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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