Vendor Clubs: Watch Your Independence

Vendor ‘clubs’ or programs have troubled me for some time. They are not all bad, but I am concerned about the influence that vendors are trying to exert, and the effect this has on the standings of respected people in the social media communities. I fear we are selling our independence too cheaply.

Before I get started, I am NOT accusing anyone of behaving improperly. My problem comes mostly from perception. Don’t underestimate how important perception is.

Geek Whisperers

I find Geek Whisperers to be a difficult, yet compelling podcast to listen to. Hearing non-technical people talk about “herding unicorns” and how they try to influence us is deeply uncomfortable, but I find I keep tuning in. Sometimes you really don’t want to know how the sausage is made – but maybe you should.

It’s interesting to hear them rabbit on about ‘community’, but ultimately it comes down to “How can I get other people to spread my message for me for free?” This has made me think about the vendor clubs, and what vendors are trying to do with them.

Vendor Clubs – Everyone’s Doing It

The community strategy du jour is to manufacture a “club” of selected individuals with a strong social media profile. Vendors take a group of people, give them a label, and hope they will go forth and spread the vendor message. Example programs are VMware’s vExperts, EMC Elect, Juniper Ambassadors, and now Cisco Champions.

Exact criteria vary, but generally those selected are already visible in various communities, are well-respected, and are very knowledgeable about that vendor. Some programs explicitly list favourable treatment towards vendor as a criteria, but we can assume that is a requirement for all of them. Some programs select candidates based upon self-identification plus community feedback, while others use a more opaque process.

Why Do People Line Up to Get Involved?

The list of benefits varies, but common items include:

  • Public recognition
  • Product feedback opportunities
  • Early access to products and services
  • Vendor engagement

If you’re like me, you’re thinking “that’s actually pretty lame, and costs the vendor nothing. It’s not much different to what a large customer gets.”

Aside: Why do marketing people get so excited about “A logo to display on your website or email signature!”?

But there can be some more tangible benefits – e.g. vExpert members can get NFR licenses for a wide range of partner products, and training material.

The attention and public validation is probably the key driver here though – hey if I’ve been writing about Juniper for a few years, it’s nice for someone to recognise that I know what I’m talking about, right?

What’s In It for the Vendor?

Consider this definition of Champion, from Wikipedia:

“In an ideological sense, encompassing religion, a champion may be an evangelist, a visionary advocate who clears the field for the triumph of the idea.”

The goal of the vendor is to create a group of people who will promote their products, engage in community discussions, and generally be a positive influence. All for free (or close enough to it). Remember, they’re not paying any of these people. They do pay the wages of internal employees who participate in their forums, but here they’re looking for people to spread the vendor message, on their own time & dime.

If this works well, it can help to build a strong community and engagement. Vendor selection is not simply features and price – knowing that there is a supportive community factors into buying decisions.

But What Price do we Pay?

It all seems pretty harmless, right? If you already work with vendor X, blog about it, talk on Twitter about it, then what’s the problem with a little recognition? There’s two issues: Perception, and self-imposed restraint.

Perception matters. If you work for an independent consultant firm, but your email signature includes “Cisco Champion”, what will your customers think? If they ask you “Should we use Cisco or HP networking gear?” and you tell them Cisco, should they trust you? Even though your public profile says that you are part of a club set up to promote Cisco? Of course, you might say that you are independent, and your actions are honourable. I believe you. But what’s the perception? Does it pass the smell test? No, it does not.

You could argue that the language is part of this. “vExpert” is a good term – it identifies a person knowledgeable about virtualisation, without saying they only promote VMware. “Ambassador” or “Champion” is not so good. It implies you are paid to promote a specific point of view.

If you say something negative about your vendor, they might kick you out of the club. Does that restrain your tongue? Do you just not publish that, and stick to the positive stuff? Do you take it a step further, and attempt to turn negative conversations?

So now we’re at a point where you’re acting like an employee of the vendor…yet they’re not paying your wages. Is that a fair trade?

Conclusion: Be aware of your profile and perception

I don’t have a problem with people choosing to join these programs. But make sure that you go into it with eyes wide open, and you recognise the potential impact it might have – both positive and negative. Nothing comes for free. There are always expectations. Don’t sell out your independence for a few shiny trinkets.

[UPDATE] 

28 Responses to Vendor Clubs: Watch Your Independence

  1. Tim Hoffman March 10, 2014 at 7:34 pm #

    Hey Lindsay,

    Interesting post, and I think you make some good points. My take would be that this is really going to depend on the vendor involved. I was recently invited to be a Juniper ambassador, and yes – this comes with some decent perks – a bit more access to info, some early presentations on various technologies, free Junosphere, and a yearly catchup in California.

    I completely agree that it’s really important to watch your independence, but it’s been my experience that there has been no incentive to compromise this with the Juniper “club”, nor have any of my friends also in this “club” ever felt that they would have to either. I’ve at times posted articles with some fairly negative feedback on some features – i.e. their implementation of Captive Portal on the EX series – however most of it is positive – but this arises from the fact I generally like the kit they are implementing.

    I would say that we all have our biases that come from what kit we enjoy using day to day, but I would note that for most of these vendors the value you present to them is in fact your independence – so if they were to in any way ask you to change the tone of your writing – they remove the value you present to them as an independent blogger who generally enjoys using their kit.

    Just my $0.02. But I think looking at your post we are mostly on the same page with this, however probably interesting having my take given I’m actively a member of one of these “clubs”.

    Cheers,
    –Tim Hoffman
    @hoffnz

    • Lindsay Hill March 10, 2014 at 8:09 pm #

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments Tim – as you say, from someone who is one of these groups. You’re right that it will depend on the vendor involved.

      Consider this quote from the Cisco Champions FAQ: “An ideal Cisco Champion…Expresses positive sentiment about Cisco” – so what happens if they disagree with something Cisco has done?

      But of course the wider issue (I think) is the perception – it doesn’t actually matter what the vendor does, if people perceive that your viewpoint is influenced unduly. The vendor likes the fact that you’re independent, but what about your wider brand – do others still see you as independent? I think most of us still strive to be independent, but perception doesn’t always match reality.

      It’s also a good point about the biases that come from what we use. This is actually hugely important, particularly for those that work in VARs that rely on a few vendors. There is a clear influence in what you can say, but it’s not always obvious. Hell I’ve gotten in trouble for saying things about companies that my employer partners with. It’s probably something I’ll get into in another blog post.

      There’s all the other sources of influence too, e.g. Tech Field Days – “yeah, the vendor flew me out here, spent all this money on me, gave me all this free stuff, but no no I’m still neutral.” We all say that with the best of intentions, but we then end up writing posts about whatever that vendor wanted us to write about, which was the intention. I know I’ve written about stuff after seeing it at HP conferences, and I might not have written about it otherwise.

      There’s a lot to this topic, and it’s the sort of thing that’s probably best discussed over a few beers, with plenty of wild gesticulating and a few laughs. So many angles to it.

      – L

  2. michael stump March 14, 2014 at 4:30 am #

    You’re spot on. You become a pro bono advocate for the vendor when you join these programs. FD: I’m a Cisco Champion.

    Technical communities certainly provide value to members through sharing of knowledge and networking. But to deny their marketing intents and expectations is foolish.

    Of course, we’re both begging the question here: maybe most people aren’t interested in independence.

    • Lindsay Hill March 14, 2014 at 8:56 am #

      “maybe most people aren’t interested in independence”

      I think you’re getting at the heart of it here. We like to align ourselves with something. There’s probably a reason we started writing about that vendor – presumably we like them, so if they’re going to give me free stuff and more info, then that’s cool right?

      I worry that people don’t fully think through all the implications though,

  3. Gallifreyan March 14, 2014 at 4:31 am #

    I was thinking about this myself, having been a vExpert and a Cisco Champion for the past year and a TFD delegate four times (plus four roundtables I think) . I think I’m more of an active advocate for the Cisco stuff I know and use, but my main goals for being in each program are expanding my networks (people networks, not vSAN or MPLS networks) and getting exposure for my writing whether it’s about that vendor or not.

    Sure, free stuff (a polo here and there, licenses for my lab) is good, and sometimes if a vendor says “hey, if you’re interested, write about this” I will, but I don’t feel (so far) that I’ve been compromised. And I know a couple of people who (I hope) would tell me if it looked that way.

    I have sorta railed against Cisco on a couple of things recently, in full view of the Champion community, and was still counted as one of them as of yesterday. I warned the person running my group of champions, almost a year ago before I got into the program, that I couldn’t be a blind shill, and I might write or say things that aren’t the party line. And sometimes I’ll say things that reflect well competitively for that vendor, for example, if their competition does a boneheaded thing around customer service, communication, and firmware availability that impacts me personally. :)

    Hopefully it all balances out. And hopefully when I get around to writing about Invicta, they’ll still talk to me at Cisco Live, or at least let me in. :)

    • Lindsay Hill March 14, 2014 at 9:14 am #

      Boneheaded things around firmware availability? I couldn’t imagine what you’re referring to there… :D

      That’s good to hear that you’ve got people to tell you if you sound compromised. Getting an outside perspective is really helpful. You’re not going to get that from fellow champions/ambassadors/etc.

      I can’t be influenced by vendor polo shirts, because I don’t wear them (fast-food employees wear shirts with logos on them, see: http://etherealmind.com/etherealmind-fashion-tips-network-engineer-men/), but software licenses…now that can indeed help. Being able to freely run the product in my lab certainly makes a difference in regards to what I might write about.

      • Gallifreyan March 14, 2014 at 9:54 am #

        Yeah, I’ve read that tirade, and I’m sure I’m glad somebody thinks he’s the authority on clothing worldwide as well as on who are “losers.” Ad-hominem much? And on “manscaping” … which to be honest, if I meet you and can tell you “manscape,” you’re doing it wrong. :)

        • Ben Dale March 30, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

          Hahahaha! Gallifreyan – you are my hero! I had the misfortune to read that drivel some time back and I could not agree with you more.

  4. Ed Grigson March 30, 2014 at 4:59 am #

    Disclosure: I’m in the vExpert club and I’ve been to TFD.
    Good post Lindsay, and spot on. I originally wanted to be a vExpert for the reasons you’ve listed – exposure, and recognition. As others have mentioned I’ve found the engagement to be very professional and I’ve felt free to be critical, but it does affect perception.

    Within the community many of my peers may be aware of how impartial my output is (I hope) but for those that only see a ‘vendor badge’ they naturally assume some bias. I’m acutely aware of this as we’re a big Oracle shop and when discussing licensing and hypervisor choice my recommendation of VMware was taken as ‘you would say that’ rather than as a valid technical choice based on our requirements. Having worked hard to earn a good reputation at work that was a frustrating position to be in – luckily I got some ‘independent’ backing from Deloitte consultancy but I wonder if that would have been necessary if I wasn’t seen as ‘the VMware guy’.

    Keep up the good work – this is the second of your posts I’ve read in the last few weeks. Twitter follow on the way!

    • Lindsay Hill March 30, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

      Thanks a lot for that Ed. Many people are telling me “Oh no, we’re still seen as independent” – it’s good to get confirmation from others that indeed there can be perception issues. Sometimes here in the Twitter/blogosphere echo chamber we forget about the wider view. Not everyone spends as much time reading & writing technical content as us.

      Makes it interesting if you have to work extra-hard, just to be seen as “fair” – but then if it is the right solution, it should be easy to do the justification.

  5. Hans De Leenheer March 30, 2014 at 5:06 am #

    disclaimer: been member or active member of Dell TechCenter Rockstars, VMware vExpert, Cisco Champion and attendee with T&E covered for TechFieldDay and multiple HP Discover events (HP has no real marketing program).

    One point is that there is actually some difference in the rules to be applied. Some programs truly ask for technical knowledge (ex Microsoft MVP), others primarily look for brand advocates. And no, I don’t think that I can say that I know any of the programs that have a majority of fanboys. You probably even find more fanboys within the real technical validation programs like CCIE / Citrix CTP!

    One of the things that are very overlooked by people that are not in the programs (or of you’re not looking for it) is that there is a very important part from within the vendors is not the marketing aspect but a direct feedback channel to people that understand their brand and products. I can truly say that I have personally seen clear product management aspects being changed for example between two HP Discover events or TechFieldDay events. Of course you are not going to be the only voice they listen to your voice within the program does have a certain weigth to it.

    Bias: I have and everyone has a clear bias towards the products they have personal experience. Een within a multi-vendor VAR for example you’ll have Cisco preferred architects and HP preferred architects, a signature that implies you are a Cisco Champion is just a transparent disclaimer to anyone you speak with what your actual bias is. This does no harm what so ever to your independence more than you would have had previously.

    • Lindsay Hill March 30, 2014 at 6:09 pm #

      That’s a good point you bring up about programs looking for technical knowledge vs brand advocates. The VMware & Juniper programs seem pretty weighted towards technical contributions. Would you say that your membership of the Cisco Champions program is based upon technical contributions (forums/blogs/etc), or are they looking to use your social media reach to act as free/cheap marketing/advocacy for Cisco?

      VARs are a lot less independent than they make out, even if they are nominally multi-vendor. They’ve got their preferred vendors with better margins, relationships, etc., and as you say, you’ll have Cisco-preferred or HP-preferred people within that environment. Hey, we can’t know everything, right? We all end up some focus area, some wider than others.

      I disagree with your statement about “This does no harm what so ever to your independence” – I think it does clear harm to your independence. Consider a network engineer that presents as a “Cisco Champion” and probably describes themselves as a “Cisco engineer.” If I’m a customer with a networking problem, can I expect vendor-neutral advice? My perception will be “no”, and I’m going to apply a discount to your reasoning. If they didn’t have that signature, then I might expect more independence/neutrality. Whether I actually get independence under either scenario is another story, but what will my perception be, particularly if I don’t follow everyone on various social media forums, and all I have to go on is an email signature that says “Cisco Champion” ?

      • Hans De Leenheer March 30, 2014 at 7:34 pm #

        All programs require a decent level of technical acumen rather than product specific technical knowledge. I have never considered myself a deep-technical architect rather than a datacenter technology generalist. Probably the reason you won’t see me applying for CCIE/VCDX. Don’t let the fact that most vExperts are verry good architects let you disguise from the fact that every vExpert is cosidered being a brand advocate first.

        So that could make you say these programs are there to “act as free/cheap marketing/advocay” but then you have been missing the entire point I actually was trying to make. You are missing the point that these programs are not only there for bradn advocacy but equally important are a backchannel for unfiltered feedback between smart indepenedent people and vendor execs. You are downplaying the actual value of these programs by ONLY seeing the marketing intents.

        You are also missng the point about independence. If you as a customer think that ANYONE has a complete neutral independent advice you are wrong. No-one, absolutely no-one is unbiased or vendor-independent. Everyone is biased towards their historical experiences with specific product in specific environments. Someone that has no badges or technical certifications is just not showing his/her bias.

        • Lindsay Hill March 30, 2014 at 7:38 pm #

          “every vExpert is considered being a brand advocate first.”

          Really? Is that what vExperts see themselves as? Brand advocates above anything else?

          I didn’t get that vibe from vExperts, but I don’t follow that group all that closely.

          • Gabriel Chapman April 9, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

            I think its different for each person or member. I can say that I try not to let my vExpert status interfere with my ability to be critical of VMware when I think they have stepped out of line or done something I dont agree with. I liken that viewpoint to the Blog With Integrity work that Stephen Foskett and others have pushed for. I think you can be recognized by a company or entity for your contribution to their community or product and still remain independent with no over riding requirement to toe the company line.

  6. Ben Dale March 30, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    Excellent and thought provoking post.

    A little of my experience:

    I was invited to join the Juniper Ambassador program (as I understand it) based on my contributions to the J-Net forums. I, like many others who participate in forums such as these, are effectively a free alternative to a vendor’s TAC, and in some cases are more experienced in certain areas than most frontline support.

    Why do we do it then, especially for free?

    Because we as humans deep down all have the urge to share knowledge – and this urge is what has made the Internet great.

    I’ll be honest – it’s nice to be recognised by a vendor for the contributions you have made, and as others have said, the benefits these programs bring in terms of networking in areas that you’re already deeply passionate about are for me the most valuable benefit of all.

    I don’t think that people who are won over with a logo-encrusted polo shirt are really going to sway market opinion, and I don’t believe for a second that anyone entering one of these programs doesn’t understand why they were created.

    I can’t speak for all “Vendor Clubs”, but I am certainly not expected to (nor would I) do anything but “call it as I see it”, and will continue to do so regardless of how that affects my “membership”.

    If anything, I think vendors are taking the bigger risk here with the double-edged sword that these programs could become – the golden rule of marketing is “Control the Message”. How do you do that with a bunch of people who aren’t employees? What happens when a frustrated brand-champion fires out a late night Tweet about a major issue they’ve encountered? Does it do any more damage than if it came from any of their countless other customers?

    I will admit that I do cringe at the titles such as “Ambassador, “Evangelist” and “Champion” that these programs adopt (maybe it’s my Australian low tolerance for BS) and the connotations that come with them, but at the end of the day, I was contributing to my community of interest before I was invited into this program, and I’d still be doing so now if these programs didn’t exist.

    As for profile and perception – keep it simple: learn all you can, apply your expertise to your work and share knowledge freely. There are plenty of excellent people out there who could have been called evangelists for their brands at one point or another and all of who have changed companies over the years – Look no further than guys like Brad Hedlund, Christoper Hoff and Dave Ward.

    Let’s be honest – we all have products and designs we favour, based purely on our experience and (hopefully) the fact that they work. If the product you happen to be an expert in solves your customer’s problem/budget/timeframe then you’ve achieved a good result right?

    A question for you though Lindsay – if you were invited to join one of these programs, how do you think you would respond?

    • Lindsay Hill March 30, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

      Lots of interesting stuff there Ben – firstly I also have a cringe moment with the titles – I think it’s because we’re outside the US maybe?

      “it’s nice to be recognised by a vendor for the contributions you have made”

      – I quite agree. Some programs are quite clearly about recognising people who have been contributing through blogs, forums, etc. But I can point to other programs that select people based upon perceived social media influence, not on community contribution. It then just becomes a marketing exercise. It’s not about rewarding contributions, it’s about trying to control message and influence the market. As any good marketing organisation should do. People are naive to think they’re not trying to influence us. Nothing comes for free.

      “What happens when a frustrated brand-champion fires out a late night Tweet about a major issue they’ve encountered? Does it do any more damage than if it came from any of their countless other customers?”

      – Possibly it does. But what if they don’t tweet out their frustrations, because of how they’ve been influenced? Do they hold their tongue/keyboard? Does that serve the rest of us better? Not saying people do/don’t do this, just wondering.

      “There are plenty of excellent people out there who could have been called evangelists for their brands at one point or another and all of who have changed companies over the years – Look no further than guys like Brad Hedlund, Christoper Hoff and Dave Ward.”

      – Those are all good people, but I’ve found it a bit jarring when they undergo a “Bias Update” (http://etherealmind.com/network-dictionary-bias-update). In the situation of someone like Brad it’s public knowledge who he was working for at the time, so you’re expecting some level of bias – there’s no pretence of independence.

      “If the product you happen to be an expert in solves your customer’s problem/budget/timeframe then you’ve achieved a good result right?”
      – We certainly do have products that we like, and the key goal is always solving the problem at hand. But what if it’s a Cisco/Juniper toss-up – and you recommend Juniper. What would the customer perception be? That you recommended the best product for my problem, or that you found a way to make Juniper appear better? I’m not saying you’re doing that sort of thing, it’s about perception. If you work for a dedicated Juniper reseller, well then who cares? Obviously I went to you seeking a Juniper solution. But what if you’re a nominally independent VAR? Not that any of them are really multi-vendor/independent, but that’s another story…Anyway, it comes back to external perception.

      “A question for you though Lindsay – if you were invited to join one of these programs, how do you think you would respond?”

      – I’m not quite sure how I would respond if asked to join one of those programs. Right now, I would probably decline, because it’s important for me to retain the perception of independence. But that view will change as I change roles/companies. If I wanted to work for $vendor, or if I was in an Enterprise using mainly $vendor, then it might make sense.

      • Ben Dale March 30, 2014 at 11:42 pm #

        “But what if it’s a Cisco/Juniper toss-up” This is a rabbit hole all on it’s own:

        If I was paying a consultant to build me a network, and they gave me a solution that met budget/constraints/timeframe would I really care who the vendor was?

        If I did have my heart set on someone specific, then why would I be going out to market at all (apart from throwing a circus to keeping pricing competitive)?

        I’m pretty sure I’d be upset if I hired someone at top dollar and they recommended something they knew little/nothing about and then spent my money learning on the job and delivering something substandard. And finding someone who is *EXPERT* across the eccentricities of multiple vendor products is a rare thing indeed.

        Anyway – I guess the point to this all (and one you have acknowledged already) is: not all particpants are shills, and not all programs are cash-for-comment. From my own experience, there are several aspiring CCIEs inside Juniper’s Ambassador program, along with a bunch of other guys who swear by Palo Alto and Fortinet firewalls. I’m sure the same mix is found across other vendors programs as well.

        I can tell you first hand – the people who join these programs are just like you or I, professionals with diverse experience who’ve made significant contributions to their associated communities – not corporate mouthpieces. I don’t think this recognition should ever be confused with subjugation.

        • Lindsay Hill March 31, 2014 at 9:49 am #

          That’s a really good answer Ben. Few of us can be an expert in lots of things, and all that really matters is solving the customer challenges.

          I think that with programs like the Juniper one, those people selected definitely are what you’ve described – professionals who have made significant contributions, not corporate mouthpieces. But Hans says that vExperts are Brand Advocates first. Quite a different view, right? I don’t think you would consider yourself as a Juniper Brand Advocate first – although it might be somewhere down the list (after professionalism & integrity)?

  7. Chris Jones April 17, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    Honestly for me it makes total sense. I make a living off ripping out other vendors hardware and putting in Juniper. So to get special benefits as a Juniper Ambassador is kind of a no-brainer. Free access to Junosphere for modelling customer networks. Early access to software. Getting to participate in social events and even being an author on an Ambassador-written book. All huge benefits to my career.

    Your blog post (and some others) seem to infer that not being independent is a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be!

    • Lindsay Hill April 17, 2014 at 3:48 pm #

      That’s a fair point. If you’re not claiming to be independent, and don’t need to be seen as independent, then it’s no risk to you at all. Might as well get some benefits – and they’re pretty good ones too.

      The only possible risk would be if the vendor was seen as acting dishonourably, and it ‘tarred you with the same brush’. No hint of Juniper doing that though.

  8. Kevin Barker April 22, 2014 at 6:15 am #

    Good post and good points – personally I think anyone who participates in these types of programs is exhibiting a bias and needs to state that fact. I am a Juniper Ambassador and wear my Ambassador shirt with pride along with having that in my email signature.

    I state my bias to customers up front. I also have no issues with ripping Juniper to shreds when I disagree with them either from a business or technical perspective. As we don’t sell directly competing products and I am up front in stating my preference to my vendor I am comfortable with being in the program.

    Everyone has natural biases – My issue is with those who hide them behind a mask of being non-biased.

    Kevin

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