It was bound to become blindingly obvious sometime. The ruse of anyone accurately tracking market share in any market has been a running joke for as long as I can remember. I guess some folks do argue with the so-called market share numbers, like McAfee recently did, but it is usually attributed to sour grapes for those with crappy numbers. I’d say that market share doesn’t matter for end users, but in reality it’s safer to go with a vendor with a large market share. And in today’s tough business environment, very few are willing to be unsafe.

Clearly these numbers matter for vendors. Many bonuses, marketing campaigns, and marketing/sales jobs hinge on these numbers. You can bet that someone at McAfee has a ton of road rash, especially if the reported share numbers are wrong. And I feel for those folks because I have personally been on both ends of the market share reporting game, and it’s always unpleasant.

Why? Because the numbers are basically made up. Okay, not totally made up – in mature markets vendors dutifully report revenues and units to the analysts. But there are times when vendors don’t tell the entire truth. Or manipulate the numbers. Or obfuscate reality. Or all of the above.

Let me tell a little story. Back when I was in the email security business, these numbers mattered a lot internally to my company. Our perceived leadership allegedly got us on the short list for many deals and allowed us to claim market success, which begat more business success. So when we got a preliminary report from a number-crunching firm showing our main competitor gaining share rapidly, alarm bells sounded everywhere. And it was my job to fix it.

But I couldn’t make our product sell faster. Nor could I combat unsavory sales tactics by the competition. But I could manipulate the market share reporting process. Or at least try. The statute of limitations is up on this deal and none of the folks involved in the travesty are still in their current jobs, so I finally feel comfortable spilling the beans.

Basically I made a call to the analyst wondering if he considered that the competitor sold both email sending devices and anti-spam devices. I mentioned that we had heard 1/3 of the competitor’s business was the spam cannons, and the remainder email security gear. When I said “I heard,” I really meant “I hoped” because it wasn’t like the competitor sent me their quarterly numbers. I didn’t turn the screws or threaten or anything like that. I just mentioned it in a simple conversation. Just food for thought for the analyst.

I was pleasantly surprised when the final report came out and the competitors’ alleged revenue was reduced by 1/3. Really! I couldn’t believe it worked, but it did. To be fair, there is a chance I was right about the competitor’s revenue mix. Maybe the analyst figured out a way to confirm the sales data. Maybe the vendor came clean when the analyst pressed (assuming they did). No, I don’t think so either.

Why do I tell this story, especially given that it doesn’t make me shine? Like most folks, I have done things I’m not exactly proud of. So part of this is cathartic, but I also tell the story because you need to keep these numbers in context. If you buy a product because you think a company is a market share leader, you aren’t too bright. If you don’t buy a product because the vendor is a niche player, same deal. Market share reporting is a game, just like vendor ranking quadrants. Some genius figured out how to extort money from the participants in a market to prove they are good companies.

And it’s not just technology markets where these shenanigans happen. It’s pretty much every market. Don’t think that public companies play fair in this game either. Revenue allocation games can be played to make certain products look better. We all know some vendors give away products they want to look better in market share rankings as part of much bigger deals.

As Adrian said when I floated a draft of this post by our extended team, “when bullsh** meets bad math, it’s the customers that lose.” That’s really the point. Do the work and figure out what makes sense for your environment. Tools like quadrants and market share grids can be used to justify a decision you have already made. But they shouldn’t be the basis for decisions you haven’t made yet.