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.

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.”

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.