Salesforce.com plans to announce a new application on Tuesday that lets companies create enterprise social networks where they can interact with customers and partners.
Salesforce.com already offers Chatter, an application for building social networks where employees can collaborate internally. The new Communities application uses the Chatter technology to create external-facing networks.
"Salesforce Communities lets you bring together customers, partners and employees into one or more communities," said Doug Bewsher, senior vice president of Chatter.
These external networks can be set up for various purposes, including as customer service hubs, as marketing sites for promoting products or events, and as partner sales support communities.
A company needs to have a Salesforce.com license to set up a community, but the other participants don't need to be Salesforce.com customers.
Through integration with Salesforce.com's core CRM (customer-relationship-management) system, Salesforce Communities lets users capture data from the social networks and add it to existing CRM files to help generate sales leads, improve customer support and involve product development teams, for example.
While companies have set up discussion forums and online groups for their customers for years, those sites have tended to focus on customer-to-customer communications, said Denis Pombriant, an analyst with Beagle Research.
While these connections among customers can be valuable, a product like Salesforce Communities can insert company employees into the conversations who, with their product expertise and access to customer account details, can offer more detailed input and answers, he said via email.
"Customer-to-customer communications can solve a lot of problems, but for many of the real deep issues or issues that relate to customer accounts, for instance, you sometimes need input not just from one vendor representative but from many," he said.
Like all Salesforce.com applications, Salesforce Communities is a cloud-based service.
Salesforce Communities will be a released in a "limited pilot" in the fall of this year, and is slated for general availability in the second half of 2013 when pricing details will be announced.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.