Vendor FUD: How Should Vendors, Enterprises, and Influencers React?


How should vendors and others fight FUD?

I, along with many others, witnessed this week (or was it last week?) a public squabble between two well-known vendors in the virtualization market. Of course, this is nothing new. The whole world has been watching as Adobe attacked Apple (and Apple responded) over Flash support on the iPad. Before that, of course, America was regaled by the amusing Verizon campaign attacking AT&T (‘There’s a map for that’). Last year the gloves were well and truly off between VMware and Microsoft over Hyper-V bluescreens. Apple and Microsoft were at it last year when both ran their ‘I’m a PC’ ads (each side taking very different interpretations), and they were at it again just this week.

Now, a lot of these ‘fights’ seem to be what is referred to in rugby circles as ‘handbags at 10 paces’ – a long-distance squabble with a lot of pushing and posturing and preening, but little actual contact, and no actual damage. But occasionally these fights – like in rugby – get very serious, with real hits on both sides, and a lot of very real damage (to reputations, customers, influence, sales, and more). Unfortunately, in both cases, the damage seems to be to both sides of the stoush.

This impact is especially apparent when it is influencers (bloggers, analysts, media, etc.) who are (re)publishing the attacks. After all, many influencers are driven by a marginally slower version of the ’24-hour news cycle’ – the need to get content to print quickly so they get more eyeballs as the first to ‘break’ a story. This means that they can end up accepting any reasonable story at face value. Some of the more provocative authors seem unfortunately to do this more consciously, and have led to the sad resurgence of ‘yellow journalism’ (especially driven by the pay-per-click model for Web site advertising). However, even the most honest and scrupulous of authors can occasionally publish excitedly about unconfirmed future releases, saucy though unfounded rumours, or interesting secrets and leaks. Or they may simply end up for one of many reasons publishing content that is not untrue, per se, but is simply not evenly balanced.

All of this has spurred me to think more deeply about how to react to vendor FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt). The way I see it, there are three core stakeholders in these mix-ups – the vendor(s), the enterprise customers/buyers, and various commentators/influencers.

So how should these three constituents react to unbridled FUD from software vendors?

Vendor Responses

The first decision for a vendor is whether to respond at all. We should never underestimate this option – depending on the case, it is frequently better to simply take the high road. After all, as the old saying goes, ‘never wrestle with a pig – you both end up covered in s**t, but the pig enjoys it’.

“If a vendor does choose to respond, how strong should their response be?”

If a vendor does choose to respond, the next question is, how strong should their response be? They must decide between a subtle approach, and attacking the issue head-on. It is one thing to whisper snide remarks in dark alleys, another to come straight out and state the facts as you see them, and something entirely different again to really go in ‘boots and all’. If they decide to go big, they can choose anything from an attack blog to a full-blow PR campaign – but each has significant issues.

Social media is clearly an option, but is a vendor blog or tweet really going to be effective, or is it just singing to the choir? A full-blown PR campaign attracts big attention, but gives oxygen to the fire, and risks both putting the competition on a pedestal and making the responder look petty. Using personal relationships to bring up the issues one-on-one with customers is more subtle and ‘high-road’, but will never reach everyone that has already heard the FUD.

Getting influencers to balance the table for you is an excellent outcome if it can be achieved. However, it is not always an easy option. Some influencers have already made up their mind by the time they publish; some may simply have moved on from that story and have no desire to go back to it; still others may just not be interested in talking to a vendor. How a vendor works with influencers to help provide balance after they have already published a damaging story is a perennial issue. If anyone figures this out definitively, let me know!

Buyer Responses

For the CIO and other enterprise buyers, the real problem is not so much the fight itself, as much as knowing what to believe. So the first response should always be to try to find alternative viewpoints from a wide variety of opinions.

“Try to find alternative viewpoints from a wide variety of opinions”

Certainly gathering multiple analyst opinions is a great option. If you are a subscriber with one or more analysts, and the issues raised are important enough to burn through your subscription time & dollars, set up a quick call to discuss directly. If it is not a burning issue, wait and see if they publish a research note on the topic (handy hint: you can often get these for notes free if a vendor decides to license them – but be aware that when vendors do license analyst reports, it is mostly because they are positive about that vendor, so take it all with a grain of salt). If you are not a subscriber, then try just reaching out on Twitter. Some analysts will give up 140 characters (or even more) for free, although of course many will not.

Beyond the independent analyst community, look toward different media sources so you are not just reading one side of the story, or even just what one source is publishing. Some stories build a life of their own, some journals and blogs are part of a single network (and may be influenced collectively). Some individual authors or outlets will have a decided bias – whether permanently or temporarily, intentionally or accidentally – so look for another source with a different bias. And remember that almost no human communication can be without any bias at all.

Another excellent source for alternate viewpoints is your peers both in IT and business. Reach out to your user groups, contacts from conferences, internal colleagues and former colleagues/peers at other companies. To find new peers and new opinions, try using social media like LinkedIn groups, Facebook, Google groups, Twitter etc. Post invitations to discuss the issues on your own blog if you have one; if you don’t, then comment on other people’s blogs with your own opinions and questions.

You can also reach out to the vendor themselves, as well as their competitors, and get them all to respond directly. Try connecting on LinkedIn, Twitter, or their blog; or call or e-mail a sales rep or their marketing people. Believe me, they will love to hear from you, and be more than happy to give an alternate opinion – perhaps over lunch or a beer! You will at least then get both sides of the story. Even though both sides may be horribly biased, you can normally figure out some middle ground for yourself.

Influencer Responses

It is simply a fact of life that influencers – including analysts, media, bloggers, tweeters, and more – can be just as vulnerable to a well-crafted message as any other humans, and can buy into well-crafted vendor FUD just like the rest of us. However, most influencers also realize that it is critically important to their credibility and livelihood to present a balanced view.

“It is critically important to present a balanced view”

The most important requirement then is probably the most basic, and a matter or course for most professional writers – check your facts with reliable sources. Go beyond an initial or single source, even if they are unimpeachable – there is always the chance that a single source has been honestly misled themselves, or even that they are simply not well-informed of all sides of an issue.

When writing about one vendor – especially based on their own releases or references – you should also actively  try to find out what their competitors are saying. Again, their sales and marketing people will be more than happy to talk with you.

Influencers especially need to make sure their content is defendable from all angles, as this independence is fundamental to their credibility and reputation. When I wrote as an analyst, I always made sure I was able to defend my content against the most rigorous accusations from all sides – the enterprise users I wrote for, the vendors I worked with, the vendors they competed with, my peers within the firm, and the broader influencer community. Many writers even have a formal process for this peer review, and it is certainly a best practice among the larger analyst firms.

If, despite your honest efforts and intentions, you find that you have inadvertently published some content that lacks balance or independence, then please make the effort to redress the balance. It is only fair to show the opposite opinion. That does not always mean re-writing or publishing a correction; on the contrary, it may be a very positive opportunity to publish a new article, blog, or research note as a follow-up, which can even magnify the number of readers, hits, and content sales being driven by the one issue.

Influencers should especially treat vendor leaks, rumours, and exclusives very cautiously. When given references, you should try to find references that are not recommended by the vendor, and make sure to verify their information with other independent third parties.

There Must Be Other Options

These are just my top-of-mind thoughts on the topic. To be honest, I am really not sure what options are best for any of these stakeholders (or even if there are other stakeholders that I am not focused on). Moreover, I am sure I have missed some other good options. I have discussed some of this online, but I am far from convinced of the efficacy of any one approach.

“Inside the IT echo chamber, it can be difficult to find alternate opinions”

Moreover, there is one unfortunate caveat to all the above: when you are inside the IT echo chamber, it can be difficult to even find alternate opinions. As we all talk amongst ourselves, we repeat to each other what we have all heard from each other, so we all risk just going with the flow. No matter where you stand in this regard, it is always important to keep looking. Other voices are almost always out there.

Of course, the best responses to FUD will vary from one situation to another, but are there some that are always appropriate? Are there some that will never work? Are some responses just fundamentally wrong? Even if some options are odious and unattractive, are they nevertheless fair game if they are still effective (as some believe about political attack ads)?

Feel free to comment here, or just hit me up on Twitter (@AndiMann), and add your own ideas. Maybe I will run a survey to see if I can get more input that way.

Because there has to be a better way to deal with FUD than handbags at 10 paces.