Lithium: Watchlist 2016 Elite, LiNC 2016...Total(ly) communities

Lithium won CRM Watchlist Elite this year and pulled off its most successful LiNC conference to date -- in large part because it has become a very Zen company. Find out what that means.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

I've known Lithium -- as an analyst and as an adviser to the company -- for many, many years. I've also known a significant number of the Lithium leadership for a long time as friends, not just business colleagues. I've always liked it a lot -- one of my faves in fact -- for two reasons. First, it is a company with a substantial amount of potential. Second, it's always had, even in its most difficult moments, a lovely group of people to deal with. I've covered Lithium for a long time and have praised it, criticized it, been puzzled by it, and seen it clear as a bell - sometimes both or all at the same time. It's been one of my clients for a long time; although not a particularly lucrative one, one of the ones that I truly enjoy working with.

There is little question at this point that Lithium has become the top-of-mind community platform provider. Why should you care?

Let me begin this review of the CRM Watchlist 2016 Elite winner by telling you why you should care.

Before I tell you why you should care, a brief interlude: in the interest of not making this article ridiculously long, I won't publish the the CRM Watchlist 2016 Conference Scorecard details. I will tell you that Lithium achieved the highest score of any company this year (an A-) due to the incredibly well-orchestrated program around the keynotes, and the overall cadence of the conference, along with high levels of crowd engagement. If Lithium wants it, there is a full conference scorecard discussion available to it free of charge in lieu of the publication. (Note to readers: Are you happy with me not publishing the scorecard, or should I have?)

Now, why should you care? Let me tell you.

Total(ly) Communities

If you look at today's trends -- a.k.a present-state-buzzwords -- you hear digital transformation, customer experience, customer engagement, customer journeys, cloud-based blah blah blah, and a lot more. Ironically, all of them are legitimate, business-impacting initiatives (among others I'm not mentioning) that can alter how a company does its business and the nature of business in the 21st century, but they are riddled with hype.

One buzzword you don't hear as much hype about these days is communities. There's a lot of irony in that. While not a conversation piece at the level of Pokémon Go, communities are routinely becoming one of the most important institutional structures for interaction with customers -- and are already more than just talk at a significant number of companies, though for the life of me, I can't find the actual numbers anywhere. Not only are there an increasing number of communities being brought online by businesses around the globe, but they are starting to be seen as a defining structure within a transformative 21st century business infrastructure. Which says a lot.

Why communities? Well, without quoting studies or looking at ROI (stay tuned), look at what should be obvious. In the physical world, most of us participate in more than one community on any given day. We live in one (a neighborhood in a town or city, let's say). We work in one (an office governed by rules that drive the social interactions and that are defined by a common interest or practice -- e.g., Lithium employees at their headquarters on Bush Street in San Francisco). We play in communities (perhaps on a team in a league of like-minded individuals who participate in a particular sport). Some of these things we don't define as communities, or they're only loosely defined as communities, but they have something in common: people with a particular interest or practice who are socially interacting within an organized, bounded entity.

Here are two formal definitions of community that make the most sense to me and reflect what seems to be the commonly-held ideas:

Merriam Webster:

A unified body of individuals: as a: state, commonwealth b: the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself<the problems of a large community> c : an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location d : a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society <a community of retired persons> e : a group linked by a common policy f : a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests <the international community> g : a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society <the academic community>


1. Self-organized network of people with common agenda, cause, or interest, who collaborate by sharing ideas, information, and other resources. Virtual communities consist of participants in online discussions on topics of mutual concern, or of those who frequent certain websites. 2. Cluster of common interests that arise from association.

Unless you are a truly literary snob, both of them should suffice. Actually, I hear on occasion from the snobs when they criticize my comma or semi-colon misplacement or my use of a colloquialism when 13th century Middle English should have been used. So, if you're not these kinds of trolls, then I think these definitions are likely good enough. For them, they probably need a different definition -- and a life.

What is noticeable is how dependent we are upon this kind of social structure for everything we do and, most importantly, the way that we live.

What makes digital communities more than just a good idea in a business environment is that, as we begin to live our lives more digitally, and make no mistake about it, many of us -- a good minority of the world's population if not an outright majority -- are amenable as customers to moving some if not all of our business activity to digital formats.

We already do that with many of our transactions (Amazon and the millions of ecommerce sites that use such scalable technologies as ATG Commerce Cloud, Hybris, and Demandware, to name the biggest names). We do a lot of our "socializing" on Facebook and via, say, WeChat, Twitter, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, or... get the picture?

I'm not concerned here about whether all this digital interaction is a good or bad thing, meaning whether we should celebrate the evolution of digital interaction or the woeful nature of not doing all interaction physically. We all can argue about that later. But I am saying it's a matter of fact and definitely, judging from the amount of captured conversational data, a matter of record that more than a billion people socially interact on Facebook and in even greater numbers on other social networks.

What makes digital communities so valuable is contained in the definitions above and the behavior of us denizens of the 21st century. There are like-minded individuals (common causes, agendas, interests, histories, or locations) converging in an organized, accessible, singular place from multiple physical locales to communicate due to those common interests; providing a rich environment for knowledge exchange, emotional support, and valuable interactions.

For example, a few days ago, Brent Leary and I were doing an episode of CRM Playaz (sponsored by Salesforce). (This is a link to a random CRM Playaz episode from 2014; the new stuff from Salesforce is not out yet.) We had on the show Kenny Lauer, the VP of Digital and Marketing for the Golden State Warriors, a brilliant marketing dude and a truly wonderful human being. Kenny was talking about his days as a social pioneer (my words, not his) when he worked at The WELL (see here for a history), and he said he saw people literally propose marriage online who had never met in person but, as he put it, "had fallen in love because of words". Their digital presence and interactions were so strong that it drove deep emotional response. By the way, don't DO that. Not a good idea. But, you get the point, right?

So, when it comes to business, businesses providing communities, which they are able to control, for things like customer service or discussions about a brand, where not only can the customers interact with each other, but the brand ambassadors/employees can interact with the customers... Well, that's beyond powerful because:

  1. Customers can reinforce each other's brand-positive behavior (and, of course, on the downside, brand-negative conversations).
  2. The company can control the community because its behind the company firewall.
  3. It is an incredibly rich source of data to be mined (with permission of the community) both on brand information and customer journeys if done well.
  4. Problems can be solved more quickly and trust built more effectively, because the customer has a place to go get something taken care of that is easily more identifiable and more easily reachable.

So, if the validity of communities is established (and in my eyes it is), then why Lithium -- and even more germane to the CRM Watchlist -- as an Elite winner this year?

Lithium: The cream rises to the top

What got Lithium the "Elite" designation this year wasn't its products/services - which are, as a platform and independently, for the most part, quite good. It was the company itself, and the product portfolio included. There is something almost Zen about Lithium -- harmonious -- that makes it the Elite company that it is. This is not something I would have said in previous years.

Before you think I'm focused on the spiritual impact of companies in the Watchlist, hear me out. Although I am a big believer in mindfulness and what I call the quality of spirit, that's not what I'm talking about here. What I mean is that Lithium has a well-balanced and integrated vision, mission, management team, thought-leadership program, product and services portfolio, and corporate culture. It is one that emphasizes on what it does, who it focuses on as customers, and what it does it for -- and it cares about those it is doing it for and those that are doing it. It does what it does as a company exceptionally well, and it's reflected in the foundation of all that it does, and the consistency is reflected in its company profile and, most importantly, culture and activity.

It wasn't always that way. Lithium was founded by Lyle Fong, a world class gamer, with a unique offering -- an early era, enterprise-ready community offering that had a gamer's user interface. This meant that navigability, UI (user interface), UX (user experience) -- more often than not, back then kludgy and ugly -- and companies didn't have the design focus they have now either (see Brian Solis's book on design and UI/UX "X: The Experience When Business Meets Design" here; it's well worth your purchase), so the technology was at least cutting edge and well ahead of its time.

But there were two problems. First, it was cutting edge, which meant the market initially didn't understand the need for communities, though some did (see Dani Weinstein's work at HP, or the work done at GiffGaff, both early and enthusiastic Lithium customers). The thought leadership wasn't there yet nor was the framework for most companies -- especially at the enterprise level -- to understand that need. That put Lithium in a bind, though it had a string of some successes early on (see the two I just mentioned), because it became imperative to not only provide the thought leadership to the larger enterprises and the market but also have an enterprise-ready staff, meaning a staff that could ooze trustworthiness when it came to enterprise buyers interactions, and they didn't have that at the time.

The other issues that it faced over the years was just simply establishing who it was and sticking with it, because it had a tendency to reinvent itself with all its acquisitions -- which, as acquisitions go, were generally very smart. For example, in 2012, when it acquired Social Dynamix, it tried to become a social customer care solution.

Well, the thing is, most companies go through this kind of thing, which is part of the maturation process of a company. It's what they do to deal with these things that make or break them. And Lithium dealt with it, piece by piece and, with some pain, managed to ultimately evolve into what is a very well-tuned, contemporary, and, dare I say, an almost elegant company in its consistency.

For example, it needed a considerably more enterprise-experienced staff, and now it has that with the likes of CEO Rob Tarkoff, CMO Katy Keim, and CTO Sunil Rajasekar, among many others. All of them are not only trustworthy enough for enterprise buyers to be comforted, but they are also very, very good at their jobs.

Thought leadership? Check. It has Dr. Michael Wu, chief data scientist, one of the leading thinkers about data, insight, influence, gamification, and communities in the industry, and Dr. Joe Cothrel, chief community officer, an innovative thinker on behavior traveling, writing, and developing frameworks -- and being given the leeway to do so.

Identity crisis? Over. About 18 months ago, CEO Rob Tarkoff came up to me at a VIP dinner at LiNC and said, (abbreviated greatly), "We now know that we are a community platform and you will see that in the messaging from here on." Since that time, all things Lithium -- ranging from marketing, to mission and vision, to product road maps, and to delivery -- are focused around the idea of "Total Community", which, to toot my own horn, I have been saying in all the years I've known Lithium, covered it, hung out with it, and been an adviser to it. So, I am truly glad. It hasn't wavered one iota since it decided it was going to provide "Total Community" to its customers and to the market.

Its products? Platform! Yes, indeedy. Its current portfolio consists of products/solutions that provide online communities, social media management, social communications media, and analytics. The most recent addition to its portfolio is Lithium Reach, which it calls a Social Marketing product but is more a content production and publishing platform tied to social channels and communities. Could it do more? Sure. It could provide the stitching needed to make this into a true platform, rather than the beginnings of one. But that's well underway, as far as I can tell, so I won't be saying the same thing in a year, I don't think. At least I hope not. The other, very promising side to the evolution of its platform is its full-on desire to build what it called "an awesome architecture" for integration with CRM platforms and solutions -- a move that is on the money because of the maturity of the CRM market itself ($36.7bn by 2017 according to Gartner).

Hopefully, at this point, you can see why it is Elite. But there is one other reason, too. I've spoken to many of its customers over the year -- and, almost uniformly, the customers love it. The interaction is refreshing, and the personal relationships between staff and customers is refreshing. That was evident in the presentations and the conversations I had at LiNC 2016 with its customers from Fitbit, GoPro, and Hewlett Packard. Its customers not only were very happy with the community products but ecstatic about the relationship between Lithium and their company -- a true badge of honor in our rather "revenue-at-any-cost" Shark Tank of a world.

But, as always, Elite or not, there are tweaks to its work that will, I hope, or at least I think, will make it an even better company if it chooses to pay attention to them. In the case of Lithium, a better company means a foundation to take it to the next level, which is an amorphous and nice way for what we really mean: a much larger amount of revenue in whatever currencies make you happy.

Things it can do

Mini-ecosystems, mini-ecosystems and oh, mini-ecosystems - The 21st century software/SAAS play is platforms and ecosystems. I'm not saying that there is no basis or need for solutions and applications (of course there is). But even these are being replaced now by microservices (more on this in a later post). When you are a market leader -- and in communities, Lithium is the brand to beat -- you pretty well have three things to consider: how you are going to build your platform out, who's ecosystem you are going to play in, and who is going to play in yours.

Lithium is a total community platform already. You can, with its core technologies and some of the newer aspects, such as its Reach publishing platform, build highly-configurable and customized, branded communities that meet either your horizontal or vertical needs. That is pretty well established, though it could use more and better toolsets than it provides at this point. It plays well in the Microsoft Dynamics 365 ecosystem. It can play, I would say, in the SAP ecosystem well, too. The other two of the Big 4.5 not as clearly. Adobe, which represents the 0.5 of the Big 4.5, is a possible candidate for a strategic alliance. But, more interestingly, it can be the center of what I would call a mini-ecosystem: a select group of strategic partners that could go to market together (as well as continue to go to market independently) with a greatly-enhanced value proposition.

There is one group of two other partners (it shall at this point remain nameless) that are ideal for this. To give you an example of a mini-ecosystem, Xactly spearheads Project Unite (watch for an upcoming guest blog post on this) that builds out an end-to-end offering that goes well beyond Xactly and sales compensation via alliance/ecosystem partners like SpringCM, DocuSign, and Salesforce's Steelbrick. They have some consultancies, which are building practices around the alliance offering, not just the discrete companies. They have governance. This is the kind of thinking I would strongly encourage Lithium to work on. They have a superb alliances guy with their Chief Customer Officer Misha Logvinov, so a plan like this could succeed. I'm just saying.

Engage more thought leaders externally - This may be the most ironic suggestion, yet it is one that I think Lithium needs to take to heart. What makes engaging more thought leaders externally-ironic in the true sense of the word is two things. It has a truly excellent AR program run by someone, Nicole Addison, who amazes all the time.

But what I'm talking about here is scale. It is, let's just say, operating at a cost-efficient scale, and while that has certain merits, Lithium has also reached that stage in its growth that it has to expand its visibility and presence on the public stage to get to the next level. That means two things: start showing up in the CRM world a lot more, primarily because it is a mature and substantial market and a natural "partner" in its ecosystem, but - as importantly, if not more so -- start thinking about expanding the work with external influencers (both for thought leadership and for market influence). It has been a bit pennywise and pound-foolish on this, and that shows as a limitation of scale, which doesn't hold relative to its size and growth rate. Time to spend some money and blow up the program to the scale necessary to get to the next level. Details available upon request (by Lithium).

Sports Entertainment Media - One thing about Lithium that makes it so good is that it has always been sorta sexy from day one -- given that it's really hard for software or services per se to be sexy. But from the day that Lithium was founded by Lyle Fong, it had a different vibe. The reason, Lyle was a world class gamer, and he saw that Lithium's UI was a gamer's UI appropriated and recast as the UI for an enterprise-quality community platform. Even back in the day. It has always been a consumer-friendly platform that can play in B2B but has appealed strongly in B2C. So, it has that right-brained, emotional quality that leads to a stronger level of engagement -- one that is enhanced by the technology. The technology is an attribute of the strength of the platform's appeal, not merely an enabler or a vessel.

So, what is more perfect for Lithium than start making an effort to become the community platform of choice for the world of sports, entertainment and media/ Sports and entertainment are defined by fans, not the personalities that the fans are devoted to. What makes this fascinating is that advocates are there, ready and waiting. This is not a domain that you have to create advocates. You have to find ways to capture and contain their enthusiasm. What better ways than communities? They talk to each other; they want to talk to their peers about the thing they love the most. Think about the value of containing that enthusiasm and being able to capture the data, personalize the interactions, and have a place where the fans and (the representatives of) the team or personality can interact. Wow.

This might be a watershed moment in Lithium's evolution and history. But it's up to them to take it to the next level -- and if I didn't believe that it had that potential it wouldn't have won a Watchlist Elite designation, which is nearly impossible to win. That said, that's only my opinion for what it's worth. This is something Lithium is poised to do, and I trust will. I really do.

Important Note to CRM 2016 Watchlist winners: This year, due to pressing editorial matters (I have to concentrate on writing my book on customer engagement), I am not going to be publishing reviews of the CRM Watchlist winners. I will publish reviews of the Elite winners and the Winners with Distinction, but beyond that... I am truly sorry. I made the decision after a lot of thinking and hand wringing. However, in return for not publishing, I will provide a free one-hour phone consultation session for any winner who requests it. To be fair, I will send out a note to the winners informing them of my decision (not relying on them to read it here) and the replacement offer. I apologize to the Watchlist winners this year. I am only one person, and the time to do that amount of writing isn't there. I will resume the reviews next year. Also, to the Elite and Winners with distinction, they will be given the option of a published review or a one-hour advisory session - either/or. If I don't hear from those Elite or WWD, then I will default to a published review. Thank you all for your understanding in this.

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