Is TIBCO still serious about tibbr?

Since TIBCO’s acquisition and privatisation in late 2014, the once bubbly tibbr has largely dropped off the radar in the social collaboration market, with little in the way of marketing, PR or product announcements for the last 12 months. So is this still an area of investment for TIBCO, or should customers and prospects be looking elsewhere?

A period of introspection and restructuring

After a difficult couple of years for the company in terms of its overall revenue growth, profit and share price, in September 2014 TIBCO announced that it had agreed to be acquired by US-based private equity firm, Vista Equity partners. The deal, which was worth approximately $4.3 billion to shareholders, closed in December the same year, and was seen as an opportunity to refocus out of the public share-trading spotlight.

The impact on TIBCO tibbr of this strategic shift was immediate; having operated as a largely autonomous division until this point – almost like an independent start-up in many ways – in early 2015, the tibbr business gradually began to be absorbed into the central TIBCO organisation. The development team joined the central TIBCO engineering department allowing it to take advantage of the scale and skills of the wider team, and the tibbr sales team was also transitioned across. Unfortunately though, this process was not as seamless – and invisible to tibbr customers – as TIBCO would have liked, and new tibbr customer sales were impacted for a couple of quarters as the new processes bedded in. However, TIBCO asserts that there was no major change in subscription renewal rates for tibbr throughout the process, and in the last quarter of 2015 the tibbr business began to regain its confidence and rebuild momentum around sales, resulting in a record sales year for the product.

From a business strategy perspective, the acquisition has also prompted a refocusing of tibbr’s sales approach. While it previously sought to meet the needs of companies of all sizes, with customers ranging from small businesses with just 100 or so employees through to large enterprises, going forward it is falling in line with the broader TIBCO strategy of targeting just large enterprise needs. Given that all sales are now managed by a single TIBCO sales team, this makes some sense, and will help to improve cross-sell and upsell opportunities throughout the organisation. However, there are implications of this in terms of the primary buyer for tibbr versus other TIBCO applications, but I’ll come back to that later. This large enterprise focus will also have an impact on the product development strategy – both to support the more complex needs of larger businesses in terms of scalability, security and administrative control, and also in terms of the breadth and depth of integrations needed with third-party technologies, for example.

Product development progress

Since I last published a detailed analysis of the TIBCO tibbr offering in September 2014, there has only been one major product update – tibbr 6.0, which was released in January 2015. Though previously the company had been releasing quarterly updates for tibbr, TIBCO is now following a two releases per year cycle, with one major and one minor release (there was a minor release with no feature updates in August last year). This is apparently in response to feedback from customers who have requested fewer, larger updates, and will also help TIBCO to better manage customers on different versions of the software, as well as making it easier for partners and developers to manage compatibility.

New features introduced in version 6.0 included:

  • A more structured Q&A capability, which allows individuals to post questions to people or “subjects” (community groups) they follow, and enables others to reply or vote on other people’s replies. The question owner (or the subject owner) can then highlight the “best answer”. A key feature of this is that the system will suggest existing questions from the community knowledge base that might already have been answered, to minimise duplication of questions and accelerate response times.
  • Editing of posts, to allow individuals to make changes to a post or reply that they have published previously, with a full edit history for each post/reply.
  • External community enhancements to allow posts in an externally-facing community to be easily shared into an internal community for notification or discussion purposes.

The next major update, tibbr 7.0, is expected to include the following enhancements in addition to general infrastructure upgrades:

  • New social analytics capabilities, which build on the trending information offered within tibbr Insights, to provide a range of reports showing analysis of login data, user activity information, subject activity, tag and search usage, and influencers, for example. These reports have been designed to support community managers, but they will be accessible by all users of the platform.
  • Announcements banner, allowing community managers and administrators to broadcast company-wide announcements.
  • A “real-time mode” for subjects, which will allow live discussion sessions to be held on the platform, for example with an executive or guest speaker, and these can then be archived or published separately from other subject content. (Note that the default refresh for displaying new tibbr content is 60 seconds.)

Looking further ahead, the roadmap for tibbr focuses on three key areas:

  • Social analytics. The new features coming in tibbr 7.0 are positioned by TIBCO as “phase 1” in their plans for this area; the company recognises it has more to do here, and is keen to provide more support for custom analytics, working with customers to understand their requirements.
  • Ease of use. While this spans a range of areas, TIBCO is particularly focusing on improving self-service features to enable administrators and community managers to more easily customise and brand the platform, as well as streamlining user management, for example.
  • Accelerated engagement. This investment area addresses the difficult early stages of new user adoption, and aims to make it as easy as possible for people to begin using the tibbr platform. Enhancements currently being considered include leveraging machine learning capabilities to auto-subscribe new users to relevant subjects, suggest people they might want to follow, and tags they might want to assign to a post, for example.

The outlook for TIBCO tibbr

After an unexpectedly successful couple of years after its launch, the events of the last 12 months mean that TIBCO is now at a critical junction in its journey with tibbr. It has a strong base of tibbr customers with more than 7 million paid user licences across 104 countries, it has an established, flexible technology platform, and it has some great customer success stories (e.g. Yellow Pages Group, CGI). However, the question is whether 2015 was just a restructuring blip for the company, and one it will bounce back from, or whether the absorption of tibbr back into the broader organisation means that its wings will be clipped going forward. As I see it, there are three key challenges that the company needs to address if it is to retain its strong position in the social collaboration space:

Successfully selling to business departments, rather than the CIO

From the beginning, the tibbr business has taken full advantage of TIBCO’s heritage in integration and event processing, both in the development strategy for the product, and in the way the product was positioned and sold to customers. However, although an IT organisation may be a key influencer in the purchasing decision for social collaboration solutions (especially in large enterprises), the primary buyer – and the driver of the initiative – is rarely the CIO, with the Sales, Marketing or Internal Communications departments frequently taking this role. While tibbr is not the only TIBCO product that demands this alternative sales focus (for example, TIBCO’s BPM, Spotfire and Jaspersoft products also target business buyers), this is a considerable challenge for TIBCO, particularly if it is to continue to use tibbr as a way to drive new customer growth, rather than simply cross-selling to existing TIBCO customers. Prior to the acquisition, an impressive 60% of tibbr customers were new to TIBCO; although a good proportion of these are likely to be outside the new large-enterprise-only focus, the company will not want to lose this opportunity completely.

Re-establishing the tibbr brand and market presence

As I mentioned earlier, tibbr’s public profile has become much less visible since TIBCO’s acquisition, and while this might initially have been attributed to the loss of a few key individuals, the fact that this has not picked up again after so long is concerning. This is a very noisy space, and while it’s not simply a case of the louder you are the more successful you are, if TIBCO wants to reinvigorate its sales opportunity it will need to improve its brand visibility in this area. There is a question around how TIBCO will position tibbr going forward; it was previously operated largely as a brand in its own right, but I suspect that the company will look to tie it more tightly to the broader TIBCO branding going forward, and also bring PR activities under TIBCO’s wing. Personally I think this would be a mistake, given the major differences in the target buyer of tibbr versus other TIBCO products.

However, more importantly is how TIBCO is to position the product with regards to the problems it is trying to solve. The key use cases among the company’s existing customers for tibbr are social intranets, external communities, and embedding tibbr in third-party applications/technologies through a “white-labelling” option, but tibbr’s marketing has traditionally positioned the product simply as an enterprise social network (ESN). As the hype fades in this market, however, there is an increased need to demonstrate with clarity how the technology can address specific business challenges, and this can be met most easily by vendors with a focused, use case-based approach. This not only helps organisations quickly understand how the technology can solve their problem, but it also helps to better demonstrate the value that is gained from the solution. This is certainly a direction that I think TIBCO should take with tibbr, even given its more focused concentration on large enterprises.

Finding its niche, and a way to stay one step ahead of the competition

TIBCO was not first to market with tibbr, but it brought a new perspective and differentiation with its focus on integrating applications and processes of all kinds into social activity streams. This helped the company build a strong customer base and profile, but the competition has caught up fast. TIBCO will need to find a new way to differentiate in this space – whether through its positioning or its technology – if it is to maintain momentum amidst considerable competition, and will need to achieve a rapid pace of development to ensure it remains relevant. I understand the reasons behind the shift to a two-release-per-year approach, but the danger is that it will not give tibbr the agility necessary to stay competitive.

For now, the jury remains out; there is still time for TIBCO to jump-start the strategy with tibbr and become a central player in the social collaboration space once more, but it’s certainly got lots of work to do.

So come on: show us what you’ve got, TIBCO.

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