Let’s not name ‘leaders’ in social software

A bit of fur flew yesterday over this tweet made by Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester about an upcoming Forrester report on white-label social networking providers:

Some vendors are going to be very, very mad at me, the report will indicate who is a leader. Get as mad as you want, clients come first 🙂

Jeremiah clarified.

This comment stuck in my craw too, but not for the reasons others have suggested. Sure we could poke fun at Jeremiah’s choice of phrasing but I don’t think anyone seriously thought that he meant Forrester clients would be ranked more highly in his upcoming report than non-clients.

What bothered me was his use of “leaders” and saying this is going to make vendors “very mad.” My question is, will a vendor be mad if it is not a leader or because leaders are named in the first place? I hope it is the latter.

(An aside, I never like ascribing emotions to companies…a company can be successful, it can be well managed, it can be innovative – can it be mad??)

For one thing, it’s too early in the social software game to crown any sort of leader. Sure markets have leaders. There is a leading car manufacturer, based on number of units sold. Or we can calculate PC shipments or email seats or something similar to tag a leader based on market share. But we can’t do that now in social software and we may never be able to as many of the capabilities we’re now analyzing may well become features in apps that address specific business goals.

And business goals is another way of talking about use cases. Right now the use cases are too varied even if we’re only looking at social networking. What is the business goal of the community? Is it to reduce product support calls? Generate page views / ad revenue? Build brand loyalty? Capture customer ideas for product innovation? Connect far-flung employees / partners? One of other myriad objectives?

The answer to this and other similar questions (what kind of content is needed, how much privacy is required, is there a requirement to link to public networks or internal systems, etc., etc.) will help customers decide what kind of capabilities they need, what architecture is required, what the necessary integration points are and ultimately, which vendor might be the best fit for them.

And speaking of them, who are they? That certainly has an impact on who the leading vendor would be for that customer in that use case. These are all relevant questions even if we were in a position to identify market-share based leaders.

To quote Alan Pelz-Sharpe over at CMS Watch talking about vendor selection more generally:

most of the time it is not a case of bad technology versus good technology. Rather it a case of good fit versus bad fit: a product could become an outstanding performer in a larger legal firm may make a terrible fit in a mid-size manufacturing and ERP-centric environment.

I’ve been an analyst off and on for a decade (I started off at Giga Information Group, which ultimately became part of Forrester and there are many at Forrester I still count as friends so I bear no ill will to Jeremiah or Forrester, just for the record). I’ve also worked in product management and product marketing on the vendor side and know the frustration and the sometimes like-tolerate-hate relationship vendors have with analysts. Analysts can be too busy, too arrogant and too single-minded to take in the nuances of a particular vendor’s strategy, customer successes or technology.

Of course I haven’t seen Jeremiah’s research proposal and his report may well address all of my concerns. If so, all the better, though I would advise more caution with comments of this nature, the character limitations of Twitter notwithstanding. It doesn’t help the sometimes skeptical nature of the vendor-analyst relationship I already described.

Obviously I think analyst firms provide valuable services or I wouldn’t work for one. IT buyers look to analyst firms to help them gain some clarity in a market that is often difficult to parse due to confusing marketing tactics that make different products sound similar and similar products sound nothing alike. Chunking this up into some categorical buckets can be very useful to busy IT execs trying get started down the road to choosing an appropriate technology.

But crowning winners, particularly in such an early-stage market, can unnecessarily limit a buyer’s selection pool while simultaneously putting vendors in a position to warp their marketing or worse yet products to score well. Reminds me of the ‘teaching to test’ debates we parents have here in Massachusetts about classroom emphasis on MCAS scores. I think we’re smarter than fifth graders and can handle a bit more nuance.

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#1 Tony Byrne on 05.22.08 at 11:10 am


Right on. Love the “teaching to the test” analogy.

#2 Jon Husband on 05.22.08 at 6:03 pm

Your points are very well made. I too think it is much too early to crown “leaders”. As more and more people ar e realizing / have realized, the big challenges are cultural. Much of the (relative) success in this area of activity thus far comes mainly from just doing something (initiatives, pilot projects, or just being relatively open about what’s going on) .. this is a position leading OD and strategy people have been urging on companies for oh about two decades or longer now, and so why start the competition and give out kudos for just being reasonably common sensical and mature about it.

#3 Jeremiah Owyang on 05.23.08 at 9:04 am

Thanks for this, I certainly got an ear-full from the community. As you say, the segmentation will be defined by the needs of the purchasers.

In my particular case, Forrester writes for specific roles, and the role I write for in Interactive Marketers. I understand their needs, challenges, and desires based off our own research, so the report will be putting their needs first.

Sheesh, it’s really relieving to discuss this in more than 140 characters where I can properly express myself.