Dreamforce 2011: Salesforce.com Will Leave Marketing Automation Alone. But Revenue Performance Management Might Be Another Story.


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I spent most of this week at Salesforce.com‘s Dreamforce conference. With 45,000 registrants, the company says that Dreamforce is now the largest technology industry gathering. I don’t know whether that’s true (as someone pointed out, the Consumer Electronics Show is much bigger, for starters). But I did notice about two years ago that pretty much everyone in the B2B marketing automation space was more or less assuming I’d attend. Peer pressure worked, and there I was.

If the big question on the mind of the marketing automation industry has been whether Salesforce would launch its own product, the show provided what I consider to be a definitive answer: No (at least for now; never say never). In both public announcements and private conversations, Salesforce leaders made clear their focus is on much bigger game: becoming a strategic enterprise technology supplier on par with IBM or HP. They plan to do this by becoming the platform for the “social enterprise”, which they see as the next major generation of computing.

More precisely, they are almost mechanically mimicking Facebook, which they see as the new center of online life. Their equivalent is Salesforce Chatter, the social network for company workers they see as connecting all company systems. Part of the strategy is to build enterprise applications on Salesforce platforms, and part of it is to access other enterprise applications from within Chatter. The still broader goal is to add customers and suppliers to each firm’s Chatter network, and to incorporate non-human objects such as orders and equipment. For better or worse, this is already happening today: the company demonstrated networks where an automobile can warn you that its tire pressure is low or a network switch can report on its status.

As someone who gets pretty darned annoyed when my printer tells me it wants an expensive new cartridge, I have mixed feelings about letting so many new and completely self-centered voices clamor for my attention. In fact, I’d say most people’s biggest computer-related problem today is social media overload: people need better ways to structure and filter their social messages, not ways to get more of them. The Chatter group that Salesforce set up for Dreamforce itself struck me as a perfect example: it was filled with largely irrelevant noise that made it nearly impossible to see the useful information. If Salesforce hadn’t also sent nicely structured emails with schedules and contact information, I wouldn’t have known what to do when I got there.

Of course, any true believer would dismiss me as part of a pre-digital generation, and therefore both obsolete and irrelevant as a human being. Maybe so. I do recall that some (traditional, structured) research has shown that human brains physically adjust when they must process unstructured inputs. But even if people get better at filtering noise, that filtering still takes energy from other, more directly productive purposes. So unless the value of the nuggets captured by that filtering exceeds the effort consumed by the filtering, the result is a net loss.

Oh dear, I do sound pretty crotchety, don’t I? Blame lack of sleep from social networking of the old-fashioned, face-to-face kind. Cranky or not, I came away from Dreamforce very impressed how clearly Salesforce has defined their vision and aligned their actions to execute it. Although I heard some grumbling that there was nothing really new in the show’s announcements, I took that as evidence that Salesforce had previously decided what it wants to do and is now doing it. The specific announcements were all tied directly to the “social enterprise” strategy: things like adding Java support to the Heroku platform (making it easier to deploy applications on the Salesforce infrastructure) and adding presence and external parties to Chatter (making it easier to replace other collaboration systems).

That said, there’s a difference between a clear strategy and a successful strategy. I’d say that Salesforce has a pretty good chance of evolving Chatter into a ubiquitous enterprise social network. But whether that translates to becoming the core platform for all enterprise systems is another question. After all, there are other ubiquitous enterprise systems – for example, the telephone and email – that didn’t end up controlling everything else. But maybe I’m missing the point; perhaps all Salesforce wants or needs from this is continued revenue growth from processing on its platforms. “Social enterprise” offers a nice theme to make this possible by attracting application developers. Although Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff clearly has a more messianic vision than that, fulfilling the grander vision isn’t really necessary from a business standpoint.

All of which brings us back to B2B marketing automation. As a $2.1 billion company, Salesforce is looking where its next $2 billion in revenue will come from. Marketing automation is clearly too small to make a serious contribution to that goal. Existing B2B marketing automation systems already support Salesforce, so it has no particular strategic reason to replace them with its own applications.

On the other hand, Salesforce would probably like marketing automation to run on its own platforms, rather than simply synchronizing with Salesforce data and campaigns. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see Salesforce encourage third party developers to build marketing automation systems using Salesforce’s Force.com and Heroku platforms and Database.com database, or to see them encourage existing vendors to migrate to the Salesforce.com infrastructure. This is pretty much the notion of “Salesforce add-ons” that I wrote about on August 16 (see “Can CRM Add-Ons Replace Marketing Automation?”)

I also still expect that Salesforce will continue to enhance its core Sales application with features that make it better at specific marketing automation functions like complex campaign flows and Web tracking. Between native apps and organic product growth, today’s B2B marketing automation vendors definitely face some serious threats from Salesforce even if it doesn’t target them directly. It’s like sleeping with an elephant: it could roll over and crush you without even noticing.

Speaking of which, one thing you don’t do when sleeping next to an elephant is to poke it awake. There’s an element of that in Revenue Performance Management, which stakes a claim to a much larger territory than marketing automation by itself. I discussed RPM with both Eloqua and Marketo during Dreamforce. Both share a vision of combining marketing automation data with sales data, and ideally with data from other sources. This expanded database is really the core of RPM because it’s what gives the end-to-end view of the revenue cycle.

I agree with the goal, but Salesforce also has its eye on storing all that data. The bigger the pool of data the marketing automation vendors assemble, the more appealing it looks to Salesforce. And if you combine the data with a claim to managing strategic decisions about marketing and sales programs, you’re definitely poaching on their turf. At the moment, it’s a bit of a blind spot because analytics and business intelligence have not been Salesforce strengths. But that could well change – in fact, it must change if Salesforce is to provide a comprehensive alternative to existing enterprise platforms. When it does, they won’t just accidentally crush RPM vendors by rolling over: they’ll take aim with their giant feet and stomp them directly.

Or maybe I’m being naive. Perhaps RPM is a way for marketing automation vendors to attract Salesforce’s attention as a potential strategic acquisition. In that case, poking the elephant is exactly the right approach.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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