Why Forrester Made The Right Call About Employee Blogs

TomWebster
Tom Webster Vice President, Strategy, Edison Research

Posted on February 10th 2010

Information wants to be free. Forrester wants to charge you for it. Even before the recent decision by Forrester to forbid its analysts from blogging about their coverage areas on personal blogs, these two facts were headed for a collision.

First, let's be fair: Forrester isn't stopping employees from blogging about things outside of their coverage areas on their personal sites, and they aren't stopping them from blogging about their coverage areas period—they are simply requiring that content to be hosted at Forrester.

Still, there has been quite a kerfuffle over this move on the blogosphere. GigaOm takes the populist stance, declaring that like media, research needs to be social, too. Probably won't get too many arguments from the chattering classes on Twitter there. Most of the comments against Forrester's decision list a bunch of “personal branding” reasons, but a company has every right to insist on an employee's full attention, just as it is every employee's right to move on when their desire for a personal brand grows stronger than their desire to build someone else's brand. Critics of Forrester's move point to their loss of Charlene Li and Jeremiah Owyang, but those anecdotes are not representative of the analyst industry as a whole.

I've read a lot of posts excoriating Forrester for their decision, but I doubt few (if any) have been written by actual paying clients of Forrester. I've been one, so that has informed what will probably be a pretty unpopular post here on BrandSavant :)

I've been on both sides of the analyst paywall in my career. In a past life, I managed analyst relations for a company, and was in the position of writing those checks to Forrester, Gartner, et al. I can assure you that those checks were plenty big. I have enormous respect for Josh Bernoff and some of his colleagues at Forrester, but I wouldn't have written checks of that size to “Josh Bernoff, LLC.” I wrote them to Forrester. I wrote them because Forrester granted me access to data—to information I could not get elsewhere—and the acquisition of that data comes at a high cost. Bernoff and other analysts add tremendous value to that data by helping their clients navigate through the interpretations and implications. But the competitive intelligence and primary research data collected by Forrester is at the heart of anything of value that they write.

In other words, the value of their analysis is inextricably tied to the value of the data they are analyzing, and that data is not only owned by Forrester, its very existence is dependent on the fact that Forrester can collect sensitive data from companies, sanitize it and synthesize to provide insight to its clients without exposing them. Take away that data, and the opinions of Forrester's analysts are just that. And you know what they say about opinions—they're like…uh…everyone has one.

Every time a Forrester analyst puts pen to paper on a given coverage area, they are doing so with the benefit of access to that information. Hosting those conversations at the Forrester blog is a tradeoff, but one that preserves the value of Forrester's intellectual property (IP.) Forrester clients don't pay Forrester to know stuff. They pay Forrester to know stuff before anyone else, or know stuff other people don't know. They pay for a competitive advantage, and they pay a lot. If Forrester's IP were spread all over the interwebs, the value of their analysis would naturally go down. This would make them more popular in social media circles, but less so in the writing-five-and-six-figure-checks-for-valuable-information circles, who would naturally start to question why they are paying Forrester when they can just aggregate the personal blogs of Forrester analysts.

As a personal example, I'd love to blog here about the work we do for the networks on the National Election Exit Polls, but anything I would write about would be dependent on access to that data, and that data is owned lock, stock and barrel by our clients, and they are the ones who will actually be sending little BrandSavant Jr to college. Can not do it. Similarly, analysts don't own the information they are analyzing, so it becomes difficult to extricate Forrester IP from the blogger's IP. Forrester has every right to dictate how its IP is used, when the scarcity of that IP is an existential question for the company.

Finally, much has been written about how this potentially tramples on the rights of the Forrester bloggers. Again, we'll see if this really prompts a mass exodus of analysts, or a renaissance in Forrester-hosted blogging—which would actually be good for clients. But consider what can happen to the reputation of Forrester (and its clients) when coverage areas are discussed on personal blogs. Now THAT'S a real kerfuffle. A human mistake, yes—it was owned up to, and all involved have moved on (and it's a testament to his character that these blog pages are still on his site.) But this could have (and maybe did) hurt Forrester right in the wallet. It's not my intent to rehash that particular incident, but let's all agree it was a significant black eye for the company and indeed the analyst industry as a whole. Forrester can afford to lose an analyst here and there—but they can't afford incidents like this.

And, as always, your comments are welcome!

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TomWebster

Tom Webster

Vice President, Strategy, Edison Research

Tom Webster is Vice President, Strategy for Edison Research, the firm entrusted as the sole provider of Exit Polling data for the major U.S. Networks for national elections and primaries. He is also the principal New Media analyst for Edison and a co-author of the company's long-running research series, the Edison/Arbitron Internet and Multimedia Series, now in its 18th iteration.
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Comments

Your first statement is interesting . "Information wants to be free". For any company dealing with an intangible product or service, that could be a little issue, as your article says. Our competitive advantage is the intellect of our investment managers (we are a money management firm). Simplistically, if we shared everything we were going to buy or sell, the moment we decided to do so, why would anyone pay us for our services?

I agree that a wider sharing of information is desirable and one of the great benefits of social media. Perhaps Forrester's PR is the issue, rather than the intent?

Forrester is faced with a unique issue when compared to other companies. IP of the company and thought leadership of its analyst/employees make up the value of the firm. I don't see where they have a choice on this policy. With that said they do need to take their heads out of the sand when it comes to compensation of rising star analysts. Charlene Lee and others might well have stayed on if the culture and compensation made sense to them compared to going start up. 
Only Forrester can answer this for sure, but the whole argument-from-HR policy seems to offer the same 2-3 star analysts as anecdotal evidence. No company--especially in their business--retains employees forever. Li, Owyang and Kim are highly visible examples, but are they exceptions or harbingers of the future? I can't answer that, but I suspect neither can anyone else who is currently weighing in on this issue from an HR strategy perspective :)

Cliff from Forrester here.  I think you nailed it.  Forrester is a team of analysts, not a loosely affiliated network of individuals.  That means the brands -- both the company's and the individuals -- are closely tied.

Forrester can help analysts build their brand by providing tools like the blogging platform, getting them access to key journalists at major media outlets, and help them secure key speaking spots at major conferences for example.

My work on social initiatives here at Forrester is based in a belief that both the analyst brand and Forrester brand can benefit.  One doesn't have to win over the other.

Cliff  Condon   

If you are trying to identify opportunities for improvement, the Forrester review gives you something you will never get from a customer.

steven @ Ankylosing Spondylitis