January 21, 2018

How Forrester is squandering its leadership in social media

Social media experts often chide marketers about control. The experts say that in the new era of social media, marketers need to stop delivering tightly-scripted, one-way messages and start engaging in uncontrolled, transparent conversations with customers and prospects wherever those conversations happen.

That’s why a change in the policies of perhaps the leading voice for social media, Forrester, has bigger implications than it may seem.

Recently, an analyst relations consultancy, SageCircle, broke the story that Forrester management will require its analysts to take down their personally-branded blogs or redirect readers to a Forrester-branded blog.

The most powerful example of one of these personally branded blogs is Web Strategy by Jeremiah, by Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst who left Forrester prior to the policy change. Owyang’s blog is one of the most highly trafficked, most influential social media blogs today, as it was when he was at Forrester.

Another example is Experience: The Blog, by Augie Ray, who is Owyang’s replacement at Forrester. Ray is one of the analysts who will be taking down his blog. (Forrester is quick to point out that it will begin allowing individual analysts like Ray to have their own blogs behind the firewall.)

No doubt, the success of Owyang’s blog is due in part to his former role at one of the most respected analyst houses in the world. And this is the crux of Forrester’s argument in defense of the policy change. Another prominent Forrester social media analyst, Josh Bernoff, who was a co-author of perhaps the most influential book about social media to date, Groundswell, puts it succinctly in his blog post about the controversy: “If you’re creating content for a content company, that company ought to host your blog.”

All of Forrester’s commentaries about the policy change so far have focused on this idea that content companies are special and have a special need to protect their IP—which is words. No wonder they all steer the argument in this direction; it makes it seem like Forrester is the aggrieved benefactor being sucked dry by selfish, ungrateful employees who insist on giving away the IP that Forrester pays them to create—and whose powerful brand opens the doors for them with the sources they need to help create that IP.

I have no doubt that Forrester is a powerful, valuable brand. And I can certainly sympathize with Forrester’s argument about IP. “Information yearns to be free” is utter nonsense uttered by people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Yes, crappy information yearns to be free and is worth what we pay for it, but good information, such as that provided by Forrester, cannot and should not be free.

It takes time, money, talent, and innovation to create good information. No doubt you’ve seen research showing the degree to which most web content leads back to a few, dependable sources like the New York Times—whose reporters do all the work (which, contrary to popular belief, very few people could do even if they had all the time and money in the world) so others can benefit.

So at this point you must be wondering why I am bothering to write this post. Here’s why:

  • Forrester doesn’t take its own advice (no really). It’s maddening that Forrester doesn’t acknowledge the fact that while it actively preaches to clients that they should give up control, Forrester is exerting tighter control over its employees—specifically in social media! Bernoff addresses this offhandedly by saying, “Groundswell says that your employees will be blogging—it doesn’t say that content companies should have their content creators blog anywhere they want.” Oh wait, I forgot. Content companies are different. C’mon. IBM has as much IP to protect as Forrester, if not tons more—and it allows employees to have personal blogs.
  • Forrester controls the message. In another Forrester blog post in defense of the move, analyst Nigel Fenwick acknowledges that there was controversy within Forrester about the change. Indeed, I’ve been a journalist too long not to know that stories don’t get leaked to outside sources unless someone inside the company isn’t happy about what’s happening. What about hearing from people inside Forrester who oppose this move? Isn’t that what social media is supposed to be about? Openness? Transparency? Not from a company that tries to put strict controls on the ways its social media content is cited by others.
  • Forrester is shocked, shocked. Ray tries to spin the controversy in his post by calling it “a minor tempest in the research industry teapot.” The worst way to fend off controversy is to downplay it (as Forrester also regularly counsels its clients). And it insults the intelligence of those of us who are fans of Forrester. As one of the leading lights of social media, is Forrester really surprised that a change in its policies would invite thorough scrutiny? Please.
  • Forrester loses IP. It’s clear that by controlling its employees, Forrester will lose IP in the long run. Big thinkers who have built up personal brands through their blogs will think twice about coming to work at Forrester because they will have to cut that thread (even if it can be reconnected on the other side of Forrester’s firewall).
  • Forrester loses R&D. Forrester swears up and down that analysts will able to say and do whatever they like related to their jobs on their personal Forrester blogs. I don’t think that’s true. Not because I think that Forrester will become Big Brother, but because analysts will police themselves. Places like Forrester are full of smart, talented, competitive people. It’s going to be harder to look stupid and ask for help from behind the firewall. Personal blogs are more fertile ground for testing half-baked ideas than those that have your employer’s logo next to yours.
    I should know; it’s one of the reasons I set up my blog outside of ITSMA’s firewall. I want to be able to experiment fully and freely while reducing my own sense that I could potentially do harm to my colleagues who have given me the time to do this (but who in no way have ever tried to control what I say). I think it’s easier for everyone this way (and it absolutely feels better than when I used to blog from behind the firewall at CIO magazine). If Forrester’s analysts feel the slightest trepidation about posting something on these new personal blogs, everybody loses. So why not just let them start their own? It all leads back to the mother ship in the end—via reports and presentations that are better and more fully informed than they would have been.
  • Forrester loses a piece of its supply chain. I never visited Jeremiah Owyang’s blog posts on Forrester unless he sent me there from his own blog. Forrester thinks that’s a loss for them. But in fact, it’s a gain. Social media isn’t about companies (as Forrester will tell you); it’s about people connecting with one another. Owyang drove more traffic back to Forrester than it ever would have gotten on its own because he was a recognizable, solo voice, rather than one among many. When you lose traffic that way, you lose a valuable piece of your content supply chain—the customers, prospects, and influencers that you need to help develop and sell your ideas.

Look, I love Forrester. For 13 years as a journalist covering IT I was constantly blown away by the quality of the firm’s insights and by the approachable, friendly, patient nature of its analysts. But I fear for the future of the brand with this move.

What do you think? Am I being too hard on Forrester?

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Top B2B marketing posts for 2009 (hint: social media)

Who says B2B marketers are lagging in social media? If they are out there, they aren’t reading this blog. Of the top ten posts on my blog this year, only one did not involve social media. Though I’m supposed to be an objective researcher, I have to admit bias here. I think the social media phenomenon is the most exciting and important thing to hit communications in my lifetime. So writing about this stuff is fun. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I do writing it.

Thank you so much for your comments, links, and tweets this year. I’m happy to say that traffic to my blog has quadrupled (I’ve gone from a D-list blogger to a C-list, I think) in 2009 thanks to you. I look forward to collaborating even more in 2010. Have a happy and safe New Year!

Check out these top posts if you haven’t already:

  1. Six factors driving B2B social media marketing adoption
  2. The four components of social media management
  3. Want proof that the C-suite is into social media? Here it is.
  4. How to create B2B social media policies
  5. Why B2B marketers hate social media
  6. Social media strategy for B2B: what’s required and what’s optional
  7. Why bother with thought leadership? Five questions and answers.
  8. Eight reasons to monitor social media and a list of tools for doing it
  9. Where should your corporate blogs live?
  10. Why B2B marketing will become more visual, vocal, and mobile

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How to create B2B social media policies

One of the cornerstones of a social media strategy is having a clear set of corporate social media guidelines or policies. The best documents don’t just tell employees what not to do; they also tell them what they should be doing to further the marketing goals of the company. Here are some recommendations based on a cross-section of social media policies from B2B companies, including social media policy examples from some leading B2B companies. (Thanks to Kent Huffman for giving me a great starting point for this post):

Invite employees into the process. Employees will feel much more comfortable adhering to policies if they feel that they have had a voice in shaping them—as IBM’s and SAP’s employees did. But don’t provide them with a blank slate. Develop a draft that corporate and legal are comfortable with to make sure all the bases are covered. IBM and SAP put their draft guidelines on wikis, where employees were invited to make comments and suggestions.

Reference the employee code of conduct, if you have one. The code of conduct is the “umbrella policy” for your social media policy; it does the heavy lifting for the more serious aspects of employee conduct (e.g., obey your local laws, behave ethically, etc.) so that your social media policy can focus on the specific issues that arise from social media.

Determine a policy for direct contact with key influencers. For example, some companies allow employees to communicate generally to the social sphere but require that any direct communications to analysts, the financial market and/or members of the media must be conducted only through corporate communications.

Require a disclaimer—and provide the boilerplate. “This [Choose. Blog, Space …] is the personal [Blog, Space …] of [Name] and only contains my personal views, thoughts and opinions. It is not endorsed by [X corporation] nor does it constitute any official communication of [X corporation].”

Require that any use of the company logo or name be approved. Disclaimers aren’t enough if the blog is plastered with company logos or the company name is part of the blog title. It should be clear that this is a personal effort, not a corporate one.

Have a “don’t be stupid” clause. Guidelines are not guardrails. People need to know that taking personal responsibility for their actions is the best guideline of all. Here’s an example from one company’s policy: “Please be aware that, although [X Corporation] is providing you with these guidelines, the overall and final legal responsibility for any statement made by you will reside with you personally. Therefore, you should exercise caution and thoughtfulness to statements you make online.”

Spell out what stupid means—both internally and externally. Being sure to include the “including but not limited to” phrase, make sure employees know that blogs are not for communicating policies to other employees, negotiating with third parties, or releasing material information about company strategy or financials (or as Sun puts it in its social media guidelines, “it’s not OK to publish the recipe for one of our secret sauces”).

Encourage openness, honesty and transparency. The social media sphere punishes people who don’t disclose their affiliations or pretend to be someone they aren’t (e.g., the Whole Foods CEO using an alias to bash competitors or the Wal-Mart bloggers who didn’t disclose that they were being paid by the company). Require employees to disclose their affiliation with the company at all times and avoid using aliases.

Encourage community through sharing and attribution. Social media is not just a place for broadcasting opinions. Employees should be encouraged to become part of the community by doing research and linking to other relevant content—not just their own.

Separate opinion from fact. The best retort to criticism is factual evidence to the contrary. But employees need to check those facts for accuracy and attribute them rather than passing along something they aren’t sure about.

Demand respect in all interactions. When people make nasty comments in social media it’s tempting for employees to respond in kind. But bad behavior inevitably makes its way back to the brand, while good behavior demonstrates that a company is able to handle negative feedback gracefully and builds empathy. Make it clear: no disparaging remarks about third parties—ever.

Remind them of their day jobs. Employees are not doing the best thing for the company by letting social media take over their workdays. Emphasize quality rather than quantity in social media interactions.

Encourage them to write what they know. Employees may feel passionately about the possibility of life on other planets, but unless they work for NASA, it’s probably not worth getting into on a blog.

Provide a channel for questions. No matter how good your social media guidelines are, employees are going to have questions—especially those who are new to social media. The guidelines should include a place to go for advice. For example, Cisco has an e-mail alias called “internet postings” where employees can get help.

Ditch the legalese. Social media is supposed to be fun, informal, conversational and open. Take whatever language legal gives you and translate it into English; otherwise, you risk scaring off or offending employees.

Make it public. Nothing demonstrates your openness and commitment to social media more than making your policy publicly available. Big companies like Cisco, HP, IBM, Intel, SAP, and Sun, all do it. Invite comments and update the policy as needed. Making your guidelines public also gives you license to borrow from others (ask permission first and give credit where it is due).

Here are links to the best examples of B2B corporate social media policies that I found:

Also, check out the non-profit Social Media Business Council’s Disclosure Toolkit

Sources: Kent Huffman, Cisco, HP, IBM, Intel, SAP, Sun.

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How marketers should handle the second wave of social media participation

Social media is moving up the demographic ladder, zeroing in on the sweet spot for B2B marketers: the 35-49 age group. A report from Nielsen confirms it. That new friend of yours on Facebook may control a multi-million dollar IT budget.

The demographic change is driving a new wave of newbies inside corporations to look at social media. Since this second wave is likely to be more influential inside the company and with customers than the first, twentysomething-based one was, it’s worth looking at how B2B marketers should position themselves both internally with employees and externally with customers.

Let’s look at internal first. There are some important prerequisites that need to be in place if marketing is going to be able to serve as a source of information about social media to employees—and be thought of as a competent manager of the organization’s social media presence. I see two big ones:

  1. Know what your employees are doing with social media. Responsibility for what employees are saying about the company will eventually make its way to marketing, so marketing needs to find out what employees are doing with social media. Think of yourself as a venture capitalist rather than a cop (though every company should have a social media policy). Seeing how social media happens organically among employees can give you important insight into potential new thought leaders, as well as a handy test population for gauging which tools employees are most comfortable with and, therefore, which ones might be best for integrating into conversations with customers.
  2. Create permission. Having a set of social media guidelines is important, but those guidelines should be simple and shouldn’t patronize employees with a lot of detail. The policy should demonstrate trust in employees rather than trying to CYA. Rather than saying “Don’t lie,” say, “We ask that employees conduct themselves as they would in any business situation—with honesty, integrity, discretion, and respect for their audience.” That’s about all you need. Companies should also ask employees to post a disclaimer on their blogs and offer suggested language for it, but should not punish those that fail to do it.

    However, permission isn’t just about setting rules. It’s also important to demonstrate permission through action. The CEO should blog to employees, and a few top thought leaders and subject matter experts should start their own personal blogs to set the tone and demonstrate that the corporate culture is ready to give up the iron grip of control over the conversation both internally and with customers. A few showcase social media examples from important individuals inside the organization will energize others and help set the tone for dialog that matches with the culture of the organization. Customers buy from you because of who you are as an organization as well as the products and services you offer. So the tone of your social media communications should match your organizational personality.

    You also need to get permission from IT. Again, this isn’t meant in the literal sense—there are plenty of ways to get around IT with social media. But social media is not very secure. So involve IT in the planning of a social media strategy. Don’t let IT dictate what employees can and can’t do with social media (they may want to ban it altogether), but collaborate with the IT leader on policy and keep him or her informed about what employees are doing. Remember that many of these tools start within the IT community, so IT can be a great source of advice and a bellwether for new trends.

What have I left out? How do you “manage” social media at your organization?

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