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October 21, 2010

On Influencer50 and the SharePoint Influencer50

First, I’ve been struggling with this post for a while now. I realize that there’s simply no way to post this post without some folks thinking that I’m just being “sour grapes.” However, I’ve had so many people reach out to me and ask me about this or talk to me about it that I just don’t feel like I can be silent about it any longer. I know that many of my friends have elected to be silent on this topic because they believe that it can be ignored. I, however, am concerned that if it remains it will create problems for users because they won’t realize just how bad the list is. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Global360 published an Influencer50 report on their web site. There have been numerous folks commenting – some publically – that the list is hogwash. While I fundamentally support the concept of better understanding your market, I think the list itself is fundamentally flawed.

The basic set of comments that I’ve heard about the project is “Who are these people?” That’s a pretty impactful question when the list is supposed to be a set of folks who are the influencers in the market. Obviously, I’ve been asked why my name isn’t on the list – and while I must admit my curiosity, I’m much more interested in the folks who actually are on the list. I have a belief about how the list may have become fundamentally flawed – however, I’m way ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the public background that’s been explained and expand it with some additional data.

Global360 and KnowledgeLake commissioned Influencer50 to create a report on the most influential people in the market. That’s actually one of the smartest things I’ve seen in the industry (IT) in years – organizations that recognize the value of research in allowing them to target their marketing efforts. I’m working to better understand how marketing works so that I can better sell the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users. I think the idea of understanding your market and influencers better is a great idea. However, I’m convinced that they just stumbled across the wrong folks to “help” them.

How did they stumble across the Influencer50 folks? I don’t really know. However, their claim to fame is the book Influencer Marketing. The book is published through Butterworth-Heinemann which is an imprint of Elsevier – a respected publisher. However, when you look more closely (more closely than either Global360 or KnowledgeLake would have reasonably been expected to look) you’ll see that the sales for the book aren’t that great. Amazon’s sales rank is notoriously fickle (in publishing circles) however, as I write this the Influencer Marketing book rank is 835,415 and by comparison The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users (2007) is 31,287. Whether or not you’ve read The Long Tail you’ll know that there’s a big difference in sales between these two ranks. Having read it you’ll know that people way out on the tail can continue to make money. Consider that we’re talking about books that were released at roughly the same time (Q1 2008) and that mine was self-published so it has no back end marketing engine behind it (like you would expect from a publisher and an author of a marketing book.) Wouldn’t you think that a book by a respected publisher on marketing would out sell my little self-published book? Again, I know the Amazon sales rank number is not very reliable but it’s public so everyone can take a live look at the data whenever they want. You can draw your own conclusions but the one I drew was that a book about marketing didn’t sell very well or doesn’t continue to sell very well. It’s not something that seemed to resonate well for the market and if the authors are experts at marketing and the influencer concept is the key concept why didn’t it?

If the book doesn’t appear to be selling, what do we know about the organization? Not a ton really. Several of the links on the web site don’t work, there is a limited amount of content. The content that is there is repeated or framed into small windows to create the appearance of being more than it is. What do we know about the process? Well, there’s the new blog post on titled Criteria for Selection of the SharePoint 50. That calls out 8 criteria. However, they’re not clear about how these are calculated. So rather than try to understand the details of the process, let’s look at what appear to be the foundational concepts of the book (I’ve not read it.)

The site describes the book “‘Influencer Marketing’ is the next serious book in the tradition of The Tipping Point (Gladwell), The Influentials (Berry and Keller) and Purple Cow (Godin). The book demonstrates clearly, authoritatively and with numerous real examples Seth Godin’s widely accepted view that it’s ‘useless to advertise to anyone except connectors with influence.'” So let’s get past the marketing hype. They’re saying that they’re going to show you how to market (and identify) connectors with influence. But what are connectors? Malcom Gladwell’s book Tipping Point made the point that connectors are folks who are regularly make introduction. Gladwell talks about them in the context of Mavens – trusted experts in the field. Ideally you want someone who is a trusted expert in the field who is connected to a Connector to leverage that knowledge. The other piece of the marketing statement is ‘with influence.’ defines influence in part as ‘the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others’. That makes sense. Influence can change behavior. Organizations want to change behavior toward buying their product. (There’s not necessarily any malice in this. It can be that the organization believes that their product is in the influenced person’s best interest.)

I’d say that they missed more than a few books on the concepts that they are talking about. Specifically, Linked and Groundswell come to mind. I suppose that Wikinomics is also important because what we’re talking about is a set of mass-market, social interactions that generally don’t have any money changing hands.

We take Nick Hayes and Duncan Brown at their word that their work is based on the work of Malcom Gladwell, then we’re got a basis for understanding. I should say that Malcom Gladwell is an interesting individual in his own right. He deserves a bit deeper investigation because he’s an excellent researcher and writer. In addition to The Tipping Point, I’ve also read Blink and Outliers. Back to the point, we’ve got to tear apart Malcom Gladwell’s initial assertion about the value of connectors and their influence. In his book he made the point that connectors aren’t really valuable in themselves. They’re the conduit to connect to the get to the mavens. I believe, based on Nick Hayes responses in the interview with Global360 posted on that they’ve tried to take this into account because they’ve made it clear that the loudest voices aren’t necessarily the influencers. True enough. However, I believe that fundamentally the approach that they’re taking cannot work and here’s why:

You cannot measure what you cannot see

Most of the connections that happen and most of the influence that is exerted simply cannot be seen. When I get asked by a client for a Ruby on Rails architect there’s no way you can see the email exchange. Nor can you see that my response included Mike Gunderloy who I met years ago when he was developing for Microsoft technologies and serving as a lab manager for 101 communications. There’s no way to see (from the outside) my Outlook contacts.

Influencer50 attempts to infer the effectiveness of a connector by public information – marketing information. However, the public information is noticeably skewed and incomplete. Let’s take an acquaintance for whom I have great respect, Susan Hanley. (She made the list by the way.) It’s hard to see the folks that she respects and refers folks to because here web site doesn’t have a set of outbound links from her web site. Thus there’s no way to see who she values or where she’ll send people if they ask her about any topic. There’s simply not enough data to know who she trusts – and who you should trust if you trust her.

My point is simply that it’s foolhardy to believe that there’s enough information to make an assessment of someone’s influence based on public information. Of course, this opens the opportunity that Influencer50 did interviews and got Sue to describe who she would recommend for different things. That would be fine if Influencer50 knew the right questions to ask about the important areas in SharePoint but candidly I don’t know anyone that does.

Let’s take for instance Global360’s market – business process management. If there were to focus on SharePoint Workflow (the most equivalent concept in SharePoint) they should have come up with three names: David Mann, Wouter van Vugt, and me. Why do I say that? Well, between the three of us we’ve got almost all of the public information and tools on workflow. David wrote a book. I’ve written book chapters. Wouter runs a codeplex project with helpful tools. With a handful of exceptions David, Wouter, or I are the ones speaking about workflow at conferences. None of us made the list. So clearly the question wasn’t asked about workflow influencers wasn’t asked. (I realize the preceding borders on “sour grapes” – you could leave my name off the list and the impact is the same but I didn’t feel like leaving my name off of the list would have been genuine.)

I realize that I’m saying if they did ask the question they should have fallen back and checked the market to see if Sue’s answer matched what the market was seeing – which I believe would have been prudent – but that goes against the idea that they were doing telephone interviews to figure out the connections. The reality is I know they didn’t have conversations with everyone on the list. The list was initially intended to be private but was made public because Global360 felt like they could get some marketing gain from it.

Honestly, I don’t know KnowledgeLake’s influencers well enough to tell you who that list should be and who didn’t make it. I can’t tell you who are the folks that you would look to for ECM guidance on SharePoint and whether KnowledgeLake is the right answer or not. Having been in and around the ECM market outside SharePoint in the past I know that I’ve not seen anyone talking about the kinds of issues that customers doing ECM think about.

You cannot predict the weather

I remember watching a TV show years and years ago which was talking about how scientists and researchers had created these massively complex weather models leveraging knowledge of fluid dynamics and other disciplines. The show was on chaos theory and the fact that there are some things that are difficult to predict even when you know all the data. The key experience was when the researcher fed data back into the program he was developing and he got a different set of results. His discovery was that he had rounded his values to 3 decimal places when he put the data back in and the difference between three decimal places and the computers values made a difference when he reran the simulation. Thus for complex formulas to work you need exceedingly precise data. Don’t believe me? How often is your local weather man wrong about the weather? I sometimes joke it’s the only job that I know where you can be wrong 2/3rds of the time and still keep your job. (I’m not picking on the people simply the belief that it’s a solvable problem.)

When you’re looking at influencers how can you possibly see enough detail about the interactions to accurately predict or influence them? Another set of examples. I’ve had really bad interactions with two corporations. First, Verizon back when they were GTE. I had a cell phone cloned (think analog.) They handled the problem so poorly that I refused to ever do business with them again. Second, Bright House/Road Runner and I had some issues where their customer support was so bad I’ll never do business with them again. The first example you wouldn’t have known. The second issue, you would only know because of my blog post. If you were trying to predict my behavior with regard to phone or internet providers you might assume that I’m flexible on these topics – as most people are. However, these details would make it clear that this isn’t the case.

Conversely, if you ask me about where to go for SharePoint IT Pro training, I’ll have no opinion. I won’t provide any influence to anyone because I simply don’t have an opinion to try to use to influence someone else. You’ll never get enough details to determine where someone will – and won’t have an opinion.

You can’t see the whole picture at one time

I made the point earlier that the question about SharePoint Workflow influencers probably didn’t get asked because that sphere of influencers I know pretty well. I think there’s another truth here that goes beyond asking the right question. The truth is that every market has a certain amount of grouping that happens. For instance, there are a set of instructors that work for Critical Path Training. They tend to talk with and work with folks from Critical Path Training – and some others. If you start with Andrew Connell or Ted Pattison (both on the list) you’re going to hear about the folks that they know well – and you’ll add folks that they believe are influential. You’ll miss folks who they don’t regularly deal with. They may be very influential but they may not be in the normal contacts of a person. Of course, if you go maybe 3 connections out you’ll find every good candidate but if you do that you’ll have thousands of folks you’re evaluating to determine if they’re truly influencers or not.

You either have to constrain your data mining to be very so small as to be incomplete – or you have to make it so large as to make the filtering process very difficult. Andrew Connell has 457 connections on Linked in. Scot Hillier has 182. So for round numbers let’s figure 300 connections per person. For simplicity assume that overlap is half of those contacts so 150 unique contacts per person if you go three levels out and you’re looking at roughly 3 million people. Obviously that’s not possible to even consider.

Let’s look at this from another angle. SharePoint’s a very big product. If you’re working as an IT Pro in a mid-sized organization you probably don’t know Andrew Connell. On the other hand if you’re doing WCM you probably don’t know about Chris Geier, his focus has been in workflow/BPM and more recently in storage management. The product is so big that most folks don’t even try to cover it all. There are folks that know me for the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide and don’t know that I do a ton of high-end SharePoint developer content or that I’m one of the few folks that do workflow in SharePoint. So there are pockets of the SharePoint market that don’t really touch one another – or touch each other so tangentially that it doesn’t cause connectivity. So I don’t believe it’s even possible to define a single set of influencers over SharePoint. I think that it’s like trying to define influencers on Windows – or on Computing in general. Some folks will have great influence in their areas but beyond Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, Steve Balmer, and Larry Ellison – who are they? And how influenced by Larry Ellison are you if you’re not running Oracle software?

You can’t influence what you don’t recommend

From my perspective, you can’t influence what you don’t recommend. The nail in the coffin of the SharePoint Influencer50 for me was the inclusion of John Newton – Alfresco’s CTO and Chairman on the list. Their advertising has been consistently anti-SharePoint. In fact, most of the time I see their ads jump up on the search engines when I search for SharePoint. Their ads that try to lure people away from doing SharePoint at all. I suppose there’s an argument that they do have some influence on the market but they don’t have influence on the market once a person has decided to use SharePoint. Their influence is over the initial decision which isn’t the space that we spend most of our time in. I have had a few competitive solutions where the user hadn’t decided on SharePoint yet but I can tell you that none of the questions were about Alfreso. They’ve always been about large WCM implementations and those competitors.

How is it that a person that leads a competitive solution is any influence on the market once the decision is made? What this says to me is that Influencer50 didn’t bother to do any sanity checking on their results to ensure that they were reasonable.

Just Stop it

Before I close out, I have to say congratulations to everyone who has their name on the SharePoint Influencer50 list. I can on the one hand tear apart the exercise’s fallacy and at the same time say that I’m happy that many of the folks that I respect are recognized for their influence. I have not conflict with this. My issue isn’t and has never been the people who were recognized. I’m just convinced that the whole exercise was a fool’s errand.

I wish people would stop trying to publicize a list of the 100 most popular blogs, Top 50 Influencers, etc. Let’s just continue to do the things that are necessary to move the market forward. Bringing things full-circle… I fully support the idea of better understanding the market. I think it’s a monumentally bad idea to pass of this sort of an exercise as a marketing activity in and of itself.

If you agree, I have one small ask. Please post a link to this blog post in a blog post or tweet about this blog post. There’s a delightful irony in making the most influential post about SharePoint one about how bad the influencer list is.

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