and ends. Again, much like other design sites at the time. This was probably a few years before the term blog was invented. In an online interview I was once asked, "What the future of the web would be like?" My response essentially stated "Look at what designers are doing now online". This was probably in or around 2003.

Again, what does this have to do with the book Groundswell, or with As a web designer with an engineering background, I'm always on the lookout for practical solutions. For designers with web portals similar to mine, monetizing the web was the holy grail. We loved what we did, but we didn't know how to get paid for it, or how to describe it in a way that would make sense to anyone outside of our circle. This is what the Groundswell does within the first three chapters.

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff introduce a term called "Technographics" or the "Social Technographics Profile". In the book it's generally used to describe a group of people based on 6 web-centric parameters. There are Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators, and Inactives. Creators are netizens that produce sites and content on the web. Critics are the people who reply to those postings. There are a lot more of them. Collectors are people who aggregate information using web tools. For example using RSS feeds to collect news or blog entries, or using to collect links. Joiners like to be a part of a group and join social sites like LinkedIn or Facebook without necessarily contributing heavily. Spectators are what we used to call "loomers" or "vultures". They read everything, but don't really participate. Inactives are people who aren't involved with anything web-related.

Li and Bernoff move on to methodically describe what tools work best with which groups, what internal corporate groups are most likely to benefit from the results, and they support their data with tons of information from Forrester Research. They also explain when to use the tools, and provide technographic profiles by age, geography, and for some of the companies in the case studies they review. Not only this, but they put together really easy to understand ROI statements for an executive blog (p.112), a ratings and reviews tool (p.139), and a support forum (p.163). I can't remember putting so many dog ears in a book.

As a member of all of those categories through my involvement with, and with all of those years of pondering the monetization of blogs, portals, and widgets, etc. reading this book not only reaffirmed everything I'd experienced, but adds facts, figures, case studies, and most importantly thoughtfully written insight.

Now for the part. In 2001, I left an intranet developer position at Charles Schwab to join a startup called It was run by some friends who knew me from another startup, Stormnet, which ran two sites, Microstorm an ecommerce store for PC's and peripherals, and Stormlabs, a hardware review site (remember those names for later). The company was run by brothers Dennis and Lyle Fong. Dennis was the name. A gaming champion and a gifted presenter. Lyle was the brains. The concepts he introduced to me about the power of forums, and the gaming industry are all coming to pass. Unfortunately, both brothers were recently out of college, and had virtually no management experience, which is partly why the once 1+ Billion Dollar pre-IPO valuation of what would become GX Media is now only a historical note. I went back to Schwab after 5 months, and the company began it's first layoffs a month after.

What makes a part of this story, though, is
  1. There were a lot of Dell community case studies in the book.

  2. Media was the creator and host of Dell's forums

  3. Lyle Fong, now CEO of Lithium Technologies was quoted in the Groundswell.

One of the Dell case studies covered was their IdeaStorm website (Remember those names?). It just so happens that in my 5 months at back in 2001, my job as Design Director was to lead a team that would design the next version of the site. Fresh off of my tenure on Schwab's Rapid Application Development team, I decided to gather ideas for the new site in a company meeting then build an online application that would allow everyone in the company to rate the ideas...and do it in a week. The developer running the forums nearly flipped his lid, and angrily stated in our management meeting that it was impossible. My team, consisting of myself, Jennifer Forsythe and Derek Sakamoto (both still champions in my eyes) created the application in a week and a half (The combination of Photoshop, WinAmp, and new AMD chips caused all of our computers to crash causing the half week delay). The ideas were rated by everyone in the company, which provided us with both the ideal site feature set and a vote on the most-preferred design direction. Well, we didn't use the feature set, and along with a lot of other delayed decisions no answers were provided on what exactly we should do with the next version of the site.

7 years later it's interesting to read that the latest direction for Dell's community is the submission and rating of product ideas and features, aptly titled "IdeaStorm". Am I bitter? A little, but that was a long time ago. Now I work in an organization where online innovation and management skillset are reversed as compared to Gamers. As important as innovation is, I'd rather be a part of well-managed organization without innovation than in an innovative organization that's missing management experience. But I must say that if my current management knew now what the Fong brother's new then, and what Charlene Li, and Josh Bernoff have presented in Groundswell, I'd have the best job in the world.


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