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Monday, February 14, 2011

The power of social networking (and grass roots research)

Sometimes, the best business lessons come from outside your own industry category. Indeed, sometimes they come from outside the business world, completely.

Last summer, the Washington Post revealed a story—two years in the making—that explored the vast intelligence resources of the U.S. government. The project, referred to as Top Secret America, was in many ways a scathing indictment of the bureaucracy that the intelligence community had become, in terms of size, cost, and multi-agency redundancy. But politics aside, there was—to me—at least one very important implication within the report: Our intelligence services had placed too much emphasis on gathering information from and about foreign governments, and not effort had been place in gathering intelligence at the grass-roots level.

I have been reminded about this issue as the recent events in Egypt have unfolded. Many world leaders—even recently—saw Egypt as perhaps the most stable of Arab governments in the Middle East. But inspired by the grass-roots uprising in Tunisia which started on December 17, 2010 and ended, essentially, on January 21, 2011, the Egyptian uprising was even more swift. Although unrest may have been long-held, it could be argued that the wide-spread, active revolution in Egypt began on January 25th, and effectively succeeded last Friday (February 11th) with President Hosni Mubarek’s departure from Cairo.

Here’s the point: Who saw all of this coming, as recently as a month ago? Not many.

That’s what happens when you pay attention to “reliable sources,” instead of people.

Implications: If you were only paying attention to world leaders or other traditional reconnaissance resources, you couldn’t have predicted the way the past thirty days would play out. The primary influences of this event were not walking in the halls of a foreign capitol or talking in the privacy of a presidential palace; they were walking the streets in and around Tahrir Square… and sharing their thoughts in blogs and on Facebook.

Are you paying too much attention to the “leadership” of your industry (trade magazines, industry veterans, and other experts)? These can be important sources, but neither as accurate nor as important as boots-on-the-ground observation and communication with consumers.

What if you could put all of your customers in a room, tell them to ‘Talk amongst yourselves,” and then listen-in!? You can, if you monitor sites like PoliPulse, TweetStats, and Google Trends… or other search- and social-monitoring resoures.

You would know an advantage that even some of the biggest governments… er, companies… have ignored or overlooked.

For more insight as to the timeline of recent Middle East events, see this synopsis from MSN News (click to link). For more about how social networking was a weapon in these events in Egypt, see this story from today’s New York Times (click to link).

Mike Anderson, for the Elm Street Economics consumer trends blog. A service of The Center for Sales Strategy, Inc.

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