About a week ago, I complained about Blackboard's lack of clarity in messaging about their platform in general and the implications for managed hosting customers in particular. I wrote, in part,
What is “Premium SaaS”? Is it managed hosting? Is it private cloud? What does it mean for current managed hosting customers? What we have found is that there doesn’t seem to be complete shared understanding even among the Blackboard management team about what the answers to these questions are.
The problem with this oversight is deeper than just leaving managed hosting customers in the dark. Blackboard is asking customers (and prospects) to have patience as the company performs a major retooling on their platforms. In order to get that patience, they need for customers to understand (and believe) that this really is a major retooling, what is being retooled (at a high level), and what they will get that's different from other platforms at the end of the process. This is a hard communication challenge, but it is also Blackboard's live-or-die challenge. They really need to convince customers and prospects that the platform has a bright future, and to do that, they have to communicate nuances and technical issues that are not easy to communicate to executives. This is not something that can be fixed with a couple of DevCon sessions.
That's why I was happy to see Blackboard respond this week with more clarity.
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For starters, a couple of days after the post, I got a couple of Tweets from Vivek Ramgopal, Blackboard's Director of Product Marketing:
— Vivek Ramgopal (@TweetsByVivek) August 3, 2015
Here's a bit more of the exchange:
@mfeldstein67 Working on a few things to help clarify - but you're right, actions speak louder than words.
— Vivek Ramgopal (@TweetsByVivek) August 3, 2015
True to his word, less than a week after my original post, Blackboard put up a post entitled "The Ultra experience for Blackboard Learn: What does it Mean for self-hosted and managed deployments?" Let's start with the title. They are referring to the "Ultra experience," which suggests that Ultra is about user experience. So there's a bit of clarity right off the bat. Unfortunately, they muddy it up a bit again pretty quickly when they write, "The Ultra experience, which is consistent across Learn, Collaborate, and our new Bb Student app, is a foundational element of the New Learning Experience we introduced at BbWorld." What is the difference between Ultra and the New Learning Experience? Why do we need two different marketing terms? Nevertheless, two steps forward and one step back is net one step forward.
It gets better from there. Here's the meat of it:
During BbWorld, many Learn customers asked us when the Ultra experience will be coming to self-hosted and Managed Hosting deployments. Blackboard is exploring the ability to bring Learn SaaS and thus the Ultra experience to Blackboard-managed data centers and perhaps even customers’ own data centers. However, this does not mean that the Ultra experience is coming to self-hosted or Managed Hosting implementations as you know them today.
Part of the challenge in communicating this has been that for most of Blackboard’s history, “deployed in a Blackboard-managed data center” has meant our Managed Hosting infrastructure and “deployed in a customer’s own data center” has meant the traditional enterprise Blackboard Learn technology stack. With the introduction of Learn SaaS and the Ultra experience, though, we are talking about a new architecture and a new infrastructure (even though it might be in the same physical location).
As noted above, the Ultra experience was built on – and thus must sit on top of – a cloud computing architecture. The Learn 9.1 Managed Hosting deployment option available today does not use that type of cloud architecture. The same is true of self-hosted Learn 9.1 implementations. Therefore, it is not possible to bring the Ultra experience to self-hosted or Managed Hosting implementations as you know them today.
And here's the summary at the bottom or the article:
- The Ultra experience sits on top of a cloud architecture that is different from what self-hosted and Managed Hosting customers currently use today.
- Thus, the Ultra experience will not be coming to Managed Hosting or self-hosted implementations as you know them today.
- A cloud architecture that can support Learn SaaS and the Ultra experience will be coming to Blackboard-managed data centers in some regions and potentially even to customers’ own data centers in the future.
- However, this will be a different infrastructure than today’s Managed Hosting and self-hosting options.
It is also important to note that we are fully committed to Learn 9.1 as well as self-hosted and Managed Hosting deployments. We have quality improvements, workflow enhancements, and entirely new features (like improved grade exchange and competency-based education (CBE) tools) on the Learn 9.1 roadmap.
This is much, much better and forms the foundation of the communication they need to be having with customers and prospects. In addition to this, they need to continue to demonstrate what "Ultra" means in practical terms for teachers and studentsand talk about how the new capabilities are intimately connected to the new architecture. They need to play variations of this theme over and over and over again. And then they also need to have a constant drumbeat of both Ultra and non-Ultra updates, announced very clearly and loudly but without fanfare or hype. In other words, they need to make sure customers see that (a) they are making steady progress on both the present and the future for their customers, and (b) they understand this progress is the proof they need to demonstrate in order to win and hold customer trust rather than some super-fantabulous revolution. That's pretty much the whole enchilada for them for at least the next 12 months.
A while back, Phil wrote about Instructure,
Despite Canvas LMS winning far more new higher ed and K-12 customers than any other vendor, I still hear competitors claim that schools select Canvas due to rigged RFPs or being the shiny new tool despite having no depth or substance. When listening to the market, however, (institutions – including faculty, students, IT staff, academic technology staff, and admin), I hear the opposite. Canvas is winning LMS selections despite, not because of, RFP processes, and there are material and substantive reasons for this success.
I think one of the reasons that competitors are sometimes perplexed by Instructure's gains is that they make the mistake of believing that they are primarily competing on the strength of the product. Canvas is good, but it's not so much better that it justifies the tectonic shift in market share that they are getting, and their competitors know it. What their competitors (and fans of other platforms) don't seem to have noticed is that Instructure's communications with customers have been freaky good from the very beginning. The detractors got misled by the early flash and the cheek---the flame thrower videos, Josh, the party thrown right across the hall from their competitor's conference, Josh, the snarky T-shirts, Josh, and so on. What they missed in all of that was the consistent clarity of messaging. Instructure's SVP of Marketing Misty Frost is just ridiculously good finding the one narrative thread that customers need to hear and making sure that they hear that, loud and clear, with no clutter. (I mean, c'mon. "Misty Frost?" If you were going to invent comic book superhero head of marketing---or, for that matter, supervillain head of marketing---you would name her Misty Frost.)
I would go one step further. This isn't "just" about making sure customers understand the most important things about your product and your company (as if that weren't vital enough). The number one way that I judge whether a company is likely to make a good product in the future is to look for signs that they are listening to their customers. Where does that show up first? In their communications. It is possible to be a good product company with lousy messaging, but it is impossible to be a great product company with lousy messaging, because great product companies weave what they are learning about their customers into the fabric of the culture. If Marketing can't tell Product Management's story, that means there is weak internal alignment.
That's one reason why I take messaging so seriously and also one reason why I'm really pleased to see them respond to criticism of their communications so quickly and clearly.