By Barbara French and Gideon Gartner (@bfr3nch, www.barbarafrench.net, @gideongartner, www.gideongartner.com)

In the first part of this post, we challenged an urban myth that small analyst firms are threatening the Gartner and Forrester Research business models. We as yet see no compelling evidence. What we do see is many small advisory firms performing vital roles in the IT ecosystem, a few experimenting with business models, and many preferring their small businesses to the bureaucratic ways of large organizations. More than 25 analyst entrepreneurs shared insights on their businesses and philosophies, plus a handful of analyst clients shared their views — creating an unparalleled conversation! You can read the discussion here.

We’re picking up with the question, is it possible for small/new firms to shake up the Advisory industry? We think so. We’re not ready to concede the future of the advisory market to the current Gartner and Forrester business models. The question is, how?

In our view, firms wishing to disrupt the Gartner and Forrester models must have two particular attributes. First, they need a significant differentiator. It can be in specialization, the business model, service delivery or other areas. Equally importantly, they must be able to scale. That means substantial funding, an effective sales operation, well-honed M&A skills, or a combination of all three.

One of the potential differentiators getting attention lately is “open source research.” In theory, it follows the open source software model: research is developed openly and collaboratively with a marketplace and published under a Creative Commons license. Benefits include lowering research costs while driving consulting and other revenues. Challenges include quality control and the prerequisite of building a large and engaged community of collaborators that will be equally accessible to competing Advisory firms.

We see several other  possible examples of disruptive behavior. In a recent conversation with Louise Garnett from Outsell, we came up with a short list of firms, past and present, innovating at least one aspect of the Advisory business model. Highlights, in no particular order:

1. Springboard Research: It claims to have a low-cost/high-quality reputation using low-cost research from China and India. Plus, Springboard built leadership in Asia Pacific markets while U.S. firms were reducing international presence. It’s a good example of specialization.

2. Altimeter Group: This small but growing top-rated analyst group seems to some as more a consultancy than an Advisory firm. Its analysts retain personal branding and independence while obtaining generous splits from their loyal clients from past relationships. The tactics are paying off, generating momentum. Founder Charlene Li’s increasing number of innovative ideas have been well recognized but to become a true disruptor to G&F the firm must (and might well) find a way to scale, and to accelerate its introduction of deliverables.

3. GigaOM Pro: Disruptors can emerge from outside the Advisory industry. Om Malik is incubating this research startup within his media network. This means ongoing exposure to 5 million unique visitors each month — far outpacing any Advisory today. It achieves low-cost/high-quality by using a network of on-demand subject matter experts (38 currently, all in emerging tech) and enforcing quality standards, from vetting experts to producing research. The experts negotiate and retain all Advisory fees resulting from participation in GigaOM Pro.

4. Giga Information Group (background): Funded as it grew, Giga’s model included innovations such as a single service priced by the seat and an expert network backing up its strong staff of analysts. It also made significant ongoing investments in building a salesforce and creating a brand. As with Altimeter and GigaOM Pro, it benefited out of the gate from the strong reputation of its founder. All of this resulted in annual revenues of over $70 million in annual contract value in less than 5 years.

5. Spiceworks: Another disruptor from outside the Advisory industry, Spiceworks is a systems and network management software vendor with an active community of 1 million users, all in IT management jobs in small- and medium-sized businesses. Spiceworks gives away its software to qualified users in exchange for real-time insights into their product deployments and participation in the online community. Sponsoring vendors conduct research and communicate directly with the community. Currently, its equivalent of “Advisory” is a simple question/answer service leveraging peer-to-peer and vendor evangelist interactions.

Firms that want to catapult to the top need to use innovation to their best advantage. Say for example, a smaller Advisory wants to specialize and provide research advice which exceeds Forrester’s in quality. The firm needs to find a way to actually demonstrate that it has a higher ratio or a larger magnitude of knowledge/information in at least one very specific market segment  in order to improve its market share in the appropriate space. Invoking the idea that it exceeds Forrester in its specialty areas is one thing, but proving such specialization is something else again.

One example of a way to develop and demonstrate the above thesis qualitatively might be to assume the number of Forrester analysts (excluding consultants, juniors, management, etc.) and remind the reader of some claims that the old 80/20 rule still prevails (80% of analysts providing 20% of the value), perhaps reducing the ratio to 75/25. There’s no reason small competitors cannot focus on recruiting more senior and recently specialized people-power to build a claimable ratio of 70/30 or even 60/40.

Scale is perhaps the greatest challenge facing would-be disruptors. Sound growth strategies and financial management are vital. M&A can play a key role, as proven by Gartner and Forrester. Recent activity among smaller firms runs the gamut, from iSuppli acquiring Screen Digest to Datamonitor expanding its portfolio.

Bottom line however is that incremental change might be “too little too late”. What’s required to succeed (and arguably needed by the industry) is use of an old trick: taking a large clean sheet of paper, and imagining an Advisory model which will clearly represent a breakthrough that will attract investors (because significant capital will likely be required to realistically challenge the current status).

A conceivable alternative might be to consolidate a significant number of strong analysts and/or small firms, with a management team working together to implement what was suggested in the paragraph above. And then the outcome will still hang on the solidity of the financials.

Small firms and new entrants can disrupt the Advisory industry. Note that IBM once virtually controlled the entire computer hardware market, until innovative firms around the edges changed the ground rules, which challenged customer reliance upon Big Blue. But these outlying firms succeeded mainly via new functions and better price/performance ratios. So while there are various degrees of freedom in structuring a hypothetical Advisory firm such that an opportunity arises to emulate what once occurred in IT hardware, this would take imagination, time, and perhaps most important, money. It can be done: Giga Information Group showed that the industry leaders were in fact vulnerable and grew from $zero to $70M contract value (not including consulting and events) in less than 5 years.

Finally, more input from Louise (Outsell): Every segment of the information industry looks the same. In each segment, a few big players represent at least 50% of revenues. Smaller companies make up the rest, carving out various niches. The IT research market follows the norm: it covers many segments, with a few firms dominating each segment and holding those positions for years on end. Successful contenders will understand this market structure before attacking it.

Editor’s Note: This has been cross-posted at Gideon’s blog, www.gideongartner.com. We’ll cross-posts your comments to both blogs.

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If you missed today’s fast-paced webinar, here’s the audio replay. However our recorded conversation is just part of the discussion that took place. Check out the real-time reactions and side conversations at Twitter — hashtag #socialanalyst. Thanks to everyone who participated!

As Jeremiah said in his closing comments, we want to continue this conversation. Are you in? Please check back for links to the Twitter transcript. Also, trackback or comment here if you publish on the impact of social technologies on the industry analysts, their advisory clients and their analyst relations communities.

Special gratitude to our pilots at the Hangar – Christine Tan and Julie Viola — and to co-panelists Jeremiah Owyang, Carter Lusher and Jonny Bentwood.

The Impact of Social on the Analyst Industry: A Roundtable w/ Jonny Bentwood, Barbara French, Carter Lusher, and Jeremiah Owyang from Altimeter Group on Vimeo

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Social technologies are disrupting traditional business models, and the tech industry analyst business is no exception. Or is it? How is social truly changing the day to day work of the tech watchers? their advisory clients? their relations with tech providers? Tune in tomorrow as I exchange views on this important topic with fellow thought leaders Jeremiah Owyang, Jonny Bentwood and Carter Lusher. You can ask questions and more during the live webinar using the Twitter hashtag #socialanalyst. This virtual event is free. Register now so you can listen and participate tomorrow!

What you need to know:

Special thanks to Jeremiah for organizing and producing this event!

Related posts:

The brainstorm behind this event at Jeremiah’s blog
Personal point of view at Jonny’s blog
More stage-setting at Carter’s blog and here at Sway

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