Charlene Li

Social Media and Technologies Thinker

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Charlene Li: Social media and technologies thinker
Image of Charlene Li supplied rights-cleared by the Chartered Management Institute, 2015.

Charlene Li is a thought leader on the use of social media and emerging technologies. She is the author of three influential business books and the founder of a consulting firm, the Altimeter Group, advising businesses on the impact of disruptive social technologies on their strategies, organisational thinking and marketing efforts.


Life and career

Charlene Li was immersed in the internet from its early days of use as a business tool. Following her attainment of an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1993, she developed online advertising strategy for the San Jose Mercury News before moving on to create the online publishing division of the Community Newspaper Company, putting 120 local newspapers online for the first time.

She joined international research and advisory firm Forrester Research in 1999, progressing to the role of vice president and principal analyst by the time of her departure in 2008. Her research included search marketing, social networks, digital marketing, online recruitment and portals. It was here that she worked with Josh Bernoff, who was the co-author of her first book Groundswell: winning in a world transformed by social technologies. The book, which went on to become a bestseller, focussed on how businesses could respond to the challenge of an increasing number of customers sharing information and opinions online. It received many accolades in business publishing, including the American Marketing Association Foundation’s Berry-AMA Book Prize for best marketing book of 2009.

Her second book, Open leadership: how social technology can transform the way you lead, built on some of the ideas from Groundswell and focussed on the leadership skills needed to manage emerging technologies by letting go of control but still avoiding chaos.

Key theories

Groundswell and the Social Technographics ladder

In the book Groundswell, Li aims to convince business people and organisations that they must acknowledge and engage with the fundamental shift in society that has occurred with the introduction of social media technologies. Whether an organisation deals directly with consumers or with other businesses, nearly every one of their customers and stakeholders will be online, and they will be sharing information about the people and organisations they encounter. To avoid being left at a serious disadvantage in the marketplace, organisations must engage with social media in a way that fits their objectives and their market.

Li and Bernoff introduced the term Social Technographics in Groundswell. Based on data from a survey tool used by Forrester Research, this is a method of classifying individuals and groups by their engagement with social technologies. It can be used by organisations to analyse the extent and nature of their market’s participation in social media, building up a profile of each group or demographic that is important to them. Individuals may fall into one or more of six overlapping categories, depending on how they tend to interact with content on social media. The categories are:

  • Creators: Make their own content, for example blog posts, audio and video.
  • Critics: Respond to others’ content and contributing to information sources, for example adding to a wiki, commenting on blogs or reviewing products.
  • Collectors: Collate and organise information they find online, subscribing to RSS feeds and adding tags.
  • Joiners: Maintain a presence online with profiles on social networks.
  • Spectators: Observe others’ activities online, by consuming content without contributing to it.
  • Inactives: Those who are connected to the internet but are non-participants in social media.

These form a ‘ladder’ with creators at the top and inactives at the bottom, with those in the middle all engaging with social technologies in various different ways.

The book stresses that all organisations planning to engage with social media must be clear about their objectives. The authors relate possible objectives to existing business functions, so that the aims of listening, talking, energising, supporting and embracing are associated with research, marketing, sales, support and development respectively.

Open leadership in organisations

Open leadership builds on many of the ideas in Groundswell, but focuses on the organisation and its own level of openness. As well as engaging with customers, leadership should also plan to be more open with its own employees, with the public and with other stakeholders. More open leadership will improve efficiency, communication and decision-making in organisations. It can increase buy-in from stakeholders and help to solve problems collaboratively.

The book is built on the premise that leadership is still ‘closed’ in many organisations because senior managers fear the loss of control that will result from an increased level of openness. Li argues that new technologies mean that greater openness is inevitable, as well as delivering greater benefits than ever before. Again, the exploitation of new technologies will only be effective if the objectives are clear from the outset. Leaders should allow their objectives to determine how open the organisation should be and in what ways.

Openness, as defined by Li, involves 10 elements in two categories: open information sharing and open decision-making. Open information sharing could revolve around six different functions: explaining; updating; conversing; participation or ‘open mic’; crowdsourcing; and platforms (which set standards, including open architecture and open data access). Decision-making, meanwhile, can still be in any style: centralised; democratic; consensus; or distributed. Each of these will be reshaped by a move towards greater openness.

Each chapter in Open leadership ends with an action plan which translates the concepts in the chapter into practical tools for leaders to assess their levels of openness and to plan and orchestrate their strategies for increasing these levels. While recognising that the benefits can be hard to quantify, it does offer some tools for estimating the value of openness to organisations through increased learning, communication, support and innovation. The book also discusses how the mindset of leaders can help and hinder openness, how open leadership may be supported and nurtured, and the necessity of providing structures to enable openness while avoiding chaos. Li’s final message is that any forward-thinking organisation must take risks. Failure is an essential and desirable part of this process, and without it, organisations will not learn how to make the most of new technologies and greater openness.

Developing a social business strategy

Persuading business leaders to think more strategically about their engagement with social media is the aim of Li’s The seven success factors of social business strategy, co-authored by Brian Solis. It is based on research on organisations carried out by Li’s consultancy firm, the Altimeter Group.

The key message here is that as social technologies begin to mature, they should be a central part of any organisation’s overall strategy rather than being viewed as just an experiment on the sidelines.

The book offers a map for organisations to follow, arranged into seven key steps towards more effective use of social media technologies. Organisations should:

  • Ddefine business goals
  • Establish a long-term vision
  • Ensure executive alignment and support
  • Define the strategy roadmap
  • Establish governance and guidelines
  • Secure staff, resources and funding
  • Invest in technology platforms that evolve.

In perspective

Charlene Li’s work has gained a significant level of attention amongst business people and technology-watchers. An awareness and appreciation of her approach has been reflected across the blogosphere.

Li’s work is recent and ongoing. It could be argued that the true impact of her contributions will be more apparent with a greater degree of hindsight. In keeping with the theme of her original book, online tools have allowed Li and her co-authors to continue to build on their printed works, for example updating the Social Technographics ladder with another category, conversationalists, to recognise the growing and unique importance of Twitter.

Further reading

Key works by Charlene Li


With Bernoff, J. Groundswell: winning in a world transformed by social technologies, Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2008. A revised edition was published in 2011.

Open leadership: how social technology can transform the way you lead. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 2010

With Solis, B. The seven success factors of social business strategy. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 2013

Journal articles

With Bernoff, J. Why the Groundswell - and why now?. Women in Business, 60 (4) July-August 2008, pp.29-33

Charlene Li's Open Leadership Advice. Public Relations Strategist, 16 (4) Fall 2010, pp.10-11


Charlene Li's website

Includes her professional blog and resources on presentations, interviews and webinars.

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