Hello, Marc, Welcome to the Social Party

For those of you just getting back into the swing of things from vacation, Salesforce.com staged a mega rock concert — I mean a tech conference — right before Labor Day weekend: 45,000 registrants, 475 sessions, 700 experts, a performance by Metallica and an after-party with will.i.am.

Founder and CEO Marc Benioff outlined a simple social vision in his opening keynote that ties corporate success to the ability to connect with consumers.

“We were born cloud, but today we’re reborn social,” thundered Benioff.

He noted that customers are far outpacing businesses in adopting social technologies.

“Our customers and employees are being social,” he said. “What about our companies? Are our enterprises social? Am I doing enough to listen to customers and employees? It’s more important to listen than ever before.”

How important?

“We’ve seen Mubarak fall, we’ve seen Gadhafi fall,” he pronounced. “When will we see the first corporate CEO fall for the same reasons, because his or her customers are rising up or because they’re not listening to their employees?”

Many hailed Benioff’s speech as the start of a revolution in how businesses operate, with Salesforce.com as the social enterprise operating system.

One such convert was Susan Scrupski, the founder of the Social Business Council, who blogged about doubts she was starting to have about the ability for social to transform a business. Those doubts were shattered by Benioff.

“My crisis of faith ended on the morning of August 31, 2011,” she wrote shortly after Benioff’s keynote, in a blog post titled “A Social Baptism for the Enterprise. Hallelujah and Amen.” “[Benioff] killed it in his opening keynote for Dreamforce 2011 with the messaging I (and many others) have been consistently preaching for the past five years.”

Anyone who says Benioff’s speech wasn’t awesome is just flat out lying (or didn’t see it)! The content was dead on. His tone was upbeat. He worked the room AS HE TALKED, saying hello to at least a dozen people by name, including the CTO of Coca-Cola.

The supporting visual effects were flawless.

While dramatic and filled with pomp and prose, Benioff’s ideas were far from new.

His “vision” is my yesterday, today and tomorrow. He announced his company’s social rebirth in 2011 as if it were 2007 and the social enterprise movement was just starting. Meanwhile, far away from San Francisco, many of the largest corporations in the world, with whom I work and speak to regularly, are leaving social adolescence behind.

Even his comment about the Egyptian uprising was almost verbatim of what I said at my SXSW panel last year, “How Brands Respond to Facebook Attacks.

Despite being somewhat short on new ideas, Benioff’s keynote was indeed a tipping point. It was a defining moment, as the most successful and philanthropic person in business software in the last decade warmed up for Metallica by confirming and validating the work we’ve done since 2007 that social will impact the enterprise in a big way. And just like he ushered in a new era of computing (cloud versus on premise), he has ushered in a new era of connecting.

It’s an era where customers, vendors and partners are no longer anonymous segments that you “source,” “manage” and “market to.” They are people. People you connect with. Talk to. Advocate for. Listen to. And if you’re lucky, they sell for you, solve problems for you, defend you, listen to you and build your business for you, one conversation at a time, while you sleep.

What another Mark (Facebook’s Zuckerberg) calls “social design,” Benioff now calls “Social Enterprise” — a term many in the industry have been using for years, and which still means many different things to many different people.

It’s been used since at least 2008, to be exact. Jeffrey Dachis, the co-founder of Razorfish, used the term in a headline to launch his company in April of that year — “Austin Ventures Announces Partnership With Jeffrey Dachis to Create Social Enterprise.

“I believe there is enormous opportunity in helping companies devise and implement a strategy to engage their constituents in a meaningful dialog throughout the enterprise,” Dachis wrote three years ago. “As companies begin to see the benefits of utilizing ‘social’ technology to engage their customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders, and communities in an active and transparent dialog, they will need a trusted partner to help them navigate the opportunities.”

In a 2007 interview with Inside Facebook, Clara Shih, who wrote the book “The Facebook Era” while she was employed by Salesforce, stated, “The next generation of CRM won’t be about software. It will be about relationships, and social networking sites by design are 100 percent about relationships.”

This is exactly what Benioff outlined at Dreamforce (four years later!). We were a software company (“cloud”). We are now a relationship company (“social”). If Clara had stayed at Salesforce, maybe Benioff’s vision would have become a reality years ago.

Much of my focus at Buddy Media over the past four years has been building software that many of the world’s largest brands use to help them connect to their consumers, partners and employees. I’ve been the direct beneficiary of exactly what Benioff and Salesforce.com is now trying to plug in to — pent-up demand from very large businesses that want technology to let them directly connect with their customers and fans, and engage them at scale.

Fueled by $90 million in funding and a team of software engineers that have grown up using social tools like chat, IM, text, Facebook and LinkedIn as their primary communication modes both at home and at work, we have posted 300 percent annual revenue growth by building easy-to-use but powerful enterprise social software. We went from 40 people a year ago to 200 today living Benioff’s dream.

In a blog post after our last round of financing, I wrote about the exact shift Benioff highlighted at Dreamforce: “We are in the midst of a massive shift online from a search and intent-based world to a social, people-based world. The last three years were about the consumer side of social platforms, as we watched Facebook, Zynga and Twitter grow exponentially. The next three years will about the enterprise side of social, and how companies engage and grow their businesses by tapping into these massive platforms.”

The record is now clear. All legacy software companies missed the first four years of the social wave and are trying to play catch up. They continued to focus on business problems — sales force and marketing automation, HR management, financial compliance, expense management, content management, analytics and CRM systems. They ignored most of what happened outside the walls of the company, with customer actions and reactions, thoughts and wants, needs and desires at the top of that list.

Saleforce.com started its effort last week to move from software systems to human systems. My bet is that the company gets there. But most software companies will not.

In the advertising and communications space, which I am most familiar with, companies don’t just want to shout. One-way marketing and blasting of messages is no longer the only tool in their box. They want to listen, engage, learn and communicate. They yearn to be more human, even though humanity and corporate America has a long history of mutual exclusivity.

This means that we have had to put people first, and then build features the businesses need, not the other way around. Consumers don’t care about work-flow, permissions, analytics, auditing, compliance and security features. Businesses do.

Burberry is a prime example, highlighted at Dreamforce, of a company that transformed itself, evolving its 155-year-old British luxury brand into a connected organization. (For an idea of how far they needed to go, one of the only people I knew who wore Burberry growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., was my grandmother, Betty Myerberg, who swore by their scarves. Burberry was synonymous with British, plaid and boring, far from where they are today. I now often see lines to get in outside their store on Columbus Avenue in New York.)

Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts gave advice to skeptical CEOs at Dreamforce, saying “you have to create a social enterprise today, you have to be totally connected with everyone who touches your brand. If you don’t do that, I don’t know what your business model is in five years.”

The irony here is that Burberry in many ways “got” social long before Salesforce. Did you know that the company has more than eight million fans on Facebook, more than four times the largest fashion magazine’s Facebook page (Vogue). Vogue no longer controls Burberry’s access to people.

Burberry’s stock price has increased in lockstep with its social investments in the last two years, rising close to threefold in the time period. Social media fluency is a leading indicator for stock price today.

In the future, all businesses will reorganize around people, as failure to connect is not an option. It’s a corporate death sentence.

Much of my next year will be spent with our customers, talking about how they can put people at the center of their business. Companies have always had their own social networks of customers, potential customers, friends of customers, partners, vendors, employees and more. The difference today is that tools and strategies now exist to create a virtual representation of these graphs, to uncover them and enlighten them, much like Facebook has done with each of our real-life social graphs.

It’s the ability to efficiently increase shareholder value — the ultimate ROI! — that makes me so excited about the next phase of social media, social marketing, the social enterprise or whatever you want to call it.

On behalf of Buddy Media, Dachis Group and other social enterprise leaders, I wanted to be one of the first to welcome Marc and his company, the self-proclaimed social media baby, to the social revolution. While you’re new to the party, I have no doubt that you will help companies move further and faster along the social adoption curve and have a long and prosperous social life ahead.

Thank you for bringing much-needed attention to our space, and together we can help companies engage in a two-way dialogue, wherever their customers live, work and play online.

Michael is currently Chairman and CEO of Buddy Media, Inc., a New York-based company whose social enterprise software is used by eight out of the top 10 global advertisers.

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