Why Salesforce.com's Social Media Smarts Could Get You Closer to Customers

When it comes to social media, Salesforce.com leads rivals like Oracle and SAP — and its success could help your company reach customers. Case in point: Salesforce.com apps now work with social networking services like Twitter and Facebook.

At a time when many companies still struggle to manage the rise of social networks and understand what the trend means to their organizations, Salesforce.com has begun tailoring its business software to help people harness the power of social media. During the past year, the company has taken several steps to make its core products work alongside popular consumer applications like Facebook, Google and Twitter.

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While analysts say Salesforce.com's efforts to make its business applications more social and consumer-oriented will further bolster its ongoing efforts to uproot old school rivals like Oracle and SAP, the strategy also shows a forward-thinking view in how business technology has changed: The traditional tendency to separate business and consumer technologies is not only unrealistic, it misses an opportunity to interact with current and prospective customers.

"They're the only enterprise vendor that has really embraced the social side of the Web," says Yankee Group analyst Sheryl Kingstone. "Everyone can spend their time on Twitter, but this enables some collaboration with customers because of it."

They've Got a Friend in the Consumer Web

Salesforce.com's latest foray into the consumer Web happened earlier this week. The San Francisco-based vendor announced that organizations using its customer service application (dubbed Service Cloud) would be able to connect it to Twitter, the social networking service where users post short messages.

It works something like this: a customer service rep can monitor conversations occurring over Twitter, while, at the same time, analyzing data in their Salesforce.com app to help answer questions about a product. The answers to those questions can be posted to Twitter by the rep, or, provided the technology is in place, to the frequently asked questions section of a company website.

The Service Cloud product already has such a feature for Facebook conversations, so the emergence of businesses building a marketing and customer service presence on Twitter made sense to Salesforce.com executives as a next logical step in helping companies figure out how to utilize social media outlets.

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"Companies are wrestling with social media," says Kraig Swensrud, Salesforce.com's vice president of product marketing. "Many don't know how to interact with these sites yet, and as a result, they're losing touch with their customers. Today, it's not a matter of investing in the call center. They need to expand customer service to where they're communities are now living, which is places like Twitter, Facebook and Google."

A symbiotic relationship with the latter company began years ago, establishing Salesforce.com's first significant step in partnering with powerhouses on the consumer Web. In June 2007, Salesforce.com announced that its core customer relationship management (CRM) software, which is used by sales and marketing people to track their clients' information, could be used alongside Google Ad Words, which allows companies to advertise their products on Google by associating them with specific keywords.

In April 2008, the two companies announced that any customer of Salesforce.com could add Google Apps to their existing CRM software for free. Google Apps is Google's Web-based software for businesses (a competitive product to Microsoft Office) that includes Gmail and instant messaging, as well as basic productivity apps like Documents & Spreadsheets.

After its Google alignment, Salesforce.com felt emboldened to push further into the consumer Web. In November 2008, at Salesforce.com's annual Dreamforce event in San Francisco, the company's CEO Marc Benioff shared a stage with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, unveiling a product that allowed developers to build enterprise applications for Facebook using Salesforce.com technology.

While Facebook leaders remain consumer focused (and will for a long time), they welcomed the partnership as an acknowledgment that social technologies will change the way people consume and use technology at work. Because Salesforce.com was a pioneer of the idea that people could access business applications on the Web instead of installing them on their company's machines — a process often referred to as software as a service or cloud computing — its products became a logical fit for emerging technologies on the Web like Facebook.

"The reason we partnered with Salesforce.com is we believe by working with the business community, by working with CIOs and people who run businesses, we can help understand the needs of their users," noted Dave Morin, Facebook's senior platform manager, during an interview with CIO at Facebook's headquarters back in January. "Salesforce.com has really been pushing the limits in delivering software as a service and they have a great cloud computing platform that makes cool apps."

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