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Crowdsourcing Enterprise Technology Reviews [Part II]

Crowdsourcing Enterprise Technology Reviews [Part II]

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 the first part of the interview, Rothstein discussed how the idea for IT Central Station came about and why he believes the crowd is more trustworthy than experts of enterprise technology. In this second part, we discuss the company's business model, and find out more about the company's goals.

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

Russell Rothstein, Station Master and CEO of IT Central Station: 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.

Since you brought up the numbers, do you have statistics around the number of people registered, number of reviews, the activity level in general?

As a private company, we don’t release that information. But let me just say that we’re doubling every two months. It’s exponential growth, and I think that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future.

You guys have a pretty interesting business model. Can you tell us about it?

The primary model is to offer subscription services to vendors. We don’t have advertising on the site, vendors cannot advertise or influence the reviews written about them. They cannot ask reviews to be taken off or write reviews of their own products – we’re very strict about that. But we do provide a way for businesses to get engaged.

One of the ways to get engaged is through discussion. Even the five-star reviews that come to our site, the majority of them have constructive feedback for the vendors. If the vendors would like to engage in that discussion, as many of them do, that’s one of the ways they can get involved, and that’s part of the basic package.

We have other subscription services. We have what’s called the focus group, where, again, we’re taking advantage of crowdsourcing. We’ve got lots of real users of different technology areas, from network monitoring, to security software, to testing tools, to CRM [customer relationship management], et cetera. When vendors would like to tap into this knowledge – for example, for building new features, moving into new markets, or launching new products – we offer our crowdsourced virtual focus group program.

There are two ways they could do this: either through a survey, which goes out to our user base, or through a live focus group with our users. They can say, “I want to talk to ten users of security software who come from the financial services industry, because we’re interested in rolling out a new product in that area.” Again, we're leveraging crowdsourcing, but it’s segmented crowdsourcing. We do a segmentation of the crowd and enable the vendors to reach out to and connect with individuals from our community. That’s another subscription service we offer to the vendor community.

In the piece you wrote for us about a month ago, you touched upon some of the broader themes about how crowdsourced reviews are making vendors more transparent. Can you talk a little bit about that?

There needs to be a lot more transparency in this industry. I feel very strongly about that. Compare the technology industry to, for example, hotel reservations. Fifteen years ago, before you could get reviews of hotels online, you called your travel agent, asked them to book whatever hotel, and you didn’t know what you were getting. You didn’t know whether there was some type of special deal, who was pushing what, and what you’re getting. It might be a fine hotel, but you’re traveling with your family and it may be better for businessmen.

Now, it’s transparent. People know what to expect before they step through the door. It’s a better buying transaction when people know what they’re going to get: there is more transparency, and the vendors or businesses can’t hide behind a nice-looking website.

To my chagrin, that kind of environment hasn’t yet happened in the enterprise technology space. Too often, what we hear is that people looking to buy enterprise technology don’t know what they’re going to get. They don’t know what kind of technical support they’re going to get, what kind of professional services they’re going to get, they don’t know how buggy the software will be, how many issues it will have down the line – and those are some of the most critical questions they have. People told us, when we were starting up IT Central Station, that those were the things they wanted to know. You could only get that from other real users who have been through those cycles and could say what support was like, warranty, performance, and other issues that go beyond what you see on a brochure or website.

We’re providing that kind of transparency to enterprise technology, and I think that makes the whole industry better. When you don't have transparency, you also have buyer’s remorse. In our industry, it’s called shelf-ware: companies buy products and don’t use them because they just doesn’t do what was expected, they are too hard to use, whatever it is – but they certainly didn’t buy it to leave it on the shelf, as they say. With more transparency in the market, enterprises will make better buying decisions. They’ll purchase the products and services that are best for them, appropriate for their needs, and you’ll see much lower shelf-ware and much higher satisfaction. I believe with more transparency, you’ll have a much more efficient buying process. In the end, all parties will be happier.

Have you spoken with vendors, or have any of them reached out to you? What’s been the feedback from their end?

We can’t talk to them fast enough, we’re talking to them all the time. In the first couple of months, we had to introduce ourselves to them. Now, they’re coming to us. They’re either reading about us in the press or hearing about us from our customers, or they’re seeing us in searches. Our site is search engine-optimized, and they’re seeing our site and reviews pop up when people search for their products. We have a way to engage with them – on our site, there is a lot of information about how vendors can get engaged, either at no cost or as part of our premium services. 

And are they positive about what you’re doing?

They are, on the whole, positive. They know that this is the future of B2B tech social marketing. They can’t stop it. What did the hotels think when TripAdvisor started, or what did restaurants think when Yelp started? This is a wave that just can’t be stopped – it’s happening already. The fact is, they need to be either a part of it, or it’s going to happen without them. There are going to be people writing reviews about their products, and they can either get engaged, try to respond and be active, or be absent. And there’s a big danger in discussions going on about your products and services, and you being absent from those discussions.

When someone wants to have a review taken down, we don’t do that, we don’t enable the vendors to influence any of the reviews that go on the site. But what a lot of vendors have done is go out and send email blasts to their customers, asking them to write a review of their products. Some of the vendors are going out one by one, handpicking their customers and asking them to write reviews. Others are doing it at a more mass scale, sending it out to their entire customer database, or their customer advocacy database. So they’re getting involved in many different ways.

To wrap up, can you talk about some of your plans for the upcoming year?

[Recently], we launched the peer panel program. It’s a crowdsourced, live, webinar event. Again, in the enterprise technology space, there are plenty of webinars. The vast majority of them are hosted by vendors or consultants and analysts, and they tend to have some type of bias in the presentations.

We’re changing all of that [with] our peer panel webinar series. There’s a panel, say on the topic of virtualization. We have five panelists, real users of virtualization technology from companies like VMWare, RedHat, and Microsoft, and they speak frankly and freely about what they like and don’t like about the technology. It’s not crowdsourced information in terms of quantity – thousands of people. For that, you can go to our website, where there are lots of reviews of virtualization technology. This is the segmented, micro-crowdsourcing. We have panels of users, bottom-up, sharing and discussing, in a frank, unbiased setting.

So that was very exciting, we launched that [several] weeks ago. We’re rolling out a whole series this year on different topics, including security software and network monitoring software – those are our next two topics. We’re going to continue to grow our user base and we’re also coming out with some great features.

Make sure to check out the first part of the conversation here.

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