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How salesforce.com Built a Large Community of Innovation

Posted by Bill Lee on October 1, 2008 at 08:28 AM

Just caught up with Kingsley Joseph, Senior Product Manager, salesforce.com, who created salesforce.com's IdeaExchange platform. It's being used not only by SFC but also Starbucks and Dell to attract large number of customers to their community sites, make sense of their input, de-dupe their feature requests, and prioritize them in remarkably innovative ways. IdeaExchange makes ample use of popular community tools such as Digg, Twitter, Linkedin and others.

Kingsley will be speaking at the 2008 Communities Exchange Summit on October 15.

Q. Kingsley, if you would, tell us how you got involved with salesforce.com's online customer communities. Who were these people? Where have you taken the program?

A. I became involved with the salesforce.com community in early 2006 when I joined salesforce.com. Back then, we had about 50 pages of content, mainly developed by us. Over the last 2 years, we've created a system that has almost every product manager blogging about their product, as well as lively discussion and idea communities that now span 200k pages of content that attract 100k visitors a month. We're more engaged than ever with the pulse of our community, and have found innovative ways to incorporate it into the way we do business.

Q. What have you learned about engaging with your customers? What works? What doesn't?

A. The key lesson we've learned is that it is a two way street. If you want customers to engage, you have to engage first, and be willing to take the relationship to a new place. Passionate customers expect a responsive business in return.

Q. Let me see if I've got this straight. salesforce.com both engages with its own customer communities via the IdeaExchange, plus you provide a platform - Salesforce Ideas - that helps other companies engage with their communities, correct? How did IdeaExchange come to be?

A. We first created the IdeaExchange in October 2006. Our rapid growth had caught up with us, and we needed a new system for processing feature requests that could scale with our customer community. The key challenges in feature request systems are prioritization and de-duplication. I was looking for a good web 2.0 solution to these problems, when I realized that the social news site model pioneered by Digg would be a great way to solve them. I located a small startup providing an on-demand social news solution, and implemented the IdeaExchange using their product.

The success of the IdeaExchange brought calls from customers (incidentally, on the IdeaExchange) to provide them with the same capability. We acquired the startup that had provided the solution, and we've since re-written their solution on the Force.com cloud-computing platform. It's now available to customers as the Salesforce Ideas product.

Q. Who are some of your marquee customers, and how do they use Salesforce Ideas?

A. When Michael Dell came back to lead Dell, he wanted to have the company reconnect with their customers. During a chat with our CEO Marc Benioff, he showed Michael Dell the IdeaExchange, and before we knew it, Dell IdeaStorm had launched. Within the first week, Dell IdeaStorm had collected more than 500 ideas; by the first month it had collected 2,500 ideas. Soon, Dell deployed EmployeeStorm, a secure community that allows employees to post ideas regardless of where they sit within the company; in the first two weeks of launching it had gathered more than 700 ideas. EmployeeStorm breaks down the silos natural in corporate life and increases collaboration-allowing, for example, tech support employees in Asia to communicate and share ideas with sales reps in Round Rock, Texas.

Customer feedback on IdeaStorm led the company to build select consumer notebooks and desktops pre-installed with the Linux platform. Dell also decided to continue offering Windows XP as a pre-installed operating system option in response to customer requests.

MyStarbucksIdea is an important part of how CEO Howard Schultz isre-inventing Starbucks - to instill what he calls "a seeing culture." While it gives their customers unprecedented say in the business, MyStarbucksIdea is also an always-on focus group for Starbucks to test product concepts. 48 Starbucks Idea partners play the role of representing customer ideas internally, as well as providing responsive feedback to customers. Customers go to MyStarbucksIdea, not to complain, but instead to offer creative solutions.

Q. In soliciting ideas from a large community of customers, how do you a) cull out the bad ones, and b) make sense of the ones that are left?

A. The nice part about Salesforce Ideas and a healthy community is that they do a lot of the hard work of culling out the bad ideas for you. As long as you maintain a healthy community, the application makes sense of what the community wants. Ideas that the community does not like disappear very quickly, and the ones that are ignored by most community members slide slowly into purgatory.

The ones that survive can be ranked by the total amount of interest in the community. Tie this in with customer relationship management (CRM) data and you gain remarkable insight into questions like "what do your most valuable customers want, what does your fastest growing customer segment want?" etc. The power of community becomes many times more valuable for product planning when you can connect it with your customer data.

Q. By the way, why don't you bring us up to speed on what salesforce.com is doing these days.

A. We are in the middle of two very exciting transformations. The first transformation is that, from leading the software-as-a-service revolution, we're now making rapid progress towards becoming the trusted cloud computing platform of choice. The Force.com platform that was unveiled recently, puts the power of salesforce.com's dependable, multi-tenant infrastructure in the hands of developers everywhere. The second transformation is that we're expanding Salesforce CRM into exciting new frontiers like community, innovation management and content management. We're excited about both transformations and are working very hard to deliver more than what our customers expect from us.

As always, we have some very exciting announcements coming out at Dreamforce, our annual conference in early November, so I would hate to ruin the surprise!

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