To a seasoned Dreamforce-goer like myself, there are several things you can confidently expect from CEO Marc Benioff’s keynote.
There will be customer testimonials, some kind of rock star moment and co-founder Parker Harris will be sent out on stage in some sort of funny costume.
Oh and the whole shebang will run over time.
This year was no exception. We had customer testimonials from Cisco and Western Union. We heard Stevie Wonder declaring that Dreamforce is the sunshine of his life. And Parker ran out on stage dressed as Lightning Man. (You probably need to check out the recording to understand that one.)
And yes, the keynote did indeed run over, this year by an hour.
After today’s keynote concluded, I joined Benioff in his green room behind the scenes at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, where the typically-ebullient CEO was, if anything, more charged than normal.
It had been a good keynote for him clearly, although he did admit concern about the length of it:
It was supposed to be a 90 minute keynote. It was supposed to be our fastest keynote ever. It was two and half hours. We blew it by an hour.
It’s not the two hours [that's the issue]. It’s that people have already been there an hour before we start. We open the doors at noon. They’ve gone through the pre-show. The conch shell is supposed to blow at 12.50, but didn’t until 1.15, so we’re already half an hour behind. Then we ran half an hour long, so that’s the extra hour.
Nonetheless, time management issues aside, the Dreamforce main keynote has become something of an industry benchmark that other vendors seek to emulate. Delivered in the round with Benioff and other execs wandering down off the stage to wander through the crowds, it’s a model of delivery that I’ve seen several other tech firms attempt to replicate, with varying degrees of success.
What is interesting in talking to Benioff about the keynote is the insight he provides into the sheer effort that goes into those once-a-year 2 (and a large bit) hours - and the importance that’s attached to getting it right. He observes:
We have a multi-billion dollar pipeline in that keynote room. This is a mission-critical event. It is super-important for us that this goes well. It sets up the trajectory for the rest of the year. If you are someone who is spinning plates, Dreamforce is a big pole that’s going to keep them spinning for a while.
With that in mind, Benioff wants delegates amused, entertained, educated and generally having a great time for the week, to the extent that his ambition is:
by the time customers get on the plane on Friday, I want them to be crying that it’s over. It’s really important.
The keynote itself is shaped over several weeks. Benioff explains:
We try to architect the keynote through meetings over three weeks. We get the message right. Then we bring in the executives to augment that and evaluate it. Then we assign everyone their positions on the field. Then we bring in 20 customers and do a focus group. We do the whole keynote.We do focus groups and customers rate it. Then we do it on our own again and again and again.
Last Friday we brought in 5000 employees all around the world and we did it again. That yielded several thousands of comments and gave us a lot of anecdotal stuff. Then we have to integrate all that feedback. Then you just hit it. But we will have all practised several times as a team. We kinda know how it’s going to go.
That said, things can change unexpectedly along the way. This year’s keynote ended on a somber, but inspirational note when it touched on the Syrian refugee crisis building up in Europe and the audience heard an impassioned plea from Hikmet Ersek, CEO of Western Union, himself a US immigrant born in Turkey.
This was a case of right person, right place, right time, Benioff says:
The migrant situation has really escalated in the last 30 days. Hickmet is the perfect person to speak to that. He’s really doing an incredible amount. That was just good fortune that he was there to be able to take that position.
Don't be myopic
That bigger picture aspect of the keynote is another characteristic of the Dreamforce centerpiece.
Yes, there’s the obligatory show-and-tell about the latest products, but there’s also the non-selling element, an offshoot of the firm’s 1/1/1 philanthropic model. This year the focus was cancer treatment and research, a subject close to Benioff's heart, having lost his father to the disease and seen his mother, present in the audience, survive various forms of this scourge.
It’s essential that the keynote isn’t just about Salesforce, according to Benioff, and isn’t too myopic. This year he ordered a re-edit of the opening keynote video because it focused too much on the company and not on the customer.
Interestingly a point of most concern to him is the by-now-obligatory Parker-and-Marc-double-act section, wherein Harris in fancy dress plays up to Benioff in the role of (semi) straight man. Benioff explains:
The biggest risk of our keynotes is that they become too myopic. That’s why the bit with me and Parker is dangerous because it’s 100% about us.
In [one rehearsal] I was interrupting him far too much. I watched the video on Sunday and the rapport was way off. I had to reboot that.
We try to stay away from that and stick with what customers did and what you can do.
In the end, it’s all about the customer, insists Benioff:
We keep coming back to one message - you, our customers. That is what is important to us. Without them we are nothing. It has to be about the value of the customers.
Dreamforce is about letting our customers dream. We want customers in the keynote to become mindful of the future and think about where all this is going. What does their future look like? We want them leaving with a vision for themselves.
That’s why we tell the customer stories in different way so that they can say ‘I could do this too’ or ‘this is what that means for me’. Customers can kind of try things on and say ‘i like this’ or ‘I don’t like that’.
It’s also about leading by example, he suggests:
Our message to our customers is that they have to pivot to their customers. So we’re modelling what we want our customers to do in their companies. We know if they do that, they’re going to be better companies and they will grow faster. Part of it is we want them to say ‘we need to be that way ourselves’.
Some companies are pivoted to their shareholders, some companies to their employees. We’re saying pivot back to your customers.
To the future
This is an evolving focus that keeps prompting new ideas, he adds, even at the most seemingly inopportune moments:
In the middle of the keynote today I was like ‘should I change the name of this from Customer Success Platform to Customer Happiness Platform?’. That’s really what we’re saying. We’re saying this is something that’s going to make your customer happy. It’s not about success at some level.
We did some market research on our messaging and the number one message that tested the best was ‘We’re Salesforce - we help make your customers love you’. It’s a customer love platform! In San Francisco.
It’s a message that does indeed fit with the San Francisco vibe, but there are now some real questions about how much longer Dreamforce can fit in the city. This year an ocean liner had to dock in the bay in order to accommodate delegates that couldn’t find hotel rooms.
There’s a danger that Dreamforce is outgrowing its home town with Benioff admitting that the event is at a tipping point and close to maxed out.
But it’s clear that he has no desire to leave Salesforce’s roots behind when it comes to its annual jamboree. Some of his team want to move to Las Vegas, but he’s not keen, arguing (correctly) that that would cost the event in terms of energy and spirit.
So ways will have to be found to make it work, possibly including cutting back or eliminating the number of free expo passes, for example. But whatever happens, thoughts have already begun turning towards 2016. Benioff teases:
I’m not allowed to say what we’re working on, but we are working on something much bigger than we’ve ever done before. If we can pull off what we’re hoping, we know what the next level is going to be but getting there is going to be hard.
Disclosure - at time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.