Communities of the Faithful

This wound up being Part I of a five-part series. Read the next post here.

Back in December, a friend and I were sitting around shooting the breeze about orchestration and automation, because what else would you talk about on a Saturday afternoon? The talk turned to the political challenges of developing cross-platform tools, and then to innovation more generally. My friend, who has a certain fondness for bombast, demanded at this point, “Why do vendors who have done basically no innovation for years continue to have such intense customer loyalty, while newer companies with actual solutions to the problems the big guys have created struggle to survive?”

Leaving aside the obvious bit about people having natural reservations about ongoing support from a vendor struggling to survive, we concluded that incumbent advantage has at least as much to do with the personal, emotional value that users derive from their association with a particular vendor rather than anything that can be put on a spreadsheet.

There’s the fear aspect, of course, the “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” idea. But in a more positive vein, there are a range of tools and techniques that vendors use to lock in mindshare.

One of the most of tried-and-true is certifications, and the more difficult to obtain a cert it is, the more cachet—and more weight in the job market—it carries. There’s a very clear material benefit to the individuals who obtain them, not to mention the intellectual satisfaction that comes with mastery of a difficult challenge and the emotional allure of prestigious professional recognition. Such certs can also provide a built-in, if amorphous, community of peers. Last week Colin McNamara (@colinmcnamara) raised some questions about the continuing value of one such certification for individuals, and Anthony Bourke (@pandom_) responded with some pushback. My own view is that any certification is effectively a lagging indicator of where the market is. It will have more durability in a mature, slow-moving market, but be “necessary but not sufficient” in a rapidly evolving one.

More important from a business standpoint are the effects that those certs have on stickiness. As a business user, I’ve had the joy of dealing with a particular application that should have been retired several years prior for being wholly unfit for supporting modern business needs, while the IT group advocated for moving to the next dot release of the same app–because they already knew the (completely outmoded) architecture of the product and were certified on it.

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It also has its effects on the VAR ecosystem. VARs get preferential treatment, especially on margin, if they keep some number of vendor-certified people on staff. This has increasingly led to a VAR ecosystem that is aligned to specific vendors, which in turn makes it harder for new entrants to break through and begin to scale their sales.

Over the weekend, Lindsay Hill (@northlandboy) wrote about his concerns about a newer form of “soft lock-in”. He tackled the topic of vendor-hosted communities (vExperts, Cisco Champions, etc), coming at it from the perspective of an independent consultant whose very value to his clients is his independence.

Now, I completely agree with Hill’s reservations about perception, though of course for people who aren’t being paid to be “independent” (someone in Enterprise IT, for example), this is less of a concern. And some of the non-financial benefits exchanged are really the same as for certs: early information about new stuff, as with preferred VARs, recognition of one’s knowledge base, bragging rights, increased exposure among one’s peers, and a better organized community of interest. The twist is that instead of the individual paying to take an exam (and his/her knowledge staying locked inside), the “honoree” pays instead by sharing their knowledge and views with the world. In itself, this is hardly an insidious thing; it’s even beneficial for other people with similar interests who now know where to go for answers to particular questions. One could argue about indoctrination, but from what I’ve seen, people selected for these programs already have deep interest and expertise in a particular vendor’s portfolio, so they’ve already made that choice.

What such groups really provide for the vendor is the reliable core of a “community of the faithful”. There are, after all, plenty of people who are not particularly religious in the sense of highly deity-focused, but who enjoy going to church for the supportive community of reasonably like-minded people that the setting provides. To be sure, the relative volume of otherwise casual congregants helps round out a church’s coffers, and perhaps a few are eventually moved to more active engagement.

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This benefits the church, of course, but presumably also the congregants–at least as long as the core members remain reasonable people and things don’t get cultish. I presume Hill’s real concern is the development of cults, with which I whole-heartedly agree.

In his comments, Hill mentions Stephen Foskett, who attempts to get around the issue of being beholden to a given vendor by hosting events sponsored by multiple vendors. So I should say that all of but one of the people I’ve mentioned so far in this post are people I’ve met directly through the offices of Mr. Foskett. Even the outlier, Mr. Hill, is someone I connected with virtually because we were both contributing to a side project led by two other Tech Field Day delegates. In most cases I probably would not have made those connections—and certainly not as early as I did—had my employer (Brocade) not sponsored a Tech Field Day event.

Have the TFD events we’ve sponsored changed some minds about Brocade? Seemingly yes, at least in the sense that more people are now aware of what we’re working on in the Ethernet space and inclined to keep tabs on what we’re doing. This is certainly a win for Brocade, but hopefully it also gives people a broader solution space than they were aware they had to work with. Sometimes they write about us, which is nice, and perhaps they talk about us offline, I don’t know.

Have recommendations or purchasing behaviors been changed as a result? Perhaps in one or two cases. But the truth is these are much longer-term changes, affected by a broad range of factors, not just how cool our products or current activities might be. There are, therefore, a lot of things that Brocade as a company needs to continue to do and demonstrate, not just on the technology front, in order to earn more changes in behavior.

I say earn very deliberately. Brocade is a challenger in the Ethernet space. The value in participating in the Tech Field Day community, from my point of view, is not a blog or two (though that’s what keeps the funding in place for continued events). It’s the fact that the forum has brought me and my colleagues, and by extension Brocade, into ongoing contact with a set of smart people who are candid and articulate about the things about vendors that work for them, that excite them, that motivate them—and the things that really frustrate them and turn them off. It’s a set of views that vendor-HQ people rarely get in the carefully scripted encounters of EBCs and customer advisory boards where everyone’s being polite. All of their (and others’) comments, whether directed at me/Brocade or not, serve as an ongoing reality check and source of ideas for me with regard to things we could do as a company to be more valuable to our customers. And some have also become friends and valued sources of insight and personal advice. You could say that my ideal community (sponsored or not) looks a bit more like this:

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Or as my colleague Dave Meyer (@dmm316) likes to say about open source, it’s less about the artifacts (blogs, in this case) than it is about the process.

*     *     *     *     *

Update: I want to provide links to two more relevant items I’ve come across in the past day, with some comments on each:

Influencer Marketing: Top Tactics and Challenges This has some interesting stats, but to my mind it’s a classic example of Missing the Point when it’s applied to the social media sphere. The piece describes a very traditional view of influencer marketing using classic analyst/press relations tactics–the last graph is particularly revealing. Such tactics make sense when dealing with people whose sole job is commentary and reporting: they’re motivated by getting info early and relaying it quickly. In some (but not even most) cases, contributing sponsored content is also a revenue stream for the commentariat. Community bloggers in the IT space are very different. They have day jobs working with technology, and they write about their experiences in order to share knowledge and ideas and to get feedback from their peers. The motivations are different and the time-based element is not necessarily relevant–many prefer to chew on things for a while, even test them out, before commenting on them. Using new “social” platforms for traditional PR-style outreach is not the same as engaging on a peer-to-peer basis within a community, and it’s likely to yield disappointing results in the context of traditional metrics.

Activist Customer or Citizen Analyst Greg Ferro, like Lindsay Hill, describes his morbid fascination with the Geek Whisperers podcast, and in particular takes issue with the “citizen analyst” term due to his general dislike of analysts. He’s right that there’s a widespread perception that analysts are pay-to-play, and that’s certainly true of some, particularly independents. I don’t share his general dislike of the analyst profession, however. (Little known but highly salient fact: Gartner purposely caps their vendor-side revenue at a minority percentage of their total precisely so that they’re not over-reliant on making nice with vendors; my recollection is that the cap is around 25-30%.) What I find most interesting in his post is his point that having a high profile as a blogger in some sense evens the playing field with regard to his influence with vendors. Traditionally vendors responded to problems or deficiencies most rapidly when the problems are pointed out by their largest customers. This of course skews development towards particular types of problem sets. But as in other arenas, including politics (cf Arab Spring), social media now allows articulate if “ordinary” IT citizens to mobilize their peers to get across the needs of the unwashed masses who collectively form a large if not majority share of a vendor’s revenue. This is genuinely a helpful thing for vendors who are inclined to listen.

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3 comments on “Communities of the Faithful

  1. Pingback: Vendor Clubs: Watch Your Independence | LINDSAY HILL

  2. Pingback: Listening to influencers gets you out of the building – Episode 43 | Geek Whisperers

  3. Pingback: A Bit More on Brand and Communities for Techies | The Borg Queen

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