Customers Should Avoid Community Software Vendor Lock In: Own your data

Many corporations are outsourcing their community platforms
I’ve been talking to more and more companies that are creating their own corporate communities around their brand. For the most part, they lean on the SaaS models that the white label social network, collaboration, or even insight community vendors provide. While it certainly makes sense for marketers to lean on application service providers (it’s all setup, ready to roll, without the hassle of dealing with internal IT) and a decent to moderate price.

Avoid vendor lock in: own your data
One thing that I think is worth mentioning is that customers of these software providers need to protect themselves against vendor lock in, and the best way to do this is to make sure you own your data. The data is the ethos and soul of your community, it’s all the profile content, interaction content, uploaded media, and discussions.

Good for the industry
I’m hearing that most vendors have a clause that says that the client owns the data, but when you look deeper there may be vague descriptions or time limitations –which could really muck things up if a client wants to pull out.

Now why is this important for customers? It keeps them empowered to take their data and switch providers in the rare case a social networking vendor isn’t providing the right service or support.

What’s in it for community software vendors? It holds them at task to make sure they grow, take care of customer needs, and ensure that the relationship –and product roadmap continues to improve.

What should you own?
Customers should be able to pull their data (all of it) at any time with no questions asked, for a period as long as the forum has continued, or to receive periodical backups and exports perhaps monthly or longer. They should be able to get it at will, with no questions or withholdings by the vendor. If someone has a clause that has been written that meets these objectives, please leave a comment below, I’m no lawyer, so I won’t be creating the specific agreement content –but I know what it should meet.

Concerns and considerations
Of course, by owning the data doesn’t necessarily mean that you can quickly switch vendors, as the data will often be structured differently quite a bit of massaging from experts will need to occur, but you can sleep better at night knowing your more in control of what really matters –the ethos of the community.

If you’re a client (or vendor) in this situation, I’d like to hear about what policy you’ve all agreed upon.

Update: In one case, one client sent me an example of a vendor only offering the last 30 days of archived content. Only after they discussed it further with the vendor that they received the details. Vendors need to be more upfront about what this actually means.

  • Thanks for this post Jeremiah! Mzinga (formerly Prospero) has always explicitly ensured that our clients own their data and we also adhere to open standards to allow for easy import and (hopefully rare) export. While we are tremendously proud of our applications and platform, we have always realized that the true value to our clients is always the wonderful content that these social media applications contain. By providing our clients with as much flexibility and control over THEIR data, we feel strongly that our clients will be able to leverage more advantages in a dynamic market to benefit their organization and their community and in the long run that this will benefit vendors like us as well.

  • I’m curious to hear more stories or examples of folks *not* owning, or being denied access to their data.

    For services that are just filtering social media, I could understand a time-limited agreement,but I’m blown away that anyone providing SaaS communities would be able to get away with not turning over profile data to a customer.

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  • This parallels a concern an EU-related committee voiced about certain social networking platforms. If after closing an account, a person is given the option of reactivating the account, the person’s data is obviously still accessible-just not to the person.
    I would suggest, however, that most social networking platforms are learning from this concern. They are coming up with means of insuring personal or corporate ownership of data.

    After all, with the power of the internet and social media, the rule is not caveat emptor but rather consumer credit-that is, customers define a platform’s reputation and thus the possibility of future clients.

  • Couldn’t agree more with Bill and Colin. I think it’s completely unacceptable for a SaaS provider to tie up data. It’s yours and you should have access to it at any time. No time limits, no questions, etc.

  • Jeremiah,
    Ownership is not usually the issue surround SaaS agreements. You hit on the main issues:
    1) the providers archiving/back up policy; and
    2) the exportability of the data.

    Companies need to keep in mind the second point. Often these are complex database structures. Many companies in a rush to get their service set up often have an unelegant structures that make export very complex. This can create a significant expertise and cost barrier for the customer.
    I would look for a vendor who will help you export data into another service if you are unhappy with them. This may not be for free, but set a fixed fee so you know what you are getting into and offers extra motivation to the provider to give excellent service.
    Exportability is SaaS’s dirty little secret. Be very aware of it and ask the tough questions before you lock yourself in.

  • Trevor

    Thanks. I agree these are important considerations to have in the overall ownership goal.

  • I agree with Bill, I’d love to hear cases of companies *not* providing customers with their data.

    The days of lock-in should be dead. Most vendors have figured out that lock-in is only a short-term way to collect a few extra dollars. Long term it’s a sign of a business that is failing, whether SaaS or White-label.

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  • I hate shameless plugs, but it was too direct of a question and answer. With our Ringside Networks announcement yesterday, we bring an open source social application server that allows every web site to build and deploy their own social applications with their own data on their own premises. Obviously it does not have the ease of use of the white lable vendors, but is useful for websites who want to build on their own infrastructure. The beta is available for download, and we have a social business section on our web site for some examples. http://www.ringsidenetworks.com

  • Jeremiah: you asked for vendors to respond, so let me give you some comments from Awareness. Our contracts are very specific that the content in the communities that we create for customers is their content, pure and simple. They own it and have full access to it.

    Rob asked about cases of companies *not* providing customers with their data — i don’t have specific examples of this that i can share, but i have heard stories where its hard to get someone’s content out of consumer-oriented sites such as Facebook or Myspace.

  • Jeremiah,

    At GroupSwim, it is simple; the customer owns the data. The only time we ever touch data is for support or high level statistics. In fact, by foregoing all rights to the data, we eliminate liability associated with the data. This is a win-win approach for us and our customers.

  • Dan

    Jeremiah,

    At Networked Insights, the end user (or the companies customer) owns the data. We believe the consumer should have the right to remove themselves and their data from the ethos when they see fit. It is what we call Progressive Disclosure, the more value I receive as a consumer the more I am typically willing to share. For example, I may share my entire profile so I get more relevant friend and content recommendations, or receive more points usable towards purchases. If the company breaks my trust or if the community no longer has value, I should be able to leave and take my data with me.
    So what does this mean for the company, they have complete access to the data while their customers have granted the company access, if the company moves social network providers the data moves as well. Companies should look for vendors that still represent the same rules of engagement in which consumers have control over the level of disclosure.

    Dan

  • There are two points that come to mind

    1) the providers archiving/backup policy (we backup regularly, like everybody else); and
    2) the exportability of the data (excel, ASCI etc. formats – customer can download).

    While this empowers our customers it still does not make switching vendors an easy task.

    Finally, you get what you pay for…. outsourcing to save money and staff might be required but you cannot expect to get much better value than if you were to do it in-house.

    Beware and take care.

  • Jeremiah,

    I couldn’t agree more – too often companies are quick to use a free/cheap solution because it seems so “out of the box” and “easy to use”, which it may be, but then they quickly find that also means inflexible, both from a customization standpoint as well as the ability to get access to data.

    In terms of data portability, a provider should be able to work both ways – the ability to manipulate and import existing data as well as export and integrate their platform with a client’s CRM platform.

    Something you left out was security – you should check to see how isolated your community/consumer data is. Is it all lumped in some master database with all of the community provider’s other customers, or in your own “silo”?

    White label community platforms are springing up every day, and like the previous commenter said, you get what you pay for. They are becoming commodities. And that’s why they need to lock in your data.

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