Livin' the Dreamforce 2015: Can Salesforce seize the day?

This is arguably one of the most difficult posts I write each year. Not because it’s a post with tough love (though there will be some of that), but because the scope, scale and implications for the market and for Salesforce make Dreamforce so difficult to analyze.

While I’d like to say I’m prescient or absolutely certain of my conclusions or even that I am someone who has an inkling every now and then, I’m not really sure I’m that person. I do however, have a point of view, called so acronymically and elegantly by Ray Wang “My POV”. My particular POV can be taken or left accordingly, but I will say what I have to say – and it will be interesting. Of that much I am certain.

The substance of this post is going to be the direction that Salesforce seems to be taking, the things that are happening to Salesforce that they don’t control that they would be even better off if they did, and the things I think they need to do to gain that control. But before I get into the substance, I’m going to provide you with the world famous (or, at least in my head, famous) Conference Scorecard. There is one change in this I want to announce first, though. I’ve decided that I’m actually going to use CRM Watchlist as a brand name, not just a contest. So this is now the CRM Watchlist Conference Scorecard.

CRM Watchlist Salesforce Dreamforce 2015 Conference Scorecard (whew!)

This is one conference that bears explanation because it is no longer a conference. It is no longer an event. Dreamforce has become a destination of enormous magnitude. It moved USA Today to write two articles on the opening of Dreamforce – one of which compares its dynamism to the recent lackluster launch efforts of Apple. While I agree the Apple launches have become formulaic, to their defense, it is a launch with an invited gathering of attendees, media, analysts etc. It is small and deliberately so. It is a product launch.

Dreamforce is a showcase to the world of Salesforce as a company in all its glory and with all the chicken feathers. Because of the unique combination of seriously important technology that enable large institutions and Hollywood/Vegas style entertainment, in combination with the sheer size – Dreamforce plays a unique role in the world of technology – as does its producer – Salesforce. They are hot and sexy and yet, enterprise scaled and the warrior to beat, even though they are smaller than most of their opponents.

Category Grade Notes
Keynotes (Content) B The overarching content of the keynotes was good, not earth shaking but all in all was important stuff – re-establishing Salesforce as the company for the Connected Customer (more on this later in the analysis). The meta messages were very strong, but the underlying narrative that proved those bigger messages was not consistent in the main keynote on day 2, though at times the story was there. Unfortunately, much of the narrative seemed lost in the desire to go cloud by cloud (more on that later) on what Salesforce was doing – and, while the pieces were there with the strong announcements around Lightning and the not-quite as strong announcements on Thunder, it was up to the audience to find those pieces rather than it being made obvious.
Keynotes (Presentation) B- The presentation – all those things that surround the keynote to enhance the value and the message – left something to be desired. Apparently (what I heard, not a statement of absolute certainty), because the conference’s first day was the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), Marc didn’t speak – entirely understandable. However, the tone and focus of a conference – most conferences – is set by the keynote of the CEO. Because he was unable to speak on day one, it was a mistake to start the second day of the conference with an interview with Uber’s CEO, which succeeded because Marc Benioff is a brilliant interviewer, not because of the interview, which was uncomfortable to say the least, and out of place. The keynote should have been in the AM to get the crowd revved and excited, to set the tone for everything coming from then on. While it was a brilliant – truly brilliant – piece of theatre to have Stevie Wonder do a set and then introduce Marc – there was far too much shtick this year. I love theatre and I love having fun and I love this conference – truly my favorite conference – but there is a time and place and a limit on how much can be theatrical and how much has to be simply substantial. Salesforce had a lot to talk about but the surrounding noise with the superhero suit, the relentless stream of incredulity, and the misplaced sound effects obscured it. That said, they still managed to get all they had to say said in the individual keynotes – the ones that went cloud by cloud on subsequent days, which were much more straightforward and customer-focused, though I heard from several observers, rather too dry. The huge positive was the somewhat risky organization of the days into themes. For example, “Women Leadership Day” (Thursday) and “Mindfulness Day’ (Friday) This was an unusual turn but in this case, it worked very well and the interest and excitement of the attendees was obvious around it. Smart and different. Another innovation.
Tracks/General Sessions A- There was a bit of variance in the level of engagement. The best of the sessions had strong interactive involvement of the presenters/panelists. In one reported to me, when several of the audience reported having problems reaching groups at Salesforce, the Salesforce execs volunteered to be their advocates. THAT kind of interaction. The material was generally germane to the subject. There was, as is the audience’s bent, too many pix being taken to capture the moment, rather than people paying attention to the subject – something I heard from a lot of my respondents actually – but that is the audience’s fault, not Salesforce’s – though it would be good to take note of that. There was true subject matter expertise whether the session was technical or strategic or a thought leadership “trends” kind of sessions. The sessions were for the most part, well attended, with one or two lagging. The only downside is that the sheer volume of sessions made it difficult, even with the app, at times to focus on what you wanted to attend.
Analyst/Press Relations A+ Salesforce has what I now have to say is the best AR team in the entire industry. This isn’t to say that other AR teams don’t have great people. They do. But the level of knowledge, attention, the consistent rhythms established by the team just simply work. At this year’s Dreamforce there were 200 analysts and a little more than that number of journalists and yet, each analyst and journalist got personal attention – and there was clear knowledge of those individual interests. Thus, what made the effort at this conference incredible was the ability to provide that personalized attention to nearly 500 people. But there is another factor. The people who work under SVP of Market Strategy, the amazing John Taschek, are wonderful, warm human beings, who not only are immensely capable at their job, but genuinely seem to like the people they deal with – and it shows. I don’t know another AR team where I would just want to, outside of business, hang out with so many members of the team for nothing more than just their company (again, there are always individuals on other teams I would like to hang out with. Just not as many).
Food (VIP) B- This was pretty straightforwardly ordinary – the usual wraps/half sandwiches etc. It was edible and filling. There was coffee and tea and soft drinks and water. That’s about it. The parties had hors d’oeuvres that were slightly better quality and pretty much what you expect at these things. Nothing else to say, really. Nondescript, but no one starved.
Food (General Session) B- The reviews of the food were mixed. Some things were fine, some things tasted like cardboard (multiple people with versions of this). No water stations. Of course, you have to give them points for simply dealing with the scale of this event. But this is one of those places where scale might actually get in the way – though not an important one. Luckily, if you wanted to get fed by Salesforce, you were fed by Salesforce – and that’s good enough when it comes to 150,000 people.
Exhibition Hall B+ This was a mixed bag but on the whole a lot better than last year. Its strengths – more than adequate pathways to walk w/o massive crowding in both expo halls; some beautiful booths highlighting the show. According to several of the smaller vendors they had considerably more leads this year on day one than the entire show last year. The downsides were, especially in the Customer Expo, it was extremely difficult to find the booths you were looking for with no overhead lane markers, and a very poorly done map in the guide; there were only a few water stations near the Salesforce part of the pavilion – and they were hard to find according to attendees. There were no food stations (see SAP Sapphire for the best ever on this) anyway – though understandable due to scale. The smaller booths were relegated to the far back parts of both halls and squeezed so tightly together you could confuse the personnel of one company for another if you didn’t have 20/20 vision. But all in all a HUGE improvement over last year, especially in Expo Hall traffic flows. Two interesting notes: First, a number of partners didn’t bother to get booths and rented places near Moscone Center (though some did both) where they felt that given the cost of the booth and the number of them, it wasn’t a good investment. Second, see below on the ecosystem discussion for something that Salesforce could have done in the Expo Hall that Microsoft did at Convergence (scale wouldn’t matter here) that would have positively reinforced the relationship between Salesforce and some of its most important partners.
Crowd Engagement A They are back! Except for a tiny bit of unengaged people in a few tracks here and there – something that would randomly occur when there are 1500+ tracks, the crowd was fully engaged – the crowd was involved. The excitement was palpable, the entire Salesforce team and the hired third party staff were involved with the crowds, the desire to just be in the moment there was right there then. In other words, people, get this, in the moment! I was truly impressed with the love that actually exists for the company – something only reproduced by Apple really – when it comes to the Technology software/hardware industry. This is the only enterprise software company that has fanboys (and fangirls). They showed it big time with their highly engaged presence at the conference.
Ambiance A- This is a catchall category that involves not just the general environment emotionally, but the traffic control, the check-in process and how well the logistics and mechanics are run so that it all feels smooooooth. To continue the theme, the improvement from last year was just palpable. Last year, traffic flow and control was a disaster and it almost jumped the shark really. This year, except for a glitch when the keynote was let out and no one could get into the building at all unless they were “Ambassadors” (this is the second year in a row that this happened – and needs to be fixed for next year), the traffic was handled rather brilliantly. The overflows for the speeches were set up well in hotel rooms with large screens to watch and on the lawns/streets of SF with giant screens. The lunch flows were regulated; check-in was a breeze with a quick digital/QR code driven process at the Moscone Center and the Marriott Marquis, the street flows went smoothly and the environment in general was pretty easy-going and definitely happy.
OVERALL B+ As I already said, this is BY FAR the most difficult show to figure out because it’s gone from being an event to being a true destination – or as we in the 60s used to say “a happening.” However, despite the overplayed kitschy part of it, Dreamforce is a seminal event and probably the one conference most attuned to the markets and the trends affecting those markets – both now and a few years ahead. What Salesforce has done is make Dreamforce into something bigger than a conference – and it works well that way – with the level of enthusiasm and inspiration of the attendees off the charts. But what comes with this is the scale that ultimately creates a unique set of problems – including how to measure success of the event itself – which is only measurable against itself, not any other one. But, unlike last year, where there were nearly “jump the shark” level issues, this year it was clear that Salesforce was ironing out what they had to, to make this a true destination level event. The keynotes theatrics are fine up to a point, and next year it needs to be dialed back to that point – ending at Stevie Wonder so to speak, but all in all, Salesforce continues to be a unique constellation in the tech galaxy.

Okay (he wipes his hands clean). On to the bigger things – the strategy, the company direction and what was great and not so much. But first things first.