Salesforce Connections – Oh, the places you (could) go…

Profile picture for user Esteban Kolsky1 By Esteban Kolsky May 25, 2016
Esteban Kolsky returns with his take on Salesforce Connections - and the problem of ad-first approaches in the "age of the customer." To illustrate the dilemma, he justaposes two case studies from the show, one he finds exceptional, and one he finds lacking.


On May 10 and 11 2016,  I attended the latest editions of Salesforce Connections (née ExactTarget Connections) in Atlanta.  There were “about 5,000” people in attendance. The conference included a CMO Forum - off limits to analysts, unfortunately - where high-level CMOs discussed higher-level topics. The general conference for the rest of the marketers focused on more tactical matters.

Those are the facts, the rest is my opinion, merged with some ill-worded announcements and non-marketing terms – since they are my version of it.

Through the last three-to-five-years there was some level of advance across all the products in the Salesforce Marketing Cloud, culminating with the latest suite of products presented at this show.

There is a chart somewhere that shows all the products, but the core – the heart of this launch -  is Journey Builder, which works with Email Studio, Advertising Studio, Social Studio, Web Studio, and Mobile Studio on the delivery side and with Audience Builder, Personalization Builder, Content Builder, and Analytics Builder on the execution side.  All together, these products give clients the ability to build journeys and campaigns to serve ads across channels. The content side is still very limited.

If the above paragraph sounds like a mouth-full of marketing jargon – it’s because it is.  Let me try to break down the good, the bad, and the – hmmm, not so good.

The good - journeys and platforms

Salesforce missed a great opportunity to advance the cause for CRM by being too focused on marketing and not so much on what they are offering.  The concept of building journeys for customers is far from what customers want or what brands should be doing . The focus on Journey Builder doing that for customers is problematic.  A little-noticed part of the announcement was the fact that Journey Builder now extends to all the “clouds”: service, sales, etc.  By doing this, Salesforce is taking the first steps towards building what can be the next evolution of (poorly named) CRM.

CRM as we know it – the 360-degree view of the customer amidst sales, marketing, and customer service operations – is no longer what consumers want.  They expect, and soon will start demanding, to be tended to in end-to-end experiences, operating in a continuum. Each interaction builds on the previous ones, and seeks unique value that may or may not be related to the original intent.  To deliver on these end-to-end experiences, brands will need a lot of data – and a place to create rules that apply to that data: it’s no longer about the interaction, but it’s about the value it generates that is measured with data.

By taking the concept of Journeys across the different clouds, Salesforce could’ve signaled the beginning of the next wave of CRM – instead, they chose to focus on how to serve ads better.  It was baffling to see why, in spite of being one of the first vendors to deliver a platform to support the model of end-to-end experiences, they chose to focus on the bad part of what they can do.

The bad - ads, ads, ads everywhere – not a customer who cares

The keynote on day one (as well as most other sessions I went to) were focused on how things have changed now that the “age of the customer” is here.  The conference I attended a couple weeks ago in Vegas for Oracle was the same: now that the customer is in control of the conversation (thanks Mr. Greenberg) the company can no longer continue to deliver the same model of engagement: here is what I have to say, listen, do what I tell you to do, etc.  That’s not what customers want.  They want the information, the tools, the infrastructure to build their own “journeys” anytime and anywhere.

Unfortunately, Salesforce’s keynotes gave attendees the impression that such “journeys” begin with advertising.

I probably missed the focus group where a group of customers said they would like to start interactions with companies based on ads. Actually, considering the rise of ad blockers, I don’t think I missed anything.  .  In a follow-up press conference, I asked Salesforce about shifting their efforts to focus on content and inbound marketing versus pushing ads everywhere (I did compliment the progress in their products first, I am not that bad).  The answer was non-committal: we would like to do it, not sure when.

Thus, the tired  tactic  of using ads as the way to start conversations and interactions between customers and company continues (They did show a good model for tracking customers across channels and continuing interactions in different channels).

The ad-first approach reinforces in the customer’s mind they are someone to buy the product versus someone the brand wants to engage in conversations.  This lack of conversations is goes counter to the concept of “age of the customer” that was used to open the conference.

A good opportunity missed indeed.

The not-so-good: showcase Weight Watchers, not @Fanatics

The case study for @Fanatics was used throughout the conference: 4 billion emails sent, 27,000 campaigns managed, all with just five people.  Sure, the numbers are impressive – they do give a good ROI story to tell to an audience that is focused on how to do precisely that.  Alas, the model they used to do this was simple: find more people to send more ads to, to buy more product.  It speaks to the scalability and performance of the platform – but missed the showcasing of more-than-just-serving-ads features of the platform.

Contrast that with Weight Watchers (video).  They used the platform not only run their campaigns and ads - they found an incredibly innovative way to engage with their customers and give them what they needed.

Using a personalized configuration model that the customer can customize, Weight Watchers sends reminders, notices, and content that supports their process of losing weight.  If you are, as the example presented, going to a conference – you will get a text right before the reception starts reminding you that drinking and eating bad food is not good for you.  Or an email with tips and content on how to work out while on the road.  No ads, no purchase opportunities, no coupons – just information that the customer can use to achieve their goals.

This is not only very creative and innovative, but also lets the customer build their own journey.  I will, as a customer, receive those notices that make sense to me in my current state and that I chose.  The platform supports my long-term engagement with the vendor, not just a buying opportunity.  This is what represents the “age of the customer”: information (content, data, knowledge) being delivered in the best possible way to support an end-to-end experience.

Too bad Salesforce did not highlight it as such.  Weight Watchers was awesome, @Fanatics was not.

The conference showcased a lot of promise for the Marketing Cloud, some progress in their suite of products, and a delivery to today’s needs in their customer’s “wants” (they don’t need to deliver better ads, they just don’t see any other way to work with the technology).

I would welcome if Salesforce were more forthcoming in claiming their role of innovator and look for more opportunities like Weight Watchers to showcase the power of their platform.

What do you think?

Disclaimer: Salesforce is one of my oldest and dearest clients.  I love working with them because they let me say whatever and then try to be nice to me anyways.  They tell me I help them become better (well, not all of them).  They paid for my expenses to attend this show and are totally blameless for the issues I had with okra while in Atlanta as it was my decision to eat it (as it turns out, okra needs to be cooked well and shouldn’t be eaten “crunchy”) now I know.  They fact checked this article before publication and made factual corrections, but they never tried to change my opinions.  I hope they continue to be my client, but I have written worse about them in the past… so, I think I am ok.  Diginomica handles their own vendor disclaimers.