Forrester Research Wave Report Evaluates Online Community Technology Platforms

    Graphic: Forrester Wave™: Community Platforms, Q1 ’09
Forrester Wave™: Community Platforms, Q1 ’09

As Peter Kim alludes, social media technologies and tactics are subordinate (by a long shot) to business relationship goals. That said, it’s reaffirming to see that Forrester Analyst Jeremiah Owyang‘s evaluation of online community technology platforms rated Telligent Systems as among the top two. Our team at Clickable last year adopted Telligent’s Community Server to power our customer communities and team blog. Not surprising, I have some comments on this study, the community platform market in general, and Telligent, specifically. (Telligent graciously forked over the license fee so it could offer the report to everyone for free on its Web site.)

Community Platform Conundrum: Agency Versus Pure Product

Jeremiah says:

Despite the immaturity, we evaluated nine and were impressed with Jive Software and Telligent Systems who lead the pack because of their strong administrative and platform features and solution offerings….we applied over 60% of our weighted criteria based on what our clients tell us they want, a solutions partner that delivers strategy, education, services, community management, analytics and support.

The customer “wants” of strategy, education and services make sense, but they concern me and it’s important to unpack them further.  Here’s why: those are typically agency and professional services attributes. If you speak with veteran entrepreneurs across technology and professional services, one thing is clear: a company CANNOT SIMULTANEOUSLY BE a product-technology company and a professional services company. You have to be primarily one or the other because there’s a conflict of agenda. The agency mindset is to deliver highly customized solutions for individual customers. But too often long-term product innovations and investments suffer because the model is biased to reward the customized services versus a better, scalable product. There are some hybrids, but they are rare. Many of the most successful technology companies are, in fact, agencies — once you look under the hood or into the books.

Why We Selected Telligent: Because It’s Really A Platform ‘Product’

At my company, we selected Telligent precisely because it was a proven, robust workhorse, powering many of the highest trafficked communities. But we also selected Telligent because it was a product company — NOT an agency with proprietary technologies that form the root of a consulting shop. For us, Telligent was the platform that seemed most likely to work out of the box, scale, iterate and improve according to customer feedback, and stay in business.

I underscore “stay in business” because we’re likely to see most of the community platforms go defunct and retreat into a pool of consolidating agencies; there are just too many of them with little differentiation. The differentiation most often is on flavor of strategy consulting, and that’s a fundamentally separate offering (and one we didn’t want). This was foreshadowed by Jeremiah:

Many an entrepreneur has realized this community opportunity, when I started to cover this market there were 8 vendors on my list, today the space now boasts 100 vendors and it continues to grow.

I believe this Forrester Wave report will not only drive discussion of the enterprise community platform market, but will accelerate the inevitable classification of winners, losers, agencies, and pure product companies — not to mention those consolidations.

How Telligent Can Improve

But Telligent is not perfect. I wish Telligent would figure out a way to broaden and open-source it’s developer and app community the way WordPress blog platform has. Hey Telligent, if you’re listening, try to be more like WordPress! You’re stable and scalable, but we need faster innovation and more plug-in and play capabilities. Hopefully that recent $20 million cash infusion from Intel Capital will help. If anything, it will ensure their existence over the next few economically challenging years.

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Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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    1. Trust me, the economy is going to get bloody over the next 6-12 months, and
      there will be some casualties — would be huge consolidation, anyway. It
      would be cool if the community server technology-product market went
      open-source, and the agencies just rallied around a few promising open
      standards and collectively iterated. Hence my comment about WordPress.

  1. Yes, Max, we're definitely listening. 🙂 Thank you for your affirmation that Telligent is truly a platform vendor and your feedback re: open source. As Telligent's Director of Platform Strategy, I am responsible for keeping the company on track as an industry leader in having the most robust and extensible platform. And I fully appreciate that in today's competitive landscape, no software platform can be strategically viable without a vibrant community of developers and a diverse ecosystem of solution provider partners. We have some exciting plans for 2009, but I'm not quite ready to provide details just yet.

    Please don't hesitate to ping me with any questions or ideas.

    Lawrence Liu

  2. Thanks Lawrence. Would love to do an intro with you and my team at some
    point. We're about to expose our forums and make a bunch of updates,
    migrating more of our site content to Community Server blogs. Would love to
    be an active participant in your ongoing development — something we highly
    encourage our customers at Clickable to do. Thanks. (For starters, can you
    guys integrate Disqus into your profiling and comment system? The comment
    system on Community Server has much room for improvement.)

  3. My post here is a bit long, but I feel Max raises compelling subject and it warrants this depth

    (Disclosure, I am the founder and CEO of LiveWorld, which which fits Max's description of a “rare hybrid” in this discussion. Forrester rates us a premiere services firm, but pressed that we needed to introduce promised new products to catch up to the other platforms. We've done so since the July 2008 when the Forrester Wave analysis was done. Nevertheless we'd describe LiveWorld as an agency meeting client needs through premiere services supported by robust, flexible and innovative social network technology. That is, we are a hybrid with a greater emphasis/priority on the services. Prior to starting LiveWorld 13 years ago, I was a senior exec at Apple, where I spent 12 years – so I think I have some credentials on the subject of innovative technology leadership.)

    Max makes some good points, but allow me to counter his “technology vs. services” argument with one word, “IBM”. IBM is without question one of (if not the most) successful services and technology companies in the world. It's success is directly a function of it's blend of these two. And not just in big old mainframes, or PCs. IBM specifically took aim at and won the web site software wars, by emphasizing premiere services, supported by robust, technology (sometimes leading edge, sometimes mundane). There are other examples too, large and small, but IBM is especially relevant to this discussion as it has clearly stated its intention to win the social network software and services war too, by following its same services supported by technology blended strategy. So while we 9 companies designated by Forrester as the top of the industry argue and compete with each other, let's not miss the great services-technology blended bear coming down the path behind us.

    Max's point about focus is well taken. Indeed, for decades businesses have struggled with focus under the mantel of “What businesses are we in?” But in the 21st century Internet age of fluid customer needs and a constantly changing landscape of value add, the question moves to 'What businesses are we in and how do we fluidly manage across them?….. often integrating multiple parts from multiple partners with the partner in chief being our customers.

    In the social network industry we have a wide landscape ranging from platform only players to hybrid services/platform companies, to services only. All 9 companies in the Forrester Wave provided platforms. In the services spectrum, some have virtually none, some quite a bit Note that the Wave chart's horizontal axis “Strategy” does not refer to services capability, but rather the vendor's articulated company strategy and market presence. One would have to delve into the report itself to see which vendors are ranked high or low on services (strategy assistance, community management, moderation, etc.).

    According to Jeremiah Owyang at Forrester, “ As our research has indicated, community deployments are only 20% technology and the other 80% being process, roles, culture, measurement .”

    Why is this the case? Because as with all technology (mainframes, personal computing, web site, social networking), it's not the whiz bang nature of the technology that solves business problems, but what you do with it. More so with social networking which is not simply an application, or an application category. It is an entire sea change in society of how we live, work, learn and play. Everything is about relationships. The ambiance, the culture, the way a company participates and integrates with that web of relationships defines the results. In fact it is reasonable to say that a company that excels at the culture and management of the social network, even if it is using the most mundane software will do better than a weak process/roles/culture/management approach with the most innovative software.

    Hybrid vs. just services or technology. Ultimately the customer is best served and in fact only served by by a hybrid solution. They must have both services and technology to succeed. The question is how to they get to that end result? A platform with no services is missing what Forrester states is 80% of the solution. Even though the technology is only 20%, without some kind of software there is no solution. Some clients go with a platform only vendor or a services only vendor, using a 3rd party to deliver the other element. Others will attempt to build the software themselves or rollup the services need internally or both (Such home grown approaches are not recommended. Really, this is a very specialized area for both services and technology. Home grown is asking for a disaster.) Still other clients will go to a hybrid vendor that is able to blend both services and technology. Each has its place.

    A platform only vendor will often, but not always have the latest software features. A services only vendor will tout technology objectivity and put 100% of their effort into planning and management. The benefits of the hybrid vendor are 1) One stop shopping (which can very important to top brands) 2) More attention to the complete integrated solution and 3) The services and technology inform each other yielding aspects of the solution unavailable elsewhere. At LiveWorld, there are many features we have built into our platform driven by our services insights. A specific example is moderation. LiveWorld is considered a leader at moderation services having delivered over 1 million hours of moderation across our own platforms and quite a few other platforms in the industry. That experience has enabled us to develop more advanced moderation tools, so much so that we now make the tools and services available together to moderate other application platforms. We simply could not have developed that technology without the benefit of hundreds of moderators and hundreds of thousands of moderation hours for insight.

    That isn't to say it's easy. The hybrid approach is more complicated for a company to deliver, so a client must be choosy. But they should be choosy if picking a platform only or services only vendor too. A vendor can be successful anywhere along the spectrum because the market place has a wide range of needs. For whatever position the vendor chooses they must execute their model well and be very flexible.

    The strongest argument for a hybrid vendor is that while technology ebbs and flows, services delivery comes with a deeper learning/experience curve. On any day of the week, any one of the provider's technology might be better than the others, at least on some dimensions. A week later that could reverse. Hybrid firms like IBM that prioritize services, supported by a technology blend, just keep moving forward at solving client problems with full solution thinking. The technology ebbs and flows, informing the services that just keep marching on.

  4. Peter,

    Many thanks for your feedback. I have tremendous respect for you as a
    successful entrepreneur and an Apple alum. I agree, there will be some
    hybrid approaches that win, you are likely one of them, but most won't. You
    cite IBM, which certainly is a great technology company with a lot of
    brilliant people. But isn't IBM becoming less a technology-PRODUCT company,
    and far more a services company everyday?

    In most cases, there will be a conflict of agenda when both are a primary
    focus. I'm only one opinion, but here's my five-year forecast: A more
    mature community-vendor landscape will probably include a handful of strong
    platform product plays. They'll exist symbiotically with a diverse and
    growing base of agencies and consultants who build their businesses on top
    of those pure platforms. Some marketers will benefit from agencies, while
    others won't. Many agencies and consultants are needed because of the
    immaturity of the space, but that dynamic will evolve over time — because
    marketers will get more sophisticated, and better out-of-the-box products
    will become prevalent. Agencies always will be needed for the most complex
    challenges. But the most important thing is to separate all these vendor
    propositions to their essence and then make best-of-breed decisions. Best
    technology, best agency management, best education, best integration, best
    analytics, etc. In some cases, a best hybrid.

    Also, as we're witnessing with the exploding WordPress blog platform, open
    standards can become a huge platform advantage because they rally
    stakeholders, especially passionate developers, to iterate and innovate at a
    rapid clip. I hope and anticipate the same will happen in the community
    platform space.

  5. Hi Max and thanks for the good words.

    IBM: One could argue IBM is becoming more of a services company, but they bring the full spectrum of technology with them, Sometimes they start using 3rd parties, but eventually they bring forward their own platforms. Take web site software. IBM is the lead player in that now, with Websphere. There platform business for this is bigger than their competitors, but it is lead in the door, followed by, I guess surrounded by their services

    But you actually raise another distinction which I think is important to the discussion; the platform spectrum and what services go with that. As distinguished from other services very important to social networking: Strategy, brand socialization, community management and moderation. I think this set of services makes all the difference and will not go in house or standardize/commoditize. In large part because they involve a specialized creativity. Similar to other marketing and creative venues (e.g TV commercials or TV shows). Conceivably a brand could bring it all in house. Really big brands usually have marketing people in house and even by type of marketing. But they tend toward agencies who creatively excel at the venue – say TV or digital. Having said that, we push our clients to create inside community manager positions for our community management team to work with. In fact we don't take assignments unless they assign someone to such a role at least part time. Or unless they have us place one of our people inside their company full time to be that inside person with the inside knowledge and connections of the company

    Having said that, I think perhaps you are speaking more to the the platform spectrum and range of development services around them. Here is the spectrum I see:

    1) Turnkey system with standard platform, no flexibility to change at all

    2) Turnkey system with standard platform with template, configuration, widget and content API flexibility

    3) Turnkey system, with standard platform with all of #2 plus application API flexibility – this would be almost a full development platform. (Note there are vendors who offer just the API version of this scenario, without offering a pre-made turnkey system – but none of those were reviewed as the Forrester top 9.)

    4) Turnkey system, with standard platform with all of #2 plus #3 application API flexibility….. plus the vendor offers services to customize it further

    5) Build it from scratch custom often using a CMS system as the basis (ugh – this is not a good idea for a client that wants a good social network solution and the benefits of platform leverage – Jeremiah at Forrester has blogged on the pitfalls of this approach)

    I could, and it would be interesting to place the vendor list along this dimension, but I'm not sure it's protocol for me to talk about them. (LiveWorld, BTW is in the #4 slot. Many of our top brand clients have come to us as uniquely able to customize to their needs. But we feel we put so much into those custom systems, that our standard out of the box offering fell behind in first half of 2008. So we needed to and did update it this past 6 months and did, including some breakthrough products like LiveBar.)

    One would think that a vendor in slot #1 being totally invested in it, and not having to be flexible would lead the innovation curve, followed by #2 and so on. But per my comments above. it ebbs and flows among them all, driven often by the practical circumstances of each vendor. The added capabilities of scenario 2 are so important though that the resulting flexibility probably outweighs any innovation from scenario 1. Depending on the client, that may be true for 3 over 2 and 4 over 3…or not. Most of the Forrester top 9 vendors are in slot 2 or slot 3.

    Again each point along the way has its pros and cons. Customizability and how much a system is customized is often traded off against new features. Conceptually you are right. As the systems advance their built in flexibility should at least make it easier to customize, if not greatly reduce the amount of customization needed. We strive for that. But in practice, it's hard. Because of the wide range of what clients want. Design, features, complicated integration. Open source and standards does help some, especially via modular apps that play well together. Still the more open, the wider the combinations get, the more complex things get and it can work against innovation. At Apple we fought this battle every day. Generally Apple makes more elegant products, but with a very proprietary approach, resulting in more narrow functionality and fewer 3rd party products. Windows is the never ending platform, but shall we say “not as good”. What do we like better elegant or wider choices? Sometimes the tipping question is who has something more innovative right now (there's that technology ebb and flow again). Interestingly proprietary seems to work great for dedicated boxes like an iPod, or Video Game Machine. Not as well for a general purpose personal computer. How so for web software platforms? So far across the web, at least the commercial part, it seems to go more vendor provided with a spectrum of open standards/open source (usually the vendor supports it, but their solution is still proprietary to the vendor.)

    Theoretically one day we'd have open standard, open source , do it all, unlimited flexibility social network platforms (one all encompassing one, or a few with interoperability). While LiveWorld writes much of our own code, it's all standards (Java shop). We actually use some other vendor platform code in some cases, and open source as well. We even considered and had high hopes for Drupal for a while. Now there is a very interesting platform with an entire eco-system of 1,000's of developers contributing to its evolution. Alas we found it slow to develop on (so there goes the platform leverage in a practical sense) with scale issues. Just wouldn't work for our larger client deployments. More suitable to shorter term projects with low scale systems. Missing many things our clients ask for, though having quite a few we have yet to see in any of the top 9 company platforms.

    So I agree with you conceptually, but find that client needs and platform realities tend not to adhere to the concept 🙂 And all of that is apart from the strategy/.community mgmt/moderation services part o the equation.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful response — I learned a lot. I think a key lens is sophistication and complexity of the problem — and the more of that, the more relevant your individual approach is. In contrast, I would think a company with more straightforward needs would quickly go for the best product, most simple and beautiful, scalable, instant, with as few extraneous features as possible. At this time, my start-up company would fall into that camp.

  7. So here u r coming to say that it is an entire sea change in society of how we live, work, learn and play. Everything is about relationships.
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