Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Why Branding an Intranet as SharePoint May Prove Worthwhile

What is your intranet called - has it got a name? I fully understand the validity of the argument that it is better to brand an intranet with a cool and funky name than use the ubiquitous word 'SharePoint' though I am going to disagree that one should. Let me explain why. First of all, the word 'intranet' itself is a major problem and fundamentally it depends how one even attempts to define what an intranet is, what services it includes and what it does not. Not everyone agrees. The word 'intranet' often sets in stone the views of a frequently disenfranchised business audience who all too often view their intranet as historically out of date, static, lacking in up to date content, dull,. sprawling, untrusted and chaotic.

Add to the mix the problems of mixing collaborative services with published content and an audience is all too often confused as to the services it provides as much as they are negative to the connotations of the word 'intranet' and any brand name associated with it. (a name all too often forced on an audience through a 'competition' filtered through executive governance).

What the word 'SharePoint' can powerfully do is act as a unifier as one pulls disparate technologies gradually together onto the same unified platform. It also allows you to distance yourself from the negative connotations of earlier legacy platforms and services that defined the historical intranet and that were seen to have failed. If an aging intranet is replaced with a new intranet, it doesn't matter about the power of SharePoint as the audience has already started to think its more of the same due to the name connotations.

Now lets expand the problem in the direction you suggest. So its not a SharePoint intranet, its AcmeWeb with a new shiny brand name. Cool. But as you expand out the platform and scale to other related services what do you start to call them? So do we brand search as AcmeFind and User profiles(AcME) and My Sites (AcmeMyWeb) and Knowledge communities and extranets and what happens if we have 200 brand retail sites like I have seen in a single global company. Lets add in the huge numbers of collaborative communities with thousands of team sites in hundreds of site collections, do we brand them all separately too? And then scale out to 15 languages and regional content centres and more names?

That's an extreme example but the point to be made is that once you start to brand content areas it may never end (how do you manage the brand name governance and who owns it?) and soon it is more confusing than had you never tried to brand the intranet as a starting point. "Where did you put that file? It's on AcmeExtraWeb". Large corporations can have huge information superstructures and to brand each element may simply become unmanageable, particularly when each business area names their own and we suddenly gain brand wars (which I have witnessed).

Having worked with SharePoint implementations in global corporations what I have seen is the positive step where people state that their information is now on 'SharePoint' and whereabouts in SharePoint is more to do with the logical placement of information using business-centric structures rather than un-related branding. In some ways what the name 'SharePoint' achieves is not just act as a unifier but also as a corporate political pacifier.

Features and functions span brand names as its the same platform. So do we train people to use the intranet or do we train them to use the features and functions of SharePoint that may crop up repeatedly within other business service areas?

One can (and should) separate 'SharePoint' as a business program split into related business services (i.e. Salem™), from SharePoint as a technology. Its a conceptual point which makes it easier to gain heavy adoption using the 'SharePoint' brand name rather than the variety of corporate names. Business audiences seek and crave cohesion & simplicity and the singular name 'SharePoint' can frequently offer this at the enterprise level. Branding may perpetuate the problems seen previously with lots of technologies mixed together, simply too many things to remember for the info worker.                                          

SharePoint Product Marketing & Adoption: The Appliance of the First Follower Principle

Do you know who Lady Gaga spends all her time supporting? She actively supports her most loyal 1% of followers. You will find that many successful musicians and bands have supported their most loyal followers and fan club owners and members over the decades. Have you ever stopped and asked yourself why?

It is based intentionally or otherwise on the First Follower principle which I will explain in a minute. When people create something new, they see the value in their creation, they develop it, they give it a name and an identity and then they bravely release their child to the world to let others adore it, and no one comes.

So it is in the world of SharePoint creativity. In these days of packaged, commoditized applications, solutions and packages the trend is to define a new product for SharePoint, define its value, give it a name, build a website and then offer it for sale. And no one comes.

So the question arises, what do we need to do to sell our SharePoint products in a global market? How do we get people to see what we have got, what we have made, how they will benefit? So we package and brand and market and market some more. And no one comes.

We have built it, we know its value, we know how great it is and we have paid our money and told our world that we exist so why does no one come and buy? In defining the problem we return to the First Follower principle. You see far too many creators sell directly to a global audience and we are all very aware that no one likes being sold to. Well we do really, in a subtle way, but not in an overt way. We want to be left to make the choice ourselves after becoming informed.

Here is the issue. We tend not to buy from a seller. We tend to buy the value of something from the people who have already bought and can vouch independently that the product is actually pretty good. Think about it, you see three flat screen TVs in a shop but are not sure which to buy but one of your friends has one of them and you have seen it in action in their house and it sways you that that is the one for you. Or you meet someone who has been to a particular place on holiday and confirms it is a great place to relax. Or you know someone who works in a company and provides great feedback that it is a good place to work.

Intrinsically we trust our friends, workmates, family and colleagues more than we trust a stranger. It is a natural human condition. We mistrust sales jargon because it does not sound real, it has slogans, it sounds far too unreal, too artificial, it is trying too hard. We tend not to buy from people who try too hard. Yet when we are selling something we do try too hard because we think we must try harder and harder to convince people how great our creation is.

If we accept this is true, or even partly true then as the creators we also have to accept a certain truth. People do not buy from the creator/leader/market leader directly; they buy from the people who first bought, the first follower. If you go to a dating website you will find lots of pretty pictures of people providing testimonials as to how great the site is. If they are too pretty it’s too good to be true right? Yes that’s usually the case. Yet if your average friend has used the dating site to meet their Mr or Miss average/perfect then wow maybe this site is okay. In other words we have a local and real reference point. So we do not buy from the seller, we buy from a buyer.

When you create something new in SharePoint, your task is to create an audience of first followers. In many religions you will find reference to apostles, disciples, followers, believers; the people who become the evangelists for a belief. So it is with product marketing, it is your first followers, your product disciples who will go and spread the good work and word. They will speak on your behalf, they will sell your product to the wider community. So it is for this very reason that when marketing your own SharePoint product or application or package or service, the key to your success lays not in selling to your end client audience but to those who first come to endorse your product.

Think of it this way. You create a SharePoint application and you know it is brilliant and you know it really fills a business need. Now you need to spend your time on finding your first follower, your first follower will eventually attract other first followers and these first followers are the people you will look after, cherish, support, take in and encourage. How many you need will depend on how good they are at spreading the great word about your product. Therefore bloggers and speakers are naturally your first port of call as they are trusted in the community. If you become a speaker yourself great, but you become the direct seller again you see and are less trusted.

So over time your first followers will attract second followers who will buy not from you but from them and then more will join the second followers until a crowd starts to emerge. There will be a lot of bystanders at this stage observing and watching. They want to buy but they seek affirmation and confirmation that it is alright, it’s the right thing to do; it’s about wanting to be part of something new but unable to take the lead until someone else you look up to shows you the way. You will find as 'follower-packs' start to emerge that new leaders within the followers-pack (2nd generation evangelists if you like) will emerge who are the leaders of the second generation of followers of your product. But you must still look after and support your first followers.

People talk about a tipping point. A tipping point occurs when it becomes uncomfortable not to join in and use a product because so many have already. So consequently a product becomes a norm or a viral sensation when more people have bought into something (or appear to have had) than not, and by sitting it out you may think you are perceived as an oddball, missing out in some way. Just think what happened with the iPhone. You don’t need to sell millions of a product to become a standard, you simply need your product to be seen as the de facto for that subject matter though your first followers.

So in marketing a new SharePoint product what you should be concerned about is not selling your product to everyone on day one, but building momentum through those who first value your product and who are capable, willing and able to tell the world, hand on heart, as independently, honestly and truthfully as possible whether they think your product is valuable to their own audiences and why. If you do that and do it well, your product stands a chance.

For those of you who are heavily involved in SharePoint service implementation and adoption the exact same principles apply. People adopt (buy in) through their peers the people sat at the next desk, the people who are real, who are using something that seems great. Consequently as an implementer, people will not buy in from you, they will buy in from their own, the people who were the first followers, the first adopters. The ones they can and will trust. This is exactly why you must identify your business champions, the most effective ones, the most positive and vocal ones early in the delivery cycle and the ones you must support and tend to the most.

There is a video of a man dancing on a hill which describes the entire principle of the first follower in just a few minutes and I firmly recommend it to everyone who seeks to take their SharePoint product to market whether it be an app a product or a service. It may not sell as many songs as Lady Gaga but you never know!

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Profession or Community: What's Best for the SharePoint Industry?

It seems to me that the SharePoint industry can't have it both ways. On the one hand we have an admirable, creditable but largely unverified, uncertified, freestyler community of self-learning individuals who choose to do their own thing and share what they want to share, when they want to share it with who ever they choose. Nothing wrong with that.

On the other hand, we have a well-established global eco-system of accredited technology partners, varied in size, scope, bias, viewpoint, method, technique, ambition and price-point. This is what defines global capitalism, supply and demand. Let the buyer decide and set the market.

Make no mistake however, other industries have learned over decades, if not centuries, that if they are to survive intact they must establish their Guilds, independent trade bodies, professional trade associations and professional certification tracks with membership requirements (professional indemnity and charters and ethics) to protect the integrity of their industries from the ever-present charlatans, rogue traders and 'have-a-go' merchants. The results is that these bodies give newcomer-clients a starting point, benchmark, reference point and the industry its cohesive voice to the market. Protectionism? Of course, that's how established professions work.

There will always be the backstreet body-shops in any industry, together with the bandwagon-jumpers and opportunists and sadly there will always be those who choose to cut corners and take the risks that come with it. Yet there will be the many more who choose the old, trusted professionals, or those they believe to be professionals.. However, if the industry makes it far too hard to spot the real professionals and understand their true value then you can't blame the buyers for being confused as to where to turn and who or what to avoid.

So the SharePoint industry and indeed the larger IT industry in general needs to make up its mind (fast) after decades of accelerated growth whether it wishes to become more professional, accredited, certified and trusted. If it does, it needs to prove its credentials. In turn we should ask the industry whether it wishes to be viewed like other very established and skilled professions with extensive, mature training and association membership across a wider landscape and portfolio of associated skillsets? The very nature of what we do often has a major effect on the businesses we engage with, just like an attorney, accountant or financier does.

Or perhaps we need to ask instead whether the industry wishes to align itself with a more open, freestyle community of 'anyone can have a go and join in' approach, because you certainly cannot have both and solve the problems of diversity. We either support the progressive 'professionalization' of our industry or we remain in the wild west and live with the creative consequences.

A final thought. In the 17th century rich people had black teeth due to eating a new thing called sugar. Sugar, and therefore black teeth became an aspiration of the poor and they subsequently blackened their own teeth with coal as a fashion. People don't necessarily choose to go to a backstreet dentist to get their teeth fixed or indeed cleaned. They do it largely out of simple necessity where the larger, more established profession has become too exclusive, too out of reach, too slow and simply too expensive for a rapidly expanding market. Whilst the professionalism of the SharePoint industry seriously matters to us all, established delivery firms (onshore or otherwise) now do need to reassess how they are approaching the competitive marketplace and therefore what their true market-differentiation propositions are. Otherwise everyone has black teeth.