As many companies are discovering, Weblogs have become both a way to build relationships with customers and a battlefield. Blog right, and your company gains an army of grassroots marketers. Blog wrong, and you gain an army dedicated to bringing you down.
The Radicati Group Inc. found this out the hard way last week. When IBM Lotus partisans took issue last week with the firms recent white paper favoring Microsofts corporate messaging and collaboration product strategy over that of IBM, their rebukes of the report were swift and harsh. But the way that some at the analyst firm chose to respond has stoked an even greater controversy, and the battle has gotten much more personal.
The chain of events started with a posting by IBM Lotus executive Ed Brill on his personal Weblog, which pointed to the white paper. Others in the Lotus community quickly started deconstructing the report in the comments area of Brills site and in their own Weblogs.
At least one analyst from The Radicati Group decided to take the battle back to the bloggers, and posted responses intended to discredit their criticisms of the report—under a pseudonym.
Once it was revealed that a Radicati employee was actually making the posts, e-mails from recently opened Yahoo and Hotmail accounts—traced back to Radicati by Internet addresses in their header information—were sent to some bloggers employers, urging that they fire the bloggers.
As a result, the controversy has moved away from the fairness of the white paper, and has focused instead on the behavior of the analysts themselves. And now, according to sources familiar with the tussle, IBMs lawyers have gotten involved.
“That was absolutely someone else [who sent the anonymous e-mails],” said Sara Radicati, president of The Radicati Group. She added that she is “fairly certain” that no one in her company sent them. But those who have received the e-mails, including messages from a Yahoo account under the name of Daniel Johnson, say the IP addresses in the header information of the messages point straight back to Radicatis network.
One of the bloggers targeted by those e-mails was Bruce Elgort, co-founder of OpenNTF.org, a Notes open-source community. He said an e-mail from Daniel Johnson was sent to the public relations contact for his employer, pointing to his Weblog, “in which he has recently been partaking in and encouraging actions that are truly degrading representations of your company and its beliefs and products, which I have always held in high esteem.”
The message went on to call for punitive action against Elgort: “I hope that you take the appropriate action with such a clearly errant employee, who is accomplishing nothing but ruining [your] good name, image and reputation with his malicious online drivel. If you are unable to do so, I will be happy to escalate this matter to someone higher in the organization.”
The message gave no contact information; the name “Daniel Johnson” was used in a number of posts to Lotus-related Weblogs regarding the controversy.
“Someone created [the Daniel Johnson account] on July 29,” Elgort said. That was two days before someone claiming to be Johnson commented on a blog in response to one of Elgorts comments.
Sources close to IBM report that additional e-mails calling for Brills firing have been received by IBM executives from a number of Web accounts.
Radicati admitted that one of her employees did post to Brills blog. “Unfortunately, one of my employees took it upon himself to respond to some of the blogging,” she said. “It was only one small incident, one person saying things about revenues.” As a result, she said, “He has been reprimanded.”
And Radicati said she has sent e-mails to IBM executives, including Ken Bisconti, vice president of Workplace products for IBM Lotus, urging Brills firing. She has called for Brills dismissal in the past as well, in part for comments he made on his blog referring to her company as “infamous.”
Neither Brill nor Bisconti was available for comment.
Radicati said she was surprised by the harshness of the initial response to the white paper. “Im pretty appalled by it,” she said. “Wed never seen the discussion stoop to this level [on blogs] before, particularly the viciousness in which things were discussed.”
The white paper, a summary of five recently published reports from The Radicati Group, was critical of IBM Lotus handling of its roadmap for its Domino messaging server and the upcoming IBM Workplace collaboration platform, calling it an “end-of-life” strategy for Domino and predicting that “many Domino users will migrate away from the platform.”
Radicati said the analysis was based on surveys and interviews with corporate executives with purchasing decision power, and an analysis of the information provided by IBM and Microsoft.
“The people who are writing on blogs—those are Lotus diehards, IT managers and midlevel people whove built their career on Lotus,” Radicati said. “Theyre not necessarily the people who hold the purse strings. I think thats where some of the disconnect is.”
This affair provides an almost textbook example of the sort of grassroots marketing support that vendors like IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems hope to gain by projecting their corporate presence into the blogging world.
At the same time, it also shows how complicated that interaction can be. To be successful, a companys community relationship should be built on honesty and trust—or at least on trust.
As the open-source company JBoss discovered in May, and the Radicati Group this week, trying to take on such communities through fabricated outside support can rapidly backfire—and even damage the credibility of the company.