Salesforce Connections is what used to be Exact Target's user conference. Now, it's rightfully the Salesforce Marketing Cloud's conference and, while not at the scope of Dreamforce (then again, nothing is), it is without a doubt a banner conference, drawing around 10,000 souls a year. What makes it interesting is that it is a flagship conference, despite Salesforce's relentless city tours and the overwhelming presence of Dreamforce. Even though Dreamforce of course drives Salesforce's perception and direction for at least 12 months from the event, it is still Connections which pretty much determines what Salesforce customers, prospects, analysts/influencers, journalists and general market watchers perceive when it comes to the narrative around the marketing cloud. It has outsize importance, and -- at the moment -- is the only conference that Salesforce does for a single one of its "(fill in the blank) clouds" at all.
So it is clearly an important effort in the pantheon of Salesforce's multiple events.
That's why this year's conference tends to have given me mixed feelings - and, to be entirely candid, some of that is science, some art and some just...feelings, nothing more than feelings....
I'll elaborate in a bit.
First, of course, the scorecard that everyone is waiting for...
Salesforce Connections 2015 Conference Scorecard
|Keynotes (Content)||B||Again, the content will be discussed later and is not part of this assessment. Interestingly, the messaging here was good point by point, but there didn't seem to be any continuity, jumping from the connected customer to the alignment of sales and marketing to whatever with no underlying theme. What was actually visionary, because of the flow became tactical rather than thematic and it undercut the overall messages.|
|Keynotes (Presentation)||B+||The production values in general were very high with large numbers of huge high definition screens well placed and easy to see; a small set of demos which were solid if not hugely exciting but the quality of the customer videos with the exception of the Room and Board were overly scripted and too product focused to meet contemporary standards. That said, they were well produced but there were too many moments of feature, function and "nobody talks like that!" for them to pass muster.|
|Tracks/General Sessions||A||Kicked butt according to the attendees I spoke with. A wide mix of speakers from salesforce tech experts to thought leaders, well attended, comprehensive material. The range of materials was exceptional - from thought leadership and strategic to deep technically specific expertise - and the right presenter in most all cases apparently.|
|Analyst/Press Relations||A+||This was tied with Adobe as the best AR/PR of the year to date. There was nothing that could be seen as an issue or a flaw. The AR team at Salesforce in general is one of the best in the business and the Marketing Cloud/Connections team was exceptional in all ways - from the attention to the individual analysts to the details like making sure there were desks and power for the analysts and press to do their work - and a place to go to get schedules, figure out where to meet. 1:1 meetings were sufficient and appropriate. It wasn't just - fill in a slot with a body - it was the right people to meet with depending on the individual analyst or journalist. All in all fantastic. Merits the rare A+ rating. And it is rare. Trust me.|
|Food (VIP)||C||This was perhaps the low point of the event, but of course, doesn't figure much over all in the final judgement (or score) on the conference. The food was average to meh in the VIP areas of varying kinds (breakfasts with customers, AR/PR lounges, etc.) The one external event, a cocktail had decent food and decent drink but nothing particularly great. Again, doesn't figure much in the overall but notable as to the lack of quality all in all.|
|Food (General Session)||B-||Solid. Kind of the norm for most events. Not much attention paid to special diets, though could make do and come up with something to eat to support it if you scrounged.|
|Exhibition Hall||B||This was a solid, decently laid out, well represented (by the array of partners) exhibition hall with adequate walking room, and was relatively easy to find. Nothing about it stood out either great or bad, but in the case of exhibition halls at conferences, that is overall a good thing.|
|Crowd Engagement||B-||This is one where, unfortunately, Salesforce has to be measured against itself - and that is a nearly impossible standard. In most of the other events, the measure of engagement is absolute - it's based on some universal observations with some universal benchmarks, but all in all is a self-contained rating - an "in the moment" one if you will permit a real stretch. But Salesforce has two events (actually way more than that but two that matter for these purposes) and one of them is Dreamforce which has the most impossibly high energy level of any event of any kind and because it's the same company, to some extent there is a measurement bias I have that relates the crowd engagement (and energy - unlike any other event) at one against the other. I don't mean to have that bias, but I do - and this one can't possibly do great against Dreamforce. That said, this is engagement, not energy. The energy level of this crowd was kind of low, but in the sessions in particular the interaction with the audience was pretty high. Not super high. Pretty high. Good questions, more questions than could be answered in the time allotted. Both good signs of engagement. At the keynote, there was some noticeable crowd distraction with the crowd involved but not totally and not continually. I think I know why, and that is outlined in the two first sections of this. But the crowd engagement still, all in all, while wildly disparate in levels of involvement, still works out to pretty good overall.|
|Ambiance||B-||Traffic flow at the Javits Center was decent but the building was somewhat confusing and while Salesforce did its best to have people there to direct the traffic, some of them were pretty indifferent to their jobs and at the same time the conference center itself at times created bottlenecks outside rooms. Sometimes, there would be something like a giveaway of a tee shirt or whatever, and those lines, which were long and out in the open interfered with traffic flow or even getting on line to a session. Things got along okay, but nothing exceptional here.|
|OVERALL||B||A good conference but one that was weirdly disconnected at times. When I voiced this to another influencer his response "I'm glad you said that and I'm not the only one who feels this way." Had 2 others saying similar things (though of course this final rating is based on an aggregate and weighted score, not 4 analyst/influencer opinions). This was arguably the "little girl who was" conference - when it was good it was very, very good, but when it was bad.... However, because of the upside and the importance of and progress with the Salesforce Marketing Cloud, one was well worth attending.|
The Messaging: All shook up. Hey.Hey.Hey.Hey.Hey
The definite strengths and the possible weaknesses of the current Salesforce Marketing cloud narrative were on display at this year's Connections. The narrative was right in its parts and inconsistent in its theme.
The connected customer, a powerful theme from Dreamforce two years ago, but oddly not last year (nor was it one at Connections 2014), was brought back at least as a repeatable object in the keynote discussion which was well done by Scott McCorkle. It was a welcome return. It had some impact but only in the earlier part of the conference when there was a discussion on the customer journey - and particular journeys like the student journey, patient journey et al.
But before we get to that....
Throughout the conference, there was this weird sort of vibe that could only be termed -- without irony -- disconnected. This reflected in both what seemed to be a series of linear messages that were independent of relationship to each other, though each was appropriate unto itself. I couldn't argue with a single message. .So, for example, varying speakers referenced the fact that CRM's lines are getting blurry.
They were right.
If you think about contemporary trends, you see the following:
1. Increasing numbers of sales and marketing departments are working toward alignment. This is reflected in the growing numbers of marketing departments who are being given revenue objectives - a trend noticed by both Eloqua and Marketo a few years back.
2. More and more customers are using their sales person - their original point of contact - as their continuing point of contact. In fact, this type of customer behavior is leading to an increasing use of customer success managers - as points of contact who are proactive rather than reactive - which the sales person would be. Customer success managers, a job category that Salesforce referenced more than once, is a growing discipline, particularly in the technology world, where it has gained significant traction.
3. We are seeing content pushed to customer service and sales via marketing. Marketing is no longer defined by its differences with the other departments or simply its campaigns and outreach. Its overarching mission to support all departments - sales and service - and itself - are defining it.
Salesforce rightfully IDed this transformation and said the always connected cloud customer didn't care about service, sales and marketing. What matters is just consistent interaction with the brand when they want it to happen.
Salesforce during another part of the keynote session said we were now seeing the Dawn of the Digital Marketer. The sentiment here was sincere but we are not at the dawn of the digital marketer. It's more like 10am - we are already well past its midnight nascence. Digital marketing and those who are responsible for it are part of most major enterprises and a significant amount of smaller businesses. Gartner, in their 2015 CMO Spend, show us the preteen stage of digital marketing, with their last three highlighted points.
"Finding No. 8: 68% of organizations have a separate digital marketing budget -- it averages a quarter of the total marketing budget
Finding No. 9: Digital advertising leads digital marketing spending in 2014, and is tied with mobile marketing for largest 2015 increase
Finding No. 10: Two-thirds of companies are funding digital marketing via reinvestment of existing marketing budgets"
In other words: Correct - partly.
Salesforce spent a lot of time in discussion about the customer journey. They said that businesses have to guide customers to be active participants in the business by managing the customer journey. To do that, the customers need personalized attention. This makes it incumbent upon businesses to identify who are the customers and prospects via their purchase histories, online behavior and demographics. Then with that data figure out what has to be said to the individual customers, or modularly similar ones at least (my words, not theirs) and get them the appropriate content. The digital assets have to be created, and then distributed to the specific individuals at the best time in any conceivable digital channel (e.g. Ads, web, email, mobile, social, group messaging, text, apps, sales, service, communities). All of this requires some understanding of the customer journey. This was all in the context of the Salesforce Journey Builder product.
Again, I agree wholeheartedly here.
Realistically, I can't disagree with anything here per se - the world is going in the direction that the Salesforce spoke to, the messaging was on target in each area. However, there was no underlying theme that drove the continuity of the narrative and thus the conference was oddly disconnected - and I wasn't the only one who thought that, let's just say.
The irony is that Salesforce has had an underlying theme - a true vision and a great story that has been there for the last two years - and that is the connected customer or as they presented it in 2013 - the Internet of Customers. This is a truly good way to focus their actual global vision and their execution as it actually is already. For some reason, and it showed at Connections 2015, too, they haven't done that. They mentioned the connected customer, but only in the course of events and they moved on from it. It was just one of the disconnected messages.
The Salesforce reality is the connected customer. It underlays everything they do from the Internet of Things co-creation projects to the evolutions of their varying clouds - all of which are tied to that same connected customer they speak of. I don't understand why they don't keep their focus where their practice actually is. It is a story that they can tell that ties a true vision with an actual body of practice. They aren't thinking ecosystem and narrative, when they should be.
Hey, that's their decision, not mine. I can only state what I see and I hope has some validity. I'm going to move on.
The Star of the Show: Salesforce Engage
Despite all the goodness and weirdness, there was one true star of the show - and it was not human - though humans built it. No, it wasn't a robot or a drone. It was the Salesforce Engage product. However, to put it in context, you have to know what sales and marketing alignment means. So let's start with that, if you don't mind. Just bear with me.
The Alignment of Sales and Marketing
Back in 2006, Phillip Kotler and a few of his colleagues wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review called "Ending the War Between Sales and Marketing," which is the first piece I found that references the need to align marketing and sales. In it, Professor Kotler not only defined the disconnection between sales and marketing, but the benefits of alignment and eventually integration. While it goes further than most pieces I've seen even to this day, it was a clear exposition of the problem and a set of approaches to solve it.
This was only the beginning. By 2008, It was clear that the traditional differences in cadence and objectives between the departments were being exacerbated because companies were trying to adjust to a new kind of customer who had a different set of demands, impacting both sales and marketing. Those differences needed resolution or the problems would be severe.
By 2011 both Peppers and Rogers and The Aberdeen Group wrote separate pieces entitled "The New Power Couple", with PRG focusing on why the companies had to align their departments and the Aberdeen Group, focused on the business benefit of what a best in class aligned company gets. (requires registration).
Ultimately, though, because I don't have a lot of space here, the alignment of sales and marketing comes down to:
1. Sales and marketing jointly plan and execute
However, my purpose isn't to prove the prudence of aligning sales and marketing. If you want that, watch for future posts. My purpose is to set the context for one of the better product releases this year, Salesforce Engage.
Their best new product is awesome indeed: Salesforce Engage
It's funny in many ways. I've focused on customer engagement as my core theme and the subject of my work and output for about 18 months now. Therefore, you would think that a product called Salesforce Engage would get me excited because it had something to do with customer engagement.
Where the sort-of-irony here comes in is because it doesn't have anything to do with customer engagement (though that brings up the question, why give it that name?) except in an incredibly broad interpretation of what it is. What it actually provides is a product that truly addresses the alignment of sales and marketing - and thus is exactly what 21st century businesses require to be sales/marketing smart.
The foundation of the product is Pardot - the acquisition that came with the acquisition of Exact Target - and one of the best parts of the whole deal. For those of you who don't know Pardot, they are worth getting to know. I've known of either them or them since their founding in Atlanta in 2007. One of the founders, Adam Blitzer, a terrific guy, remains at Salesforce, while the other one, David Cummings, has moved on to invest in companies, like CRM Idol 2014 contestant, Salesloft.
Pardot was a complete marketing automation solution that focused primarily on the midmarket while it remained independent. The foundation technology was solid as a rock and one of the best marketing automation solutions, both relatively and absolutely. Would I have used it for an enterprise deployment back in the day? No. However, for the midmarket and even the small business market (the upper end of it), it was a hands-down good possible choice.
In 2012, Exact Target acquired them for a reputed $95.5 million (see the Wikipedia entry for the number. It's the only place I've ever seen a number so I can't vouch for its validity. I have no other source; though to be honest, I didn't try very hard to find one). Then in 2013, Salesforce acquired Exact Target for $2.5 billion - and Salesforce, thus, got Pardot in the bargain.
In 2013, at Dreamforce, Salesforce did something that at the time I thought was rather strange: they moved Pardot into the Sales Cloud - thus using only a percentage of its capabilities e.g. demand generation and losing a lot better situated to the Marketing Cloud.
However, this year, they seemed to have rectified this and applied the foundational Pardot technology to the creation of Salesforce Engage.
So what is the product that I'm waxing so enthusiastically about? Aside from my favorite thing at Connections this year, it is a product aligned to the alignment of sales and marketing - meaning one of the most important business trends not named "innovation" or "transformation" or "engagement." (Forget disruption - everything is entitled disruption - and none of it is even vaguely close to that).
Engage does the following things among many others.
1. It gives both marketing and sales access to a library of marketing approved email templates, nurturing tracks, or even create ad-hoc messages, efforts via an embedded editor. The campaigns can run from the Sales Cloud, Marketing Cloud, via mobile app or even Gmail.
2. Alerts trigger in real time when the prospect engaged reaches some pre-determined level. The alert is sent to the mobile app or the Salesforce desktop CRM system. Each of the alerts can be customized to the specific needs of a sales person's sales cycle and yet, within the constraints of the overall sales process.
3. It uses analytics to provide the information via nicely graphical dashboards to monitor both campaign results and engagement measures (e.g. click-throughs etc).
4. It has a strong mobile capability. On your smart device, you can see a real-time feed showing what your prospects are doing. You can also add leads to nurturing campaigns on the fly.
What's so exciting about this? Aside from the mobile capabilities, which are manifest and easy to use, the single most important reflection of what Engage does is that "it gives both marketing and sales access to a library of marketing approved email templates, nurturing tracks...."
That is perhaps the most important single capability.
The disconnect between sales and marketing is often characterized by sales not using the marketing corporate messaging collateral and sales also writing their own or altering the more global collateral to be more appropriate to their localized needs. This has been a long-standing problem between the two departments. Sales ignores the corporate messaging while using their own home-grown marketing material that isn't approved by marketing and thus undercuts marketing's job which is to establish consistency and trust via the messaging and content that they provide.
What Engage does is enable what marketing and sales department aligned companies do - give sales leeway to write their own localized materials, but that are approved by marketing, which in turn gives marketing the ability to maintain the messaging consistency they need to.
The other indicator of Engage being more than just another sales app is that it can back end the approval process for what gets defined as a marketing qualified lead (MQL) and a sales qualified lead (SQL) and when the handoff should occur. This way, the application can alert the sales person at some pre-determined point that is both marketing and sales agreed.
These seem to be small things, true, but with big consequences. What makes Engage an important app is that it gets stuff done - and it aligns with contemporary business need. Not only can it take care of marketing campaigns that sales needs (i.e. lead nurturing campaigns), it accounts for the fact that sales and marketing are now beginning to work together toward common revenue goals with common definitions, objectives, standards and with defined responsibilities for each department in that common plan. This is what good tech does. In this case, it enables the outcomes that sales people are looking for - and accounts for both the marketing department and the fact that sales is a field thing that requires mobility. You can't ask for much more.
Maybe it's not as sexy as customer journeys, or customer engagement - trust me, it isn't - but it works and that's a monster plus for Salesforce's Marketing Cloud. Bravissimo.
This was an odd one. On the one hand, there were countless messages that were right per se. On the other hand, there were countless messages that weren't tied to what we've come to expect of Salesforce in any department and at any conference - a clearcut underlying vision and theme. On the one hand, they have made HUGE advances in the Marketing Cloud technologies over the past couple of years - and have done it in alignment with the market shift toward customer engagement. On the other hand, the most interesting product for me was Salesforce Engage - a product that on the one hand named as if engagement was its purpose - and on the other hand wasn't actually built for customer engagement. But was a great, product.
So, was there some discontinuity at this event? Sure. However, what is encouraging is that even in the confusion or rather, the disconnection, there are results that indicate that the Salesforce Marketing Cloud continues to move itself forward in the way that it should - aligned with an ever changing market with ever changing customer demands.