Salesforce aims to reach customers anywhere and on any device


Salesforce’s recent product launches and acquisitions suggest the company is expanding its focus from business-to-business communication and branching out into business-to-consumer services. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

San Francisco-based cloud computing giant Salesforce got big as one of the few companies that helped businesses manage and store customer data. Fifteen years later, it is trying to help businesses reach those customers through their smartphones, tablets and social media.

Salesforce’s recent product launches and acquisitions suggest the company is expanding its focus from business-to-business communication and branching out into business-to-consumer services. At its recent Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual conference and product launch, the company unveiled Salesforce1, a cloud-based system helping businesses, sell, market and deal with customer-service issues through smartphones and tablets. It also announced the ExactTarget Marketing Cloud, which tailors advertising to customers on e-mail, Web, mobile and social media sites.

During a keynote speech at Dreamforce, chief executive Marc Benioff compared the “Internet of things” — a term technologists use to describe a network of connected smartphones, appliances and other electronics — to the “Internet of customers,” where businesses are connected to their consumers through whatever device they are using.

“You have got to be ready to sell, to service, to market to your customers regardless of where the customer touch point is. This is really the Internet of customers, where companies connect to their customers through the next generation of devices, apps and services,” Benioff said during an earnings call.

Salesforce reported third-quarter revenue of nearly $1.08 billion — clearing $1 billion for the first time, up 36 percent from last year.

Instead of introducing new products, the company’s recent strategy has been extending the reach of the services it provides to customers.

“The focus is on better fostering the ecosystem and mobile devices,” Gartner analyst Rob DeSisto said. For instance, Salesforce closed a deal with Safeway to handle its e-mail and mobile communications with customers.

Salesforce’s recent strategic moves could put it in greater competition with the traditional database giant Oracle, Morningstar financial analyst Rick Summer said. “It’s clear to us Salesforce is trying to be the Oracle of the public cloud, to have that grander vision and incorporating their entire IT architecture with the sales cloud, the service cloud and the marketing cloud. The expectation is their platform ends up incorporating lots of different styles of applications.”

Salesforce also announced that it would collaborate with Hewlett-Packard to create a private cloud for large businesses called the SuperPod.

But mobile marketing to consumers is a new area for Salesforce, and it may take some time to win over chief marketing officers, DeSisto wrote in an e-mail.

In the past, many of Salesforce’s acquisitions have been “technical buys” — bought mostly for their software expertise, he said. But recent acquisitions such as the $2.5 billion purchase of San Francisco-based cloud marketing firm ExactTarget, which had more than 6,000 business clients. including Coca-Cola, Gap and Nike, “represents the new model in acquisition: Buy an established business in critical mass, and try to scale it,” DeSisto said. “If ExactTarget is a valid data point, we’re going to see them start buying companies for the purpose of revenue growth.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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