[GUEST POST] How AR is Doing: An Ex-AR Practitioner’s View from the Other Side, by Evan Quinn / ESG

This guest post has been authored by Evan Quinn (LinkedIn, @evanquinn, blog) who is a Senior Principal Analyst at ESG (Enterprise Strategy Group) covering Data Management, Analytics, Big Data and Cloud Platform-as-a-Service. While at Axicom, Evan was also on the IIAR board .

Speech is free: Evan and ESG are not associated in any ways with the IIAR and the post below contains Evan’s opinions which might not reflect the views of IIAR’s members or ESG.

A couple of years ago I decided it was time to step away from the analyst/influencer relations function for at least awhile.  The researcher/competitive analyst side of me was asking for an outlet, and so I left the AR ranks.  But, ironically, in my current job as an industry analyst I have  the opportunity to see how AR practitioners perform their jobs every business day.  I am here to report that things have changed somewhat in AR, and in some cases not for the better.  But first some background.

I started working for Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) last summer, covering databases, BI/analytics, platform-as-a-service, integration and that trend known as big data which is the subject of as much hyperbole as any trend in IT right now.  ESG, while a “tier 2” firm, has grown steadily during its over 10 years of existence, is the leading analyst firm in terms of performing lab validations – yes, we will actually install and test an IT product, unlike any of the tier 1s. While ESG has grown steadily and expanded its coverage in its over 10 years of existence, at least in terms of size, coverage breadth (e.g. no consumer research) and geographic reach (little in Asia), ESG is not a tier 1.

My other experiences as an analyst were with IDC, Gartner, and Hurwitz Group; I started my first job as an analyst almost 20 years ago with IDC. While at the tier 1s, if I asked for a briefing AR always jumped on the request.  Even if the timing was wrong, they at least responded nearly immediately, almost always same day, and if a briefing didn’t make sense at that time they would explain why and propose alternative plans.  The proactive outreach emanating from the vendors through AR was constant. But even at Hurwitz Group, which was a tier 3 firm way back when the tech bubble burst in the early 2000s, even though the proactive outreach was less than when I worked at the tier 1s, the level of responsiveness when I was interested in some information or a briefing was the same as when I was with the tier 1s.

Even a few years ago there seemed to be two fundamentals that everyone practiced in AR:  (1) Be responsive, professionally responding to email in a timely fashion, (2) If an analyst wants information, try to help the analyst obtain it because, (a) it keeps them accurate, you don’t want rogue, uninformed analysts out there and, (b) if they want information odds are high that they are going to write and/or talk about the product or service.

Surprisingly, I see those basic principles sometimes getting lost today – maybe there are not enough AR people, or AR budgets are too tight, or there are too many analysts, especially now that non-analyst bloggers are part of the influence chain.  But I believe that, despite that often legitimate excuse of “being overwhelmed,” the lack of responsiveness from AR to analysts of any stripes is full of risk and should be avoided if at all possible. What is worse is that lack of responsiveness has been institutionalized.

Enter PR Mindset, the Gatekeeper, and One-to-Many

One AR trend that was underway when I stopped working in AR was that a PR mindset was infiltrating AR.    People trained in media relations moved into AR departments, or were handling AR wholly as a shared practice with PR, or were AR agency personnel.  A long time ago AR sometimes reported into product marketing or product management, but now, with only a few exceptions, AR reports into corporate communications.  And 9 times out of 10, or maybe less, the head of corporate comms never practiced AR.

To be fair, not all PR people are poor at AR. Much has to do with the corporate comms leader; if she or he “gets” the unique nature and lifecycle of analyst relations, understands how analysts fit distinctly in the influence chain or echo chamber, that enlightened viewpoint tends to permeate the team.  When I as at Oracle, the head of corporate comms, a PR professional, totally “got” AR, and the AR and PR teams functioned effectively together, yet had their own distinct best practices.  While at HP, however, some corporate comms leaders were baffled by AR – in fact one leader didn’t know the difference between IR and AR.  Suffice it to say that AR often operated under PR principles, though someAR practitioners who knew better were effective nonetheless.   What is wrong with the pure PR mindset in the context of AR?

  • Pitch:  I am constantly pitched ideas and positions by PR people masquerading as AR.  Their mode is to strong-arm me into writing free pieces for them. They don’t understand that analysts (a) care relatively less about news cycles, (b) have their own PoVs – we are not there to simply regurgitate, (c) are willing to question and test marketing claims and have the research and knowledge to do so, and (d) have our own publishing cycles.   In terms of “news” I will write a blog post about something I find compelling and I always try to put it in a strategic context.  Pitch me too hard and I am less likely to write about your vendor, even if I was originally self-compelled to do so.
  • Throwaway Relations:  Yes, I understand we are in a dog-eat-dog business.  But a good AR person (a) grasps the work cycle of analysts, and based on that (b) consciously reaches out and “relates” to analysts.  The best lesson I ever was taught about AR was from an AR person at Sun: He called me one day when I was working at IDC.  I asked him what he wanted, and he said, “Nothing in particular, just wanted to know if you needed anything from us.”  Wow, no obvious agenda, how refreshing.  The PR mindset comes across as much more of a one way street – smile, lure, sell but when it is all done disappear; most analysts weren’t born yesterday.
  • Gatekeeping and One-to-Many:  Spokesperson time is dear and to deal with that many vendors now hold one-to-many briefings, where a spokesperson will do a web conference to outline product plans, launches, etc., for a number of analysts cross-firm.  That is okay some of the time.  But individual analysts should occasinally be given the opportunity to interact with the vendor experts; I certainly am not going to test my theories and primary takeaways in an open forum with other industry analysts.  And those general briefings often do not go into details that I think are important.One of the largest software vendors uses a well-known agency to handle non-tier 1 analysts, and the agency ONLY gate-keeps.  The agency personnel act like low level of customer service people who follow a script with a primary goal of not servicing the customer.  It is probably the worst practice I have ever seen in AR.  Analysts try to be objective, and it is something I take pride in – but if I am treated with disdain by agency PR types filling in AR ranks, it is difficult not to react.   This worst practice encourages analysts to make up their own stuff, to not give the vendor the benefit of the doubt, and to carry a grudge even if we try not to.

That said, some of the PR people from agencies that work mainly with start-ups are quite effective doing AR.  I guess just like many personnel at start-ups, the agencies that support them are comfortable wearing many hats.  My experience, for the most part, is that they do a little PR mindset pitching, but also endeavour to give analysts direct access to spokespeople – and just as I appreciate it when they understand my job, I try to appreciate their job and responsibilities too.  Quid pro quo.

Among the large vendors with full-scale AR teams, I see a widening divergence of effectiveness.  For me those two fundamentals, responsiveness and relations, make the big difference. Oracle, for example, while known for being a tough competitor in the marketplace, nonetheless excels in my recent experience at being responsive and at relationship management with analysts.  Among somewehat smaller but still significant vendors the NetApp and Informatica AR teams excel in these fundamentals as well.  Some other larger vendors seem to me to lean too much on gate-keeping, but maybe they are just following that “if he isn’t tier-1 or a family favorite, make him attend the one-to-many briefings.”  To my shock, however, some of the largest firms have left the “be responsive” fundamental in the dust.

 

Bottom line

Industry analysts should not thought of as influence silos: we communicate with customers, alliance and channel partners, competitors, informally to personnel inside your vendor organization (sorry about that, but it happens), media, other analysts, consultants and bloggers – not in public.  Measuring analyst influence by number of tweets or Linkedin connections is a formula for AR disaster.

AR people, regardless of background, who forget about the hidden reach of analysts, put their vendors at foolish risk in the echo chamber.  It is actually quite simple:

  1. Respond to information requests in a timely fashion;
  2. Step off the pitch accelerator pedal - save it for when you really need it, and
  3. Lobby to get each analyst at least some private interaction.

 

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11 Responses

  1. The key to avoiding most of these issues is targeting – and alignment. By focusing on the 3-7 key individual analysts that influence buyers in each of your key product/market areas you focus you time and contract $s. PR folks tend to think “lists” not targets hence the differences.

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  2. It’s important to not throw the baby out with the bath-water. AR managers need to focus on the top-tier, but also have very different service levels for the long tail. There’s a huge business risk in focussing only on the top handful, and dedicating a fraction of your resource onto the long tail, in line with its influence. Furthermore, every vendor is focussing on the top handful: that makes it very hard to make a real impact. I wrote a little more along these lines in 2010: http://www.analystequity.com/1344/which-analyst-firms-really-drive-sales

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    • Hi Duncan,

      I think you put it well. You don’t necessarily get the CEO on the phone with every analyst or journalist who requests it. But, IMO, for most companies of any size getting a spokesperson of some sort to brief is a better ROI than dealing with uninformed commentary resulting from an information vacuum. (And who knows which article or blog post will go viral, in any case.)

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  3. Thanks for your PoVs Duncan and Stephen. I sense the difference between your ideas and what too often happens in reality is you believe there should actually be a plan or a strategy. My guess is the lack of responsiveness is due exactly to a lack of a thoughtful plan from on high, combined with personnel who can’t fill in the gaps on their own. It takes two failures, management and practitioner, to not do something simple like be responsive to an influence opportunity that is dropped in your lap. An analyst, of any stripe, expresses interest in your company, product or service and the AR person or program lets that slip away? It is the same as, from a retail perspective, someone just walks into your store, finds the seller, and asks about a product – and the seller ignores them.

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  4. Hi Evan a very interesting post. A few thoughts:

    1) Resourcing in the AR profession is a major challenge, which is why many AR Managers choose to focus their efforts on Tier 1 firms/ analysts only. It has always intrigued me that my PR colleagues have not only had more headcount, but also budget for agency support as well – AR has definitely missed a trick here! AR staffing has been a longstanding problem, but perhaps it time for AR to redefine its value to the business and look at developing new SLA models?

    2) Tiering analyst firms/analysts as part of a strategic AR plan is fundamental to the success of the AR. A good AR Manager should know who the key influencers are and the value they can bring to the business. The AR compass (S.O.S.M Framework model) referenced on the IIAR site is a good example of why AR Managers need to think about engagements beyond the Top tier influencers.

    3) All analyst firms need to do a better job of demonstrating the influence they have on the sales cycle. This will help the cause for more justification of resources in point 1, which will ultimately provide better service levels.

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  5. Interesting stuff, Evan. I’d say you’re spot on about the PR mind-set infiltrating AR, I saw that again & again at 451 Group.

    I’ve only been at a vendor (Recommind) for 14 months, after 12 years as an analyst & seven as a journalist before that. While I don’t run AR or corporate comms, I do briefings with both analysts and journalists regularly in my role as head of product marketing, so am enjoying seeing things from the other side of the table.

    I’m surprised you singled out Oracle as an exemplar in terms of responsiveness however, as we found them the most difficult major vendor to deal with at 451 (perhaps because we started as a complete non-entity and worked our way up to a tier 2 company). During my time I found the mind-set there to be one of pure gate-keeping, of the type you describe. I’m sure it’s a lot easier at a tier 1 firm, however. On the other hand, I always found IBM (and Symantec, against which I now compete directly) to be highly responsive and you’re right, it inevitably clouds your view of the vendor if they’re persistently helpful or unhelpful over the years.

    One of the main things I took with me from the analyst to vendor side is that it’s so important to engage with analysts and do so beyond the obvious touch-points, such as a product launch, trade show etc. Waiting until you think you’re ready with ‘the news’ is not going to help your standing in the eyes of analysts.

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  6. Your comment says it all Nick: be helpful, engage early and often. But still, we have to deal with finite resources and what seem infinite requests from analysts ;-)

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  7. Hey Nick, thanks for the thinking. Re: ORCL and other comparisons, my sample on this is only about the last half year, though I have been surprised by the slippage of some of the historically more robust AR programs of larger vendors, which is was motivated me to write this in the first place. Sometimes it comes down to the individual AR practitioner too; a vendor might have the best program in the business, but if as an analyst you deal with the one rotten apple it spoils the bunch. That said, what I have observed, I believe, is systemic deterioration in some of the larger programs. In terms of analysts trying to get on a vendor’s map, as in your early 451 days, proposing something pertinent should make the difference: If an analyst says “I am writing a report about you,” or “I am writing a report about a market where you are a leader,” and you receive no response, there is something obviously wrong on the AR side.

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    • It’s a fact of life – AR resources are becoming more limited and often merged with PR. But – to be practical – those teams that do NOT massively prioritize the big end user influencers and sometimes see that resulting in non responsiveness to a small sell side player will FAIL overall. Targeting beats list building every day in AR. Our 300+ analyst interview based scorecards per year prove that many teams still get it right. Just not the same ones as 2-3 years ago!

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      • It would be interesting to see a snapshot Stephen.

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      • Working on a new product which will do just that….

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