Saas, open source and “social media” at Gilbane 2008

There were several interesting things happening at The Gilbane Conference this year and for me, these mostly came up during the analyst panel I sat on yesterday afternoon with Melissa Webster from IDC, Stephen Powers from Forrester and Guy Creese from Burton Group.

Frank Gilbane moderated and asked us first to identify a couple of key trends we see for the year ahead and then what we had heard at the conference that we disagreed with.  Here are my responses:

Open source and SaaS have a bigger impact

I was the last panelist to answer the trends question and of course generally agreed with comments made by the other analysts about IT spending cuts and the impact of SharePoint on most segments of this market.  For my bit, I called attention to SaaS and open source and the increasing presence they have in various parts of content management.

Open source was particularly prevalent this year at Gilbane.  I met with folks from Acquia, Hippo, Magnolia, and eZ Systems, and noted that Alfresco, Mindtouch and Jahia were also there (there may have been others as well).  Hippo, Magnolia and eZ are notable as European open source providers that are starting or expanding US offices.  Based on the reported success of these and other vendors, it seems open source is an increasingly viable option in content management and one that may see increased adoption when IT budgets are tight.  This is something I hope to explore more with my CAOS colleagues next year.

SaaS also had a showing though a smaller one in terms of core content management.  Clickability and Crownpeak were there, the usual WCM SaaS suspects, and both report record growth so far in 2008.  But SaaS also shows up in many areas related to content management; web analytics has been a SaaS market for years and SaaS is the dominant model in areas like personalization and A/B or multivariate testing.  Social software is also largely SaaS, particularly in customer-facing environments.  I noted the panelists at the social media panel yesterday represented two SaaS (Awareness and WetPaint) and two open source vendors (Acquia and MindTouch).

Which brings me to my other point…

Social media is too broadly defined

I didn’t disagree with anything specifically that was said during the social media panel that occurred just before our analyst panel but noted (as did others) that lumping all kinds of social technologies under a “social media” banner causes too much confusion for everyone involved.  This panel really highlighted this as the conversation veered widely between internal collaboration goals, issues and technologies, and using social technologies to market to and serve customers online.  The panelists got confused at times about which thing was being discussed and it was clear from the questions being asked that there were some in the audience were confused as well.

I harped on about this in the presentation I gave at our client event last month.   The uses for social software internally are generally pretty different from what companies are trying to accomplish in customer-facing initiatives.  As a result, the requirements of the tools are different as well.  I think it is difficult for vendors to serve both markets (internal and external) well and I expect we’ll see more specialization along these lines in the year ahead.

Someone in the audience during the social media panel asked “don’t we have to be social internally before we can use these technologies with our customers?”  That’s a good question and I think the panel generally gave her an affirmative answer.  Not sure that I agree.  I think it certainly helps if an organization culturally gets social technologies and uses them for internal communication before embarking on some sort of external initiative.  But it’s still primarily about finding the right tool for XYZ job.  Ensuring that everyone internally is using Twitter doesn’t seem a pre-requisite before you get started on some other project, unless of course it really is a pre-requisite for that particular project.

One of my general points, and I saw a lot of nodding heads in the audience when I said this during the analyst panel, is that I generally remain unimpressed with the “newness” of all this, particularly for internal use.  I  noted on the analyst panel yesterday that when I was a product manager at Sun in 2002, we used the team collaboration product from Intraspect (ultimately bought by Vignette) for a lot of stuff.  It had shared workspaces, discussion forums, comments etc.  Is that really all that different from what we’re talking about with social software internally?  There are differences, I’m not saying there aren’t.  But it is an evolution, not a revolution.  That is less true, I think, when using social technologies to interact with customers where there are really fundamentally new models.  Which again gets to my point that these are different markets with different antecedents, different integration requirements, different cultural changes required…

In any event, lots of talk about social technologies at what has always been a content management conference.  There’s no apparent slow down in the collision of these two sectors.  I noted on the panel that this makes sense in the enterprise environment where social networking without a tie to content creation, sharing and access is, as Aaron Fulkerson put it during the social media panel “kind of boring.”

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.

Social software is getting more…social?

We’ve been busy lately increasing our coverage of social software vendors. In the last few weeks we’ve spoken with: Awareness, CollectiveX, Communispace, GroupSwim, HiveLive, Jive Software, Leverage Software, Lithium Technologies, Ringside Networks, Socialtext, Telligent Systems, and Wetpaint. Some of these meetings were triggered by new product launches and others were initiated by us, reaching out to begin coverage of vendors we hadn’t spoken with before. Most (but probably not all) of these have or will soon result in new or updated 451 coverage.

That’s quite a list and it’s only a list of who we’ve spoken with recently, not of all the vendors in this market and it doesn’t happen to include any of the larger players like IBM, Microsoft and Oracle.

So you have to ask, where is the differentiation? I don’t think that’s clear yet. Vendors are coming at this market from a particular area — like forums software or wikis — and tend to be targeting a particular types of implementations (BtoC social media vs. BtoE collaboration) so theoretically competitive products can be quite different under the covers (though often quite similar in marketing).

One thing that seems clear is that many vendors already in the social software realm are busy getting more social. By this I mean grafting on “social” aspects a la Facebook. This can be the ability to have user profiles and the ability to friend people or more sophisticated analysis of who knows what in order to connect users with similar knowledge or expertise.

Just a few recent examples:

Jive Software’s 2.0 release beefs up profiling and social networking capabilties.

The 3.0 release from Socialtext does the same.

Telligent added the ability to track activity data by user in Community Server 2008.

Wetpaint also added more social aspects recently.

Leverage Software has some interesting visualization technology applied to social networks.

Ringside wants to link public networks to business networks.

As vendors originally strong in wikis or forums software, for example, expand social networking and add other features, they’re much more in competition with each other than they once were. And organizations are likely to want to standardize to avoid profile proliferation, if nothing else.

I was talking with someone this morning about how many log-ins one large broadcaster has for its various customer/consumer communities (wikis, message boards etc.) and how it’s a high priority item for that company to fix it. That’s something we’ll no doubt hear more about as more and more products go social.