a collection of different sized boxes
SharePoint intranet-in-a-box products come in all shapes and sizes, but many more are fulfilling the basic needs of an intranet. PHOTO: Clem Onojeghuo

The market for SharePoint add-ons that give intranet functionality is growing rapidly, not just in the number of options but also the number of companies rolling them out.

Each year I lead a review of the SharePoint Intranets in-a-box marketplace. The reports reflect the growth in the market: the first report in 2016 covered six products, the second covered 26 and the 2018 edition covers 42. I estimate there are over 60 products in all and I expect that number to continue growing.

SharePoint Intranet Market Trends

Three big trends struck me this year: big companies, partnerships and bots. They reflect how the market is maturing, but also show 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 first to test the waters, and the products on offer did not adequately support their needs. For example, the products couldn’t cope with multiple site collections, different languages or sub-brands.

With the maturation of the products, 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 organizations can now feel confident there are several decent choices in the marketplace.

Related Article: SharePoint Intranets: To Buy, To Build, To Wait?

Partnerships and Consolidation

Some vendors, such as Powell365, Akumina and LiveTiles, have always delivered 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.

A growing partner model probably also means the 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!).

Bots

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.

Artificial intelligence assistants and conversational interfaces have a great deal of potential to help users complete quick tasks. And with SharePoint becoming easier to live with translates well into making bots easier to deploy.

However, chatbots inclusion in in-a-box products risks them being deployed without the deeper analysis that a separate purchase would trigger. 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-factored for a chat interface; and you may not have the in-house skills to maintain them as the complexity grows.

Related Article: 9 Tips for Selecting a SharePoint Intranet-in-a-Box

What SharePoint Intranets-in-a-Box Are Still Missing

As you may expect for intranet products, most of them 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.

Social Intranets

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 comments 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 encouraged that vendors are working on Workplace by Facebook integration, giving more choice than "if it's SharePoint, it has to be Yammer."

Analytics

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.

Search

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. I’d like to see all vendors, rather than just a few, focus on making intranet-specific improvements.

Will Microsoft Hubs Change the Game?

"Hub sites" are coming soon to Office 365. Hub sites offer intranet-like features, such as news aggregation from other sites and persistent menu navigation. It’s hard to say what impact they will have until they are launched, but Microsoft has stated it doesn’t see them as a replacement for a typical corporate intranet home page. Rather, the idea is companies will have multiple hub sites as a way to bind together related sites without them being in a single hierarchy.

We also shouldn’t forget that around 35 percent of SharePoint deployments are still on-premises 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 experience of commenting on news stories was tricky because many products rely on the cloud-only Yammer component.

A Solid Foundation to Build On

We now see many intranet launches getting the basics right — and that's encouraging. They are well-designed, user-friendly, attractive and functional. The best in-a-box products 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.