If my experience as a judge during last week’s 2006 Wiki Idol competition is any indicator, enterprise wiki vendors desperately need help honing their sales pitches and developing proper demonstration skills. For the most part, contestants in the American Idol-style contest babbled on incomprehensibly … sort of like a nervous teenager who failed to prepare for his first junior high school presentation. This is bad news for those software vendors (and their shareholders) who participated in this event because they missed an excellent marketing opportunity to sell their value over the others and differentiate themselves from the so-called “competition”.  This is good news for marketing professionals looking for clients—seek out wiki vendors: they desperately need your help.

Why such a negative view you ask? Preparation, or lack thereof. The vendors who participated in the contest may have decent software, but you’d never know it because they failed to do their home work. They did not know their audience. They did not—apparently—practice, at all. They didn’t know what they were selling nor why we (potential customers) would want to buy it. They mostly touted features, instead of solutions to problems. When a problem/solution was introduced, it left you wondering, “Do these guys even know what MY problems are?”

The disconnect between vendors and potential customers

The disconnect between software companies and their prospective customers should not be surprising. Many software companies are wasting time solving problems their potential customers don’t consider problems. In fact, the opening panel discussion at the Gilbane Conference on Content Technologies Boston illustrated this fact, while, quite rightly, embarrassing the panelists (at least we hope so). Four top managers at large content management companies were asked to list the top three challenges they see affecting content management. They each had their own take on the situation. But, as moderator Frank Gilbane pointed out, they all listed “integration” as one of the top three problems facing their potential clients. When Gilbane asked the audience of 400+ if they agreed, only a handful (about 2%) said “integration” was a top three problem. That’s a BIG disconnect.

Contestants and abuse

Despite how badly they sucked (and they really sucked!), Wiki Idol contestants deserve some respect for having the nerve to get up in front of a live audience of potential customers. They also get extra points for taking the verbal abuse we three outspoken judges—Theresa Regli and Alan Pelz-Sharpe of CMS Watch and I—dished out . It’s difficult to hear someone tell you just how bad your software sucks and why you should never get up in front of an audience again—ever! But, that’s the nature of the contest. It’s both educational and (hopefully) entertaining. It is provides vendors with free feedback likely to be more honest than most vendors are used to hearing. 

Improvements are needed

Go back to the office and improve your pitch. And, consider finding a better “frontman” (or woman). Software companies all-too-often put their smartest developer, founder, or CIO up on stage. Unless this person is experienced in such high pressure situations and impressive enough to win the audience vote, don’t put them on stage. Seniority or title does not make a person a good presenter (or contestant). In fact, if you know everything about your product—let’s say you designed it—you are likely NOT the best person to demonstrate it. You are too close to your own work. Get a good customer-facing representative to sell your story and differentiate you from the crowd.

Free feedback and tips for future success

Judging from the reactions we received to our frank commentary, this contest may have been the first time any of these software company leaders have been put on the spot in such a public way. But, it’s something that needs to happen for each of these firms to grow and successfully compete in an ever-expanding marketplace. My advice to software company execs:

  • Listen to the criticisms that got the most laughs – the audience laughed because you looked ridiculous and your product did not come off as fabulously as perhaps you envision it does on the Wiki Idol in your head.
  • Do not get on stage and act like a cracked out Whitney Houston. ADHD is a condition that should be used to your advantage. As the old deodorant commercial says, “Don’t let them see you sweat”.  And, by extension, don’t sweat all over the customers. If you’re dripping with perspiration, slow down, lay off the tripple mocha, and get a hankerchief.
  • Don’t send someone who fancies themselves a comedian to do your pitch. They are never as funny as they think they are. (Note: I am one of those guys and I’d never send myself)
  • Just because you have three happy clients does not mean your product is perfectly fine the way it is.
  • Slow down. Pick a problem and solve it. Hot Banana (experts in marketing content management) did this last year at the CMS Idol and easily won the contest, snatching the award away from lesser prepared competitors who were unable to demonstrate what problems their software solved.

And the winner is—err, was—err, should have been

For the record, despite their technical difficulties and less-than-stellar demonstration skills, MindTouch won the Wiki Idol competition (the audience voted them number one, barely). While I believe (from what I saw demonstrated) MindTouch has a bright future in the enterprise wiki space, I think the best of the contestants was actually Atlassian Software, whose Confluence tool set offers an astounding amount of useful features with practical business value. The product (and companion website) is well-designed and the company communicates its message effectively.

Why didn’t they win Wiki Idol, you ask? They were at a disadvantage from the start as they were selected to go first (which almost always sucks). By the time the votes were tallied, I’m not sure anyone remembered how well the Atlassian team did. So, while they failed at capturing votes during the competition, they captured my attention enough that I later stopped by their booth to learn more. Look for details about their solutions on this blog in the near future.