Cloud cuckoo land: Salesforce comes to London with Cloudforce 2011

Salesforce’s 2011 Cloudforce event brought a little bit of Silicon Valley pizzazz and quite a lot of hype to prestigious surroundings of the London’s Royal Festival Hall in September.

The style of CEO Mark Benioff’s arrival on stage was more like something you’d expect from a rock concert at the 02 rather than the more refined surroundings of the South Bank.

Anyone familiar with Benioff will not be surprised to hear that it was very much his show – his opening keynote lasted two and a half hours, interlaced with live product demos, video and very special guests in the form of Dell supremo Michael Dell and CEO of Burberry Angela Ahrendts, both of whom are Salesforce clients. It’s testament to Benioff’s charisma and sheer force of personality that he managed to hold the audience’s attention for the majority of the time. And there was seemingly no rest for the big man: straight after the keynote ended, he dived into a briefing with analysts and journalists (where he casually admitted to telling a UK Government minister the previous day that it’s data strategy sucks – in my words) and then from that straight out again to host the afternoon keynote. His energy and drive are both astonishing. Not to say his confidence.

But Cloudforce was not just impressive because of the performance of Benioff, or for the amazing things that Salesforce are doing with its products. The extent to which so much of the rest of the technology industry was riding on Salesforce’s coat-tails was also significant, with brands such as Accenture, Marketo, Emailvision, Radian6 and Bluewolf all signed up as partners for the event, with stands in the exhibition space.

What was less impressive, however, was the heavy-handed way in which the exhibition and demonstration spaces were managed in order to be subservient the keynotes. I personally queued for 15 minutes to talk to someone about the Data.com solution, only to be told when I got to the front that as the keynote was due to start the rep was unable to speak to me, and had to turn his screen off. Apparently partners had their Internet connections suspended at the same moment, much to their frustration. It seems that if you attend Cloudforce, you have to play by Salesforce’s rules, and do what you’re told, when you’re told to do so. There is no compromise in the cult of Benioff. My extremely mature response was to boycott the keynote. I’m sure he was gutted…

There are a couple of serious points here though. Firstly, Salesforce is clearly an amazing company doing some incredible things, and is increasingly at in the centre of the technology industry. But whilst other vendors want to align themselves with this success, Cloudforce should never be mistaken for an independent or objective event. First and foremost its a showcase for their success and an opportunity to evangelise (arguably it’s a glorified user conference) and should be treated as such.

Secondly, one of Salesforce’s main messages at the event was that it is now a ‘social company’ – it’s no longer just a CRM vendor. As such, it understands the sophistication and subtleties of social engagement, which demands that you give the customer control over the nature of the engagement. Ironically, this is what exactly what Salesforce failed to do in the face-to-face environment by ‘managing’ attendees demo access, and corralling delegates in a pretty arrogant way. What’s good enough for online is good enough for the real world, and they must not lose sight of this.