White Paper Sponsorship and Labeling

My friend Curt Monash has taken Oracle to task for the way it labels its web pages that contain download links for analyst reports, and I took some collateral damage in the process. It was embarrassing to me, but an important discussion, and I thought I ought to share some ideas about the whole issue. For example, I found that other vendor sites don’t always label white papers as sponsored either.

Some of my pieces are published by vendors who simply buy the rights to make available things I’ve posted here or elsewhere. Those are not “sponsored”; no discussion about what I will or will not say has taken place in advance, and there is no promise by me to write, or to pay by them. Other pieces are specifically commissioned from me, under editorial agreements I’ve described elsewhere. In brief, though – vendors get to check facts, but not dictate what I say. And they don’t buy comparisons, favorable or otherwise, to competitors – I don’t accept that kind of work for publication, at any price.

Here’s Curt’s language, directed at Oracle:

The analyst reports section of your website fails to distinguish between unsponsored and sponsored work.* That is a horrible ethical stumble. Fix it fast. Then put processes in place to ensure nothing that dishonest happens again for a good long time.

On the page Curt links to – where my report appears – Oracle simply says it has rights to distribute the reports in their entirety. That, as it happens, is important – technology research firms don’t like “out of context” quotes, and that is a situation that has occurred in the past with many vendors.

Oracle’s page has looked as it does for a long time, and I don’t know if anyone has ever suggested the change which Curt recommends to them. It’s a good idea. Calling them out publicly, without giving them an opportunity to do what one perceives to be the right thing, and in the process chiding them for an “ethical stumble” and being “dishonest”, is perhaps a less good idea. My own preference would be to call it to their attention privately. If I felt strongly about it, perhaps if they told me No and dismissed the idea I’d suggest I would go public. It doesn’t appear that Curt gave them that opportunity. Perhaps that’s because they are not clients (the post is about giving advice to non-clients) and he therefore didn’t feel he had a channel to do so.

You may have noted the asterisk in the quoted sentences. That is a footnote marker to a paragraph below which reads:

*Merv Adrian’s “report” listed high on that page is actually a sponsored white paper. That Merv himself screwed up by not labeling it clearly as such in no way exonerates Oracle. Besides, I’m sure Merv won’t soon repeat the error — but for Oracle, this represents a whole pattern of behavior.

Curt mitigates his statement that I screwed up here by suggesting I am likely to fix the problem. In a subsequent posting about the ethics of white papers, Curt reaffirmed his respect for me. He knew I planned to change my own labeling; we had communicated before he posted (although I didn’t know about his post in advance.) In that conversation, I acknowledged the oversight in my white paper template, and told him I planned to correct it. My readers know that I identify sponsors on this blog. I have requested that Oracle replace the copy of my piece on their site with one I provided that includes my acknowledgment of sponsorship.

Finally, in fairness, it also seemed reasonable to check out other listings. Other pieces on Oracle’s white paper pages (unlabeled as to sponsorship) are a mix of sponsored and unsponsored, whether internally noted as such or not.

  • Several Gartner and Forrester reports do not indicate they are sponsored . To the best of my knowledge, none of them are.
  • An Ovum Technology Audit report does not indicate whether it is sponsored. I don’t know if it is or not, but I assume not.
  • IDC publishes some sponsored reports, and identifies the sponsorship immediately below the author’s name. One of the IDC reports is identified as sponsored; another is not, and I’m confident it is not.
  • A Winter Corporation paper on the same page is identified both in the document design and within the body of the work as sponsored.
  • A Martin Butler report, whose introduction is written by Martin Butler, but whose second part, about Oracle’s offering, is not labeled for authorship, does not indicate whether it was sponsored. I don’t know.

I looked at a few other vendor websites. I searched for pieces I wrote, and pieces I knew of from other analysts. Some sites mix papers in all over the place but don’t have a central place to find them all; in this, Oracle’s and EMC’s seemed very practical and useful. None of the sites I checked clearly identify the work as having been sponsored in any way I found obvious in my (admittefly) quick scan. So this is an issue, but it’s not confined to Oracle. Like me, most of the analysts or firms do identify sponsored pieces as such on their own web sites, and like me, many of them had not called out the sponsorship status within the document – though  to their credit, some had. I’m not going to specify either group by name here.

The large firms tend to have policies and processes of some depth about such issues; I was involved in developing them at two research firms before becoming an independent. I missed a step here, and it’s been corrected. I thank Curt for his prodding, and I’m interested in the thoughts of the community. Should vendor sites provide clearer identification of sponsored papers, or is it sufficient to have that inside the papers themselves?

Published by Merv Adrian

Independent information technology market analyst and consultant, 40 years of industry experience, covering software in and around the data management space.

12 thoughts on “White Paper Sponsorship and Labeling

  1. I am mostly a consumer of research – I write very little for public consumption nowadays. In my gartner days, well that was different.

    First thought is that it really doesn’t matter to me whether the thing is sponsored or not. I assume that if a vendor gives it to me, the vendor somehow had something to do with its production. If it was produced by someone at a big named firm, then I simply call them whether I know them or not. I want to know 2 things. First is the company a client, second did the company pay for it. I also ask the vendor the same thing. If the production was by an independent analyst (you, Curt, Richard Winter,…), then if that report is being used by a vendor to sell to me, I will ask the same questions.

    I have an assumption that pretty much everything I am told needs to be independently verified anyway. So, when a vendor (and I do have a personal sleaze/suspicion rating to fall back on) pumps up an analyst report then I immediately am suspicious.

    It puts me in mind of someone I met years ago. He was a DBA at a bank in New York. The bank was worried that this person was doing a poor job. So, I interviewed him. His opening line was, “I am a simple guy from Brooklyn..” My immediate reaction was to stand up, put my back to the wall and my hand on my wallet.

    So while you guys (especially Merv, Curt and Richard Winter) write with great integrity (identifying when you are commissioned, when not, etc.) I treat your writings with a modicum of suspicion – especially when I am handed articles by vendors.

    1. Thanks, Chris. I certainly don’t object to critical readers. Curt’s point is that you might want to know whether a piece was commissioned or not; I agree. There is a bit more nuance here than you get to: I might write about a company that is a client, but that doesn’t mean the piece in question is sponsored. If they are giving it to you, it’s highly likely that they are happy with what it says. I’m sometimes negative about one thing or another and I hardly expect them to distribute those pieces. Some vendors that are clients of mine became clients even after I had written critical pieces, and that’s to their credit.

  2. Merv,

    Great post!

    1. I’m sorry about the embarrassment to you. I feel rather strongly about that paper precisely because I believe it can be a powerful marketing document. Your error and Oracle’s dishonesty are both part of the paper’s credibility, and hence were central to what I was saying.

    2. Good job asking them to change versions!! I hope they agree, swiftly.

    3. You’re right to speculate that I have no good channel to discuss this with Oracle. Analyst relations isn’t returning my email. Public relations isn’t returning my email. Development does return my email, but that’s a bit indirect. Ken Jacobs might have been a good development/marketing hybrid person, but he’s retired.

    4. Also, this is a pattern of behavior at Oracle. See for example a post I made in September, 2008 calling them out on similar dishonesty, which to this day they haven’t fixed: http://www.dbms2.com/2008/09/30/oracle-crosses-the-line-on-integrity/

    5. Chris’s comment is all well and good, but Chris is unusually intelligent, unusually independent in his thinking, and unusually clued in to how the analyst business works. I don’t think we can take him as a proxy for even the average enterprise IT user, let alone a particularly easily deceived one.

    6. In particular, it may be hard for most people to figure out what is or isn’t sponsored. Even you and I might have to think a bit before making a reliable guess. I figured out your paper was sponsored from what it omitted, not what you had in it.

    7. Thus, as I said in the post you linked above, it is essential for white papers to be clearly and prominently labeled. They could go to many individuals each at many enterprises, at least some of whom are unclear on the papers’ provenance.

    8. I’m appalled at your comments about lack of labeling being a widespread industry problem. Thanks for the research!

    9. Good point about the papers coming together in one place on a website as a navigation aid. And to some extent it doesn’t matter if the website is honest since, even if it is, the salespeople will surely often lie.

    Bottom line:

    Disclosures about sponsored work need to be much strengthened, and a spotlight needs to be kept on the issue until they are.

    1. Curt, it’s a good conversation and well worth having. Embarrassment is an occasional result of the open, transparent dialogue in the blogosphere, and participation is a choice. I appreciate the thoughts regarding its effect – and the compliment about the paper’s usefulness!

      Re how vendors locate white papers: As you know, I started Forrester’s practice on AR, and some of our early research there was about how vendor web sites are designed for various uses, notably analyst connections. We never tackled white paper listing directly, but from the vendor perspective I’m not surprised that larger firms don’t often collect all white papers in one place. The papers themselves are not the point from their perspective; they put them where they fit in overall positioning or product pages. For smaller firms the presence of analyst papers is a bit of a credibility rub, even if commissioned, so I’d expect them to collect such collateral in one place and make it easy to find.

      And finally, yes – the disclosure issue is a worthy one. As you suggest in http://www.strategicmessaging.com/further-notes-on-ethics-and-analyst-research/2010/08/02/ the situation is fluid and can depend on matters ranging from policy (some companies have a “personality”) to competence (some companies don’t have a clue, or abdicate their activities to a contractor who doesn’t either – infinite loop territory.)

      You note also that leadership matters, and cite Dave Taber at Sybase as an example. I could not agree more; Taber hired me, and what I learned from him there and later from Dan Mahoney at Giga and Forrester shaped my own views enormously. Both led by example, and both were laser-focused on the right thing first, and the politic thing second. It made for uncomfortable situations at times, but always for the right reasons.

  3. I would like to know if a piece is sponsored or not. In the natural sciences there has been considerable flak lately over entire journals that had (unrevealed) corporate sponsors. We all like to believe that we are on the side of the angels and that money would not impact us at all. Sometimes it is more complicated than that, though. As you pointed out, since you have a relationship with Oracle you could call them up and ask them about an issue that might reflect negatively on them and get a perfectly reasonable explanation and so you would NOT write something negative – but what about that company you don’t know?

    Years ago, I was reviewing grants for a federal agency, under a competition for minority-serving institutions. Other reviewers marked them down for not specifying their percentage of minority students. I protested, “But I _know_ this institution! They’re over 90% minority students.”

    The representative from the agency reminded me that knowledge could not be considered in scoring the application because that was unfair to other applicants I did not know.

    My point is that a relationship with an organization can have effects on ways obvious and subtle, so it’s best to state it upfront.

    1. Annmaria, we are in complete agreement. Transparency is key; we all have blind spots and prejudices, whether we know them or not, and our readers are entitled to a look at things that might influence us. To be clear, though – getting an explanation doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t write about something. In fact, if I feel I have achieved some clarity about a question because of my access to a vendor – whether or not that is because of a commercial relationship – I’m more, not less, likely to write about it, because that is one of the things I do: attempt to help my readers understand issues.

  4. Merv, you are right about the nuancing. I am probably overly cynical – and I haven’t walked a mile in your shoes either. Your comment about the negativity – even of your clients is a good one. You can’t control how your pieces are used. So, it is incumbent on you and all writers to make sure (as you do) that your pieces are properly balanced. Comments will always be taken out of context, so I always ask the vendor for the full piece.

    It is also of vital importance to me to know when the piece was written. having time/date stamps matters because the timing of a piece has a large impact on my understanding of its validity wrt. the product/company being described.

    It is the hardest balance of all, being a properly independent analyst (for which there is little $ in this world of blogs, tweets, free information) and having clients who pay you for your research services. It’s always going to look a little weird – being Caesar’s wife is just plain hard.

    In the end, you have your own reputations to stand on – analysts like you, Curt and Richard have stellar reputations, so your analysis always has higher credibility than others. That said, you are held to a higher standard than some others.

    As I said in a previous comment, some vendors turn the sleaze factor to 11. They are masters of PR, they are masters of information flow/management, they understand that the readers will not necessarily have the time to read the whole analysis so ensure that the salient points are early in the piece and prominent. I expect that. So whoever the analyst is s/he will be tarred by the vendor they are writing about. Whether sponsored or not. Quotes will be taken out of context….

    1. Again, Chris – thanks for the kind comments. You’re correct that walking the line is a challenge. And it’s easy for us to shoot ourselves in the foot (putting a bullet into our mouths in the process) by making negative comments. But to avoid the critical statements when they are called for would make us less credible, and less useful. So we take that chance, occasionally to our commercial disadvantage. I wouldn’t presume to compare our dilemmas with those of defense lawyers, but I’m often stuck by the parallels when I watch the dilemmas our television lawyer heroes find themselves in.

      Ultimately, we (analysts) own our product, and must be responsible that we deliver it with the clarity and transparency you’re alluding too. And labeling, timestamping, etc. are critical pieces of that. Misuse down the line is beyond our control, and as Curt suggests in this comment thread, the folks on the ground will act as they do regardless of what headquarters does. There is a long information chain for published work; it’s one of the reasons I cherish the directness of dialogues like this, and appreciate your participation.

  5. I think it’s important to bear in mind that any vendor’s website is first and foremost a sales vehicle, and as such, the anlayst reports (or whateiver) page is certainly going to be arranged and worded in such a way as to cast the vendor and the vendor’s products in the best possible light. Curt’s suggestion that vendors should all mark sponsored research as such is a good one, but I would point out that sponsored or not, no analyst of standing would put out a document that conveys views that the author does not endorse; to do otherwise would be intellectual dishonesty of the sort that can kill a reputation. I myself have backed out of several projects, sometimes after investing days of effort, when it became clear that the vendor client insisted that I take a position with which I could not, in good conscience, agree. I suspect it is the same for many of my colleagues.My recommendation for analysts is that any sponsored documents should clearly show their sponsorship right up front with the title and author, and also to consider that you do have some influence over how it is displayed. At IDC, we have forced vendors to make changes to their references to our work when the references improperly imply that the documents in question explicitly endorse them or their product (IDC has a firm policy prohibiting the endorsement of vendors or products; we may endorse or affirm technologies, methodologies, or trends, but in a vendor-neutral way).To prospective buyers, I would say this: assume that the analyst reports page, like the rest of the website, is designed to impress you. If you just skim the titles of documents on this page without looking at them, you are allowing the vendor to create cumulative impression that could be misleading, just like looking at the very impressive customer logos that all vendors show in their presentations as if they are all strategic customers, when really, many are not. Caveat emptor, my friends.

Leave a Reply