Salesforce.com's Benioff invites customers to join 'social revolution'

The flamboyant CEO spun a broad strategic vision during a keynote at the Dreamforce conference

Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff on Wednesday doubled down on the company's embrace of social networking software, urging customers, partners and prospects to join him in a "social revolution," during a keynote address at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco that was webcast.

"We are standing on the shoulders of giants," he said citing those who created the mainframe, client-server model and cloud computing. "Now here we are in the 21st century and we have this incredible social revolution. We believe so strongly that Salesforce.com's mission, our core mission, is to help you, our customers, to connect with your customers in a whole new way."

Benioff delivered a healthy helping of his trademark speechifying about how social software, intertwined with Salesforce.com's core CRM (customer relationship management) application, can help companies work more effectively with customers and partners. He also brought a series of executives onstage to present a number of new announcements regarding Salesforce.com's Chatter software, Work.com employee performance management software, Marketing Cloud and other products.

But the bulk of his presentation focused on stories of high-profile Salesforce.com customers who have bought into the company's vision.

The best way to communicate with customers these days is through social media, said David Cush, CEO of airline Virgin America. "These are real-time problems that need real-time answers." Virgin America is planning to rework its company culture using Salesforce.com's social software, he added. "Traditionally, airlines have been egalitarian, chain-of-command [environments]," he said.

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins also took the stage. Robbins' company also uses Salesforce.com's software. He related a story of how the company was able to use Salesforce.com's social media analytics tools to contest a media report. "The future is, connect or die," Robbins said. "The future is, connect and you win."

GE is also a heavy Salesforce.com user, and its CEO, Jeff Immelt, will speak on Thursday in an "unpaid keynote" at Dreamforce, Benioff said.

This week's conference drew a reported 90,000 registered attendees, far more than the keynote hall at San Francisco's Moscone Center could hold.

Salesforce.com is trying to raise the event's profile even further with a string of celebrity guests. Rapper MC Hammer made a surprise appearance before Benioff hit the stage and performed a musical medley and dance routine along with an energetic crew of white-clad performers.

The keynote's flashy production values and Benioff's soaring rhetoric stood in contrast to the fact that many of the announcements Salesforce.com made Wednesday were for products that won't be released for some time, possibly more than a year.

"It used to be that they didn't really preannounce things," said Todd McKinnon, CEO of cloud identity management vendor Okta and formerly senior vice president of engineering at Salesforce.com from 2003 to 2009, in an interview before Benioff's keynote. During McKinnon's time at Salesforce.com, "we'd build something and announce it in real time," he said.

In fact, Salesforce.com employees would crack jokes about legacy vendors who would make such "pre-announcements," he said.

As Salesforce.com heads toward US$3 billion in revenue, it's become more of a "marketing-driven company," in McKinnon's view.

Salesforce.com is also planning to release a new product, Salesforce Identity, that will compete with Okta.

Overall, Salesforce.com now has a general goal in mind that doesn't necessarily match up precisely with the "social enterprise" theme, said analyst Ray Wang, CEO of Constellation Research.

"I think that they are no longer about the cloud, they are bigger than social, they want to be the engagement platform that takes you from cloud to device," Wang said. "Salesforce realizes that if they don't become the content delivery network and the engagement layer, they only become another channel on TV."

Benioff "doesn't want to wake up and become the next Siebel," Wang added, referring to the CRM (customer relationship management) vendor bought by Oracle. "He's building that bridge between the enterprise and the consumer."

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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