August 1, 2010

The ethics of white papers

In a recent post, I made certain assumptions about what is or isn’t ethical in vendor-sponsored analyst research. I’d already discussed the triggering incident briefly (i.e., in Twitter direct messages and the like) with a couple of analysts I respect, namely Merv Adrian (the one most directly involved) and Ray Wang. It’s safe to say we’re in at least rough agreement.

However, a couple of comments on that post took me strongly to task. Perhaps not coincidentally, one came from a vendor, and another from somebody whose main role in the “analyst” community is to produce and publish – you guessed it! – vendor-sponsored content. One option was to just blow those comments off as nonsensical, since they weren’t really responsive to the actual post. But I think those rather surprising remarks also suggest it is time to reopen the subject of vendor-sponsored analyst research.

Vendors typically pay for white papers, webinars, podcasts, in-person speeches, etc. for some combination of five reasons:

  1. They want to connect with sales prospects. If Merv or Claudia Imhoff or I speak on a webinar, registration will be higher than if only company execs spoke. Similarly, you can capture more registration information from prospects who want to download a white paper if it was written by a third-party analyst.
  2. They want general endorsement from the analyst. If a well-regarded analyst is associated with a firm, that’s good for the firm’s image.
  3. They specifically want endorsement from the analyst for their marketing claims. Many of the ethical challenges with vendor-sponsored research or other content lie in this area.
  4. They want the analyst to do a better job of explaining something than they think they could do themselves. This is the ethically purer version of the prior point. Realistically, they often can’t be separated. E.g., most vendor-sponsored white papers will involve a combination of the two. The same could be said for webinars such as the ones I did for Aster Data last year.
  5. They want to give the analyst some money to enhance the relationship, and this way they get something other than advice in return. Personally, I won’t do content-creation business with a vendor unless they first buy actual consulting services (via the Monash Advantage), but I’m in the minority, and in fact didn’t always have that policy myself.

In my opinion, #1, 2, and 4 cause relatively little in the way of ethical problems. #5 is an unavoidable fact of life. But #3 raises problems that can and should be addressed head-on. 

There are three forms of bias that could arise in a white paper or even a blog post, whether or not that content is paid for by a vendor. The author could:

Different kinds of sponsored content tend to have different levels of bias. For example:

So what would be some best ethical practices for sponsored white papers? My list starts:

Some day, I’ll probably write another sponsored white paper. When I do, you can be assured that I’ll abide by the first three precepts, and pressure the sponsor to abide by the fourth. I’m confident that the more ethical of my analyst compatriots will do the same. I wish that I could be more optimistic that they all will.

Comments

5 Responses to “The ethics of white papers”

  1. White Paper Sponsorship and Labeling on August 1st, 2010 4:20 pm

    [...] 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 [...]

  2. Business Analytics Analyst Relations /Ethics/White Papers « DECISION STATS on August 2nd, 2010 1:01 am

    [...] for BI software. Read Curt and his landscaping of the field here ( I am quoting a summary) at http://www.strategicmessaging.com/the-ethics-of-white-papers/2010/08/01/ Vendors typically pay [...]

  3. Further notes on ethics and analyst research | Strategic Messaging on August 2nd, 2010 4:10 am

    [...] Merv’s analysis of white paper ethical issues was excellent, and supersedes mine. Continuing the oneupsmanship , I’ll now try to synthesize by [...]

  4. Ken Rosen on October 14th, 2010 2:14 pm

    Curt,
    A tip brought me to your “how to pitch to me” post and ethics discussion. Very nice work. It’s been several years since I ran Marketing for a few companies and sponsored white papers. So my view may be out of date; however, I admire your stance. When I was doing this, analysts seemed uncomfortably willing to write what we wanted. We did it–because that was the game and competitors did the same. And I usually lost respect for the analysts’ ability to actually counsel me later. But if you work for companies you respect, you want tighter controls. I’d happily work under the rules you set up.
    Cheers, Ken Rosen (www.PerTalks.com)

  5. Curt Monash on October 15th, 2010 12:16 am

    Ken,

    I was just talking with a prospective vendor client today. Their CEO, somewhat new to enterprise IT, spoke disparagingly of another small analyst firm that he felt more or less just wrote what his company dictated.

    It’s all too common.

    It’s also hard to avoid in single-vendor product-specific white papers.

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