My first Dreamforce experience: not awesome or phenomenal

Mark Busse – 5 Comments

When we started using Salesforce, we knew it was a powerful CRM that could help us—and ultimately our clients—generate leads and help improve our interactions with clients and prospects. But we had no idea how gargantuan the Salesforce ecosystem had become, until Dreamforce 2013.

When our Salesforce rep described the many speakers, workshops and sessions available at their annual conference, we knew we still had much to learn and wanted to go. What we didn’t realize was that it was the largest software conference in the world with tens of thousands of fanatical fans attending. While overall there was value and learning, it wasn’t quite as awesome or phenomenal as repeatedly touted before and during the actual conference.

Costly and Huge
Beyond registration fees (which were quite reasonable actually), a four day conference means a full week away from work plus travel and accommodations—and San Francisco is not a cheap city to visit. I love the SF Bay area and was looking forward to seeing old friends and enjoying some of the city’s amazing cuisine, but with a staggering 135,000 attendees, it pretty much clogged the city from end to end. Cabs were scarce, traffic was snarled, and restaurants were packed.

The entire Moscone Centre plus over a dozen more venues and hotels downtown made up the Dreamforce “Campus”. I found it rather overwhelming and found myself hustling for blocks to make it to sessions and events. If you’re not a fan of crowds (I’m not) and long days walking around, this might not be the conference for you.

Cultish and Overwhelming
Keynote addresses featured Salesforce founder, consummate showman (and shiny sneaker aficionado) Marc Benioff himself, along with a slew of his tech industry pals such as Dropbox founder Drew Houston, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, plus a little self-help inspiration from Deepak Chopra.

Each of these presentations were highly anticipated and to get an actual seat in the room  often required standing in long lines, but most of the content was either hype for the “awesome” new Salesforce 1 platform (which, frankly, seemed like a bandaid to address the cluttered, disjointed, and awkward U/X experience of existing Salesforce apps) or a string of tiresome testimonials from major corporations about how “phenomenal” Salesforce is. Although interesting as entertainment, I didn’t find much of the content of these talks terribly beneficial.

One thing was clear: the audience had an almost cult-like admiration for Benioff. Each time he took the stage (and wandered amongst his devotees as though a man of the people) he used the words “phenomenal” and “awesome” so many times they became meaningless—like the punchline to a bad joke. As someone who hasn’t yet fully chugged the Salesforce Koolaid, I had a hard time even tracking relevance much of the time and the whole thing seemed more like a love in than a conference.

Beyond the keynotes, I was looking forward to learning how to be a better Salesforce user via workshops and breakout sessions, of which there were nearly 1,300. 1300!! Although the conference website allowed me to sort by role, industry, and product, I was baffled by so many options and found myself in a number of sessions that didn’t suit my needs or were confusing. I tried reaching out to my Salesforce rep, using the on-site info kiosks, even using social media and the “Chatter” feed via their mobile app (which was buggy and crashed frequently), but received no useful guidance and was left frustrated. It was not awesome.

Dreamforce-BadgesBeautiful and Frenetic
The organizers of the conference deserve a lot of credit for how well organized and beautifully branded everything was. There were signs everywhere, starting at the airport and throughout the city itself. And the booths and kiosks were extravagant to say the least. Even staff uniforms and promo swag were impressive quality. They spared no expense and everything was polished and well-produced.

As much as celebration of Salesforce’s staggering growth and success as much a conference, the energy level was high every day. From the opening performance by Huey Lewis and the News, to live performances by Blondie, Green Day (their first ever corporate performance), and MC Hammer at the gala, everyone was in party mode from dusk ’til dawn. These aren’t bands I’d rush out to see, but it was an fun component to the overall experience.

The innumerable hosted parties was dizzying, and despite the energy that seemed to permeate the whole city, I must admit that I felt disconnected from the crowd at times, worrying that as a conference n00b I was always missing out on something—and I recognized others have similar experiences via the expressions on faces as they wandered the vast halls in search of…something. It was a doozy of a party, but no matter how many times Benioff said it was phenomenal, it wasn’t why I was there.

Themes and Lessons
The big news and overriding theme of the conference was that “the Internet of things” was becoming the “the Internet of customers”, requiring business to connect directly with audiences in social ways. In the Facebook and Twitter age, this didn’t strike me as a particularly new idea. Examples were provided, such as how Philips can now connect to your toothbrush and tell you if you’re not taking oral health seriously enough (seriously), how GE can connect to your oven and tell you if your Thanksgiving turkey is burning (weird), how Ford can connect to your Mustang and tell you when it needs service (cool), and how Google can connect to workers in the field through Google Glass (people were actually wearing those ridiculous things). And Salesforce is apparently helping all these companies make these connections with their cloud-based software platform.

As interesting as all this was, I found myself struggling to relate to many of the examples (kind of like using Coke or Apple as a branding example when speaking with a small business owner), but realized that much of the audience came from the Fortune 500 crowd. This was actually an interesting change in the tone and way business uses technology and marketing as the largest and most powerful provider of cloud-based business processes software was finally truly embracing social and customer engagement. That’s actually a little bit awesome.

Another common theme throughout the conference was philanthropy, with tons of feel good discussion and promotion of Benioff’s famous 1/1/1 integrated philanthropic model (1 % profits, 1% product, & 1% time donated to non-profits). The live concert even raised over $6M for the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital (yup, he named a hospital after himself). But no matter how many references to how Salesforce was helping those in need, Dreamforce was unmistakably a celebration of how much profit Salesforce had profited (over $1B in revenues in 2013 Q1 alone!), combined with numerous acquisitions including ExactTarget, making it the fourth largest software company in the world. The entire conference was a testament to Salesforce’s extreme success, with gluttonous decadence everywhere, from giveaways (like a Tesla and $1M hackathon prize) to boasting about having the largest inflatable structure ever built in the US.

Many attendees clearly loved Dreamforce, joining Benioff in describing the conference as “awesome” or “phenomenal” in online chatter (pun intended for you Salesforce  users). I can imagine how for many the social events and concerts, fun in San Francisco, informative resources for developers, hands-on training, and many other aspects of the conference would leave them inspired and fired up. For me it was OK. Not a waste of time, but perhaps not something I would recommend to my clients without a few caveats.

I think for me the problem was threefold: 1) I came alone to the largest software conference in the world without a guide or buddy who knew the ropes, 2) I am a small business owner and not an expert Salesforce user (yet), Dreamforce is clearly geared towards large business marketers and developers who know the difference between the baffling number of products and services offered within the Salesforce cloud-based ecosystem, and 3) I came to Dreamforce with the intent to learn, not socialize.

A highlight for me though was exploring the Cloud Expo that showcased about 1000 other software solutions such as Dropbox, Marketo, LinkedIn, Evernote, DocuSign, Box, Act-On, GoToMeeting, MailChimp, HubSpot and many others that can be integrated into Salesforce. It was very impressive and left me with many ideas how they could benefit my company and our clients. I also enjoyed some sessions given by Brent Adamson and Matt Dixon, co-authors of The Challenger Sale, about their findings and insights into customer buying habits and strategies on how to compete and win more business. And I did manage to connect and socialize with folks from a few likeminded companies we’ll likely do business with in the future, so perhaps I did get to experience some of the social benefits of Dreamforce after all. Maybe it was a little awesome.

Having now been to Dreamforce, if I ever did attend another of these conferences it would be with a different mindset, set of goals, and plan. Assuming Industrial Brand continues to use the Salesforce platform in the coming years (there are numerous alternatives like Sugar, Microsoft Dynamics, SalesLogix, and NetSuite), I could see how the conference could be a great opportunity to connect with professionals with similar challenges and successes.  If I could offer the organizers one bit of advice, it would be to either split the conference into one for developers/partners and one for marketers/implementers, and help new attendees better navigate the content so it suits their business, clients and needs.

So while I didn’t find the Dreamforce experience particularly awesome—and certainly not phenomenal—it did crystallize in my mind the importance of CRM and lead generation software as a crucial component of any business development strategy. Whether your firm is small or large, if growth is something you seek, integrating a system like Salesforce into your online toolkit along with marketing automation is something absolutely worth investigating. But be warned, much like a huge conference can be a daunting experience, so can implementing a system like this without an experienced guide.

If you’d like to chat about my experience at the conference or with using Salesforce as an integrated lead generation tool, please drop me a line and let’s talk soon.