The market for SharePoint add-ons that give intranet functionality is growing rapidly, not just the number of options but also the size of companies rolling them out.
Each year I lead a review of SharePoint intranets in-a-box products. As a reflection of how the area is growing, the first look at this area in 2016 covered 6 products, our second review covered 26, and the 2018 edition covers 42. I estimate there are well over 60 significant intranet products for SharePoint available around the world, and expect the number of offerings to keep growing.
Three major trends struck me this year: big companies, partnerships, and bots. They reflect how the market is maturing, but also the pressure on vendors to keep their products ahead of Microsoft’s own changes, such as communication sites.
Intranets go large
Two to three years ago, few large companies were willing to consider SharePoint in-a-box products. Most were reluctant to be the first to try; besides, what was on offer did not adequately support their needs. For example, the products couldn’t cope with multiple site collections, different languages, or sub-brands.
Now that products have matured the situation has changed significantly. Half the vendors we looked at list clients with 30,000 or more users and several top 100,000 users. Very large organisations can now feel confident that there are several decent choices in the marketplace.
Partnerships and consolidation
Some vendors, such as Powell365, Akumina, and LiveTiles, have always delivered their solutions through a partner model. Now more vendors are following suit.
I welcome this as an indication that the in-a-box products are being well managed and supported. The roots of many products are code libraries from agencies that they have packaged up and branded. Sometimes these still have the feel of a ‘service’ rather than something ready-to-go. A partner model suggests a mature offering with proper product management, and that is good for customers.
This growing partner model probably means that smaller players, that have survived so far by servicing a local market, will feel more pressure from resellers bringing in stronger products from outside. The rate of new products being launched may also slow (for my own sanity, I hope so!).
As we’ve seen elsewhere in the digital workplace, bots are very much in fashion. Products such as FLEX, Beezy, Valo, Habanero Go, and Mesh all have bots either built-in or as an optional add-on.
AI assistants and conversational interfaces have a great deal of potential to help users complete quick tasks, and are becoming easier to deploy.
However, their inclusion in in-a-box products risks them being deployed without the deeper analysis that would be triggered by a separate purchase. Companies should think carefully about their commitment to bots: they rely on proactive content maintenance to grow sustainably; your content may need to be re-written for a chat interface; and you may not have the in-house skills or time to maintain them as the complexity grows.
Some things are still missing
As you may expect, most intranet products do a decent job of news publishing and making reference content (static pages) work well. But I still see some persistent gaps for social intranets, analytics, and search.
Given the maturity of social intranets and the power of SharePoint alternatives like Thoughtfarmer, Iris, Oak, and Axero, we would expect better support for fully integrated social features across most products. Microsoft has left SharePoint-based intranets hanging, with Yammer’s weak integration, leaving commenting on news, videos, and blogs fragmented.
Some products do an excellent job of fixing this significant issue, but I’d say all of them should take this gap seriously. I’m more encouraged that vendors are working on Workplace by Facebook integration, giving more choice than ‘if it’s SharePoint, it has to be Yammer’.
Analytics continues to be a weak spot, with heavy reliance on third-party products such as Google Analytics or basic Power BI integration. I can understand that solutions pitched at large enterprises can assume a third-party tool might be used, but otherwise there is a notable gap between what SharePoint offers and what intranet managers need. This is exactly the sort of feature set that should come ready-made.
I was encouraged by some vendors such as Bonzai and MatchPoint working hard to improve the user’s search experience in SharePoint and sometimes beyond. They mainly do this by thinking about search dialogues and results pages in a more creative way. Search is such a fundamental part of an intranet and I’d like to see all vendors, rather than just a few, focus on making intranet-specific improvements.
Will Microsoft hubs change the game?
Coming soon to Office 365 are ‘hub sites’. These offer intranet-like features, such as aggregating news from other sites and giving a persistent menu navigation. It’s hard to say what impact they will have until they are launched, but Microsoft states that they don’t see them as replacement for a typical corporate intranet home page. Rather, the idea is that companies will have multiple hub sites as a way to bind together related sites.
We also shouldn’t forget that around 35% of SharePoint deployments are still on-premises [PDF; 1MB] and won’t be able to use hub sites. As Microsoft focuses on the cloud, it is a niche that in-a-box vendors could readily fill.
For example, we recently worked with a bank to help them select an intranet product. Their security policy ruled out any cloud-based services. Even finding a tool that would give a good commenting experience was tricky because many products rely on the cloud-only Yammer component.
Free to focus on the important stuff
I’m encouraged that we now see so many intranet launches that get the basics right. Many are well-designed, user-friendly, attractive, and functional. In-a-box products help get many of these factors in place because they allow intranet mangers to stop worrying about making ‘SharePoint’ work, and instead focus on what really matters: fulfilling business and user needs. That’s good news for businesses, intranet teams, and users alike.
A version of this article was first published over at CMSWire.