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Crowdsourcing Enterprise Technology Reviews [Part I]
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Crowdsourcing Enterprise Technology Reviews [Part I]

Editor's Note: IT Central Station is a platform for enterprise technology reviews that launched back in September. By tapping into the knowledge of the crowd, a potential customer can make better decisions about products and services -- this is one of the oldest and most widespread uses of crowdsourcing.

We recently got in touch with the company's CEO and "Station Master" Russell Rothstein, who took some time to speak about his company. In this first part of the interview, Rothstein discusses how the idea for IT Central Station came about and why he believes the crowd is more trustworthy than experts of enterprise technology. In the second part, which will be up tomorrow, we discuss the company's business model, and find out more about the company's goals. 

Anton Root, I’ll begin by asking how the idea for IT Central Station came about.

Russell Rothstein, Station Master and CEO of IT Central Station: I’ve been in the enterprise technology space for 25 years, and I’ve been reading a lot about crowdsourcing and social networks. I actually came across a pretty interesting study done by Harvard Business School about the wisdom of crowds for book reviews. They looked at Amazon book reviews and tried to correlate it with expert reviews from New York Times, New York Review of Books, and other leading book review journals. The study found that if you took the reviews from Amazon, aggregated them, and did sentiment analysis, there was a direct overlap between what people said, on the whole, online, and what was said by experts.

It’s fascinating to see that now, in the age of the internet, you can leverage the power of the crowd for reviews. In many cases, you can either replace or complement the role of paid experts in different areas.

My world is the enterprise technology world, from companies like IBM, Cisco, HP, and VMWare. The buyers of these technologies are always looking to consult with experts. They’ve been doing that for years. They read analyst reports, hire consultants – the primary reason for doing that is to get expert opinions on what the best products and services are.

At IT Central Station, my vision has been that you can leverage the power of the crowd – take dozens and hundreds of reviews for a product and, in many ways, provide the same-value content, and, in some ways, even higher-value content than these very expensive analysts and consulting firms.

When the Wall Street Journal wrote about us, they called us the Yelp for enterprise IT and CIOs. They realized we were taking advantage of this Yelp model, where you provide crowdsourced reviews, in a new domain – enterprise technology. But we do recognize there are some differences between book reviews on Amazon and restaurant reviews on Yelp, versus reviews of enterprise technology products. Crowdsourcing is very important, a very critical part of what we’re doing. But in many ways, it’s a stepping stone towards a greater social network.

When we were doing our research for IT Central Station, a year and a half or two years ago, we talked to a lot of technology buyers, decision makers, mid-level technology users. They consistently told us one thing: access to other real users – their peers. So, on the one hand, they wanted to tap into crowdsourced knowledge, in the aggregate. But they also wanted to connect directly with people like them. That’s how it’s different from book reviews or hotel reviews on TripAdvisor, or reviews on Yelp.

In our community, people wanted to connect after they read reviews, because the opinions of some people count more than others. That’s not necessarily because some people are smarter than others (though that does happen sometimes), but it’s usually because technology people want to talk to people who are in the same situation – for example, the same-sized company, or the same industry. The wisdom of the crowd is more relevant to them if it’s a crowd that has the same profile as them. Crowdsourcing provides you the basic introduction, but there’s a segmentation there. In the B2B space, you’ve got to provide both the quantity, but you also have to provide relevance. That’s really important.

You said a lot of interesting things there, but I did quickly want to ask why you named the site IT Central Station, and the emphasis on trains? Your title at the company, for example, is “Station Master.”

We’re committed to be the hub for user-generated content about enterprise technology. My vision is that crowdsourced knowledge will become the number one factor in how buyers make their buying decisions in this $3 trillion market for enterprise technology and services. Today, that’s not the case.

Today, like I said, the number one influencing factor is the opinion of experts, consultants, and analyst firms. My vision is that crowdsourcing is going to disrupt this market, and that user-generated content is going to be the primary way people make buying decisions. We intend to be the central hub of that, providing access both to information, as well as to people. It’s crowdsourced knowledge, but also access to the crowd itself, which is no less important, and in some ways more important.

There are a lot benefits for buyers, clearly, but what’s the incentive for people to sign up and actually write reviews?

I don’t know if you heard this before, but there’s something called the 1-9-90 rule. If you look at people online, one percent of them are very active on platforms, social media – they are active on Wikipedia, write reviews all the time, write comments, et cetera. Nine percent of the people are people who take an active role if there is a motivation for them to do so. And then, there is the ninety percent, and they’re the lurkers. That’s the way it is.

We designed our site to be the most attractive to those people who are active contributors. Why do they contribute – both the one and the nine percent? For a few reasons.

One is promotion: some people like to be seen as thought leaders. If you go to our site, you can post reviews and content either with your real name, or anonymously. Obviously, those people who want to be seen as thought leaders will write reviews with their real names, add their picture, link to their website, and take advantage of all the promotional activities that come along with being involved in a top-tier, recognized site for decision makers. There are plenty people out there who have their own blogs that may not be well-publicized, and IT Central Station provides them with a platform, high traffic, and the right audience of other influential people.

Reason two, believe it or not, is altruism. There’s a Google study that says that the number one reason people write reviews, across all sites, is altruism. They want to help the community. And we find that in our community, too. Because we have a vertical social network, it’s a community of enterprise technology people. These people know that at the end of the day, they want to help each other out, do their jobs better. You never know whether you’ll need to ask someone you met on IT Central Station for your next job.

People are very altruistic, partly because they may think they’ll get something in return down the road, but in general, the number one people write reviews is altruism. Also, you can write reviews on our site anonymously because there are some people who are altruistic, but don’t want to use their real names – we enable them to contribute their expertise and knowledge while still not compromising their privacy, which is important for some people.

The third reason, which is no less important, is that this is a business market, and many users of technology are very happy with some of the products they have. They’re evangelists. In the enterprise space, there are plenty of customers out there who have a lot of good will toward the vendors of the solutions they use. They help save the company money, help employees do their jobs better, and as a result, there are a lot of customers out there who would like to acknowledge the fine products that they use. So, we give them a platform to do that.

Some of them may have a lot of good will but may not be at liberty to use their companies’ names, so that’s also why we created a system where you can post anonymously. We still do all the validation to make sure you’re a real user, and you can freely talk about what you like and dislike about the products you use. There’s another Google study that shows that 80 percent of reviews online are four- or five-star reviews, Yelp also talks about that a lot. When people pick up their digital pens and pads and write reviews, the vast majority of the time, they’re being positive, constructive, and helping others identify the products and services they love to use.

Do you see any of your competitors – the analysts and consultants you mentioned above – creating a platform similar to yours?

In any disruption, it’s not really the technology, it’s a new mindset. We’re coming to this from a crowdsourced, bottom-up approach. Organizations who built their business on the fact that they are the experts, who think they know more than anyone else, and take a top-down approach – I don’t believe they have what it takes to understand the power of crowdsourcing. In other industries, too: it’s a completely different mindset to go bottom-up. It’s a fundamental shift. There’s no technology barrier here, it’s a mindset barrier. I think that’s the key.

And you have been in this space longer, which presumably gives you an inherent advantage.

Yes, we’ve been in the market – since our beta launch, it’s been seven months. Since our live launch, it’s been four months. We’ve got a huge number of reviews, great traction, mindshare, all of that. That would be hard for anyone to catch up to.

Stay tuned for the second part of the interview, which will be up tomorrow!

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