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Dreamforce: The State of Digital Marketing on Planet Earth

The Proposition

In the spring of 2011 Blair Enns called me up and gave me an ultimatum. He said, “meet me in San Francisco this fall for Dreamforce or forever wallow in a wake of irrelevance littered with the remains of firms who have failed to recognize that Salesforce, and the industry surrounding it, is going to reinvent the practice of marketing.”

I didn’t buy it. 

But, the idea of spending a few days in northern California with Blair was pretty enticing. Blair and I have a lot of fun on the road together, and we get a ton of creative business thinking done while we’re at it. Spending that kind of time with him was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, so I told him I’d join him. I went to spend time with Blair; the conference was a nice backdrop at best. 

So, I arrived at my first Dreamforce conference in 2011 a skeptic. I had already tried Salesforce, and I hated it. We used it for a year or so at Newfangled around 2007. It was poorly designed, tough to use, confusing, difficult to get support, and generally a pain in the butt. I was quite happy the day we decided to shut it down, and I was sure I was never going to go back.

This year’s Dreamforce conference had over 135,000 in-person attendees. As you can see here, this is not your typical marketing conference.


The Conversion

During my fifth session of the second day of the conference everything changed. Oddly enough, I had a genuine conversion experience. I arrived a skeptic with little to no expectations, and after a day and a half of being wholly immersed in the universe of Salesforce, it hit me all at once. We were listening to a guy talk about how he had used Salesforce, in combination with a particular cocktail of the thousands of apps which have grown around it like barnacles, to create a “wall-to-wall” system. Wall-to-wall? I had never heard of this before. 

What this guy created was an online, cloud-based platform that tied his sales, marketing, accounting, timekeeping, project management, and reporting into one unified system.

Want to see which salesperson sells the jobs that are the most profitable, but only when Team A works on the job instead of Team B? How about which search engine phrases have driven the most revenue over the past 6 quarters? Which clients have represented the most post-project revenue as compared to initial project revenue? All of it, and plenty more — no problem. And this guy didn’t work at GE. He owned a firm smaller than Newfangled!

The world I was living in got a whole lot bigger — more interesting, sustainable, exciting, and profitable — at the moment this guy’s story hit home. I was converted on the spot. Blair looked over at me, and he didn’t even have to ask. He saw it, and he just smiled, knowing that his status as prophet was still in good standing. 

My main takeaway from that first Dreamforce conference was that the conference wasn’t really about Salesforce so much as it was about the industry of digital marketing.

I’ve since come to see that not only is Dreamforce about the industry of digital marketing, it is the single most comprehensive representation of the state of digital marketing on the planet.


The Reason

The thing that differentiates Dreamforce as a conference is the same thing that differentiates Salesforce as a platform: volume. 

Salesforce is the most widely adopted CRM. Depending on which study you consult, it has at least double the adoption of its nearest competitor, Microsoft Dynamics. Since it enjoys such unparalleled dominance, it also enjoys a far more active and therefore effective app marketplace, which they call the AppExchange. The AppExchange today has over 2,000 apps which, combined, have been installed over 2,000,000 times. Salesforce is great for the same reason your iPhone is great — the apps other people and businesses build for it. This marketplace is also an incredible outlet for developers. If you create a Salesforce-based or -integrated app, you can list it, advertise it, and sell it on the AppExchange.

Dreamforce, for its part, is the biggest marketing conference that exists. The first year I wen,t they had ~70,000 in-person attendees. last year it was 90,000. This year over 130,000 people attended! 

Since there is no single room in San Francisco (or maybe anywhere?) that can hold all of the attendees, Dreamforce-viewing areas like this one are setup all over the Union Square area.


If you’ve heard me talk about Salesforce or Dreamforce in the past year, you’ve probably heard me repeat a version of what Blair initially said to me: “If you’re in marketing, you need to be there.” The reason is that, with 130k marketing professionals in attendance, chances are good that some combination of your current and future clients are there. Since the event is a three-day immersion in the state of digital marketing, it gives those who attend a significant expertise advantage. People continually come away from Dreamforce with revelations that change the way they think about what they do and what’s possible. You don’t want your clients telling you about these things — you want to be the one who’s telling them.


What Dreamforce Has Done For Newfangled

In the summer of 2012, I went to Dreamforce with one goal: to figure out what Newfangled was going to do about the emerging, intimidating, and critically important trend I was seeing in digital marketing intelligence. I had been observing a lot of changes in marketing leading up to last year’s event. Some of the emails I was receiving seemed to be more intelligently and personally crafted, and I was seeing hints of website functionality that I had previously thought would be impossible to pull off. Things were moving, quickly, and I felt a little bit in the dark. So, my mission was to see the light. I wanted to make sure Newfangled was ahead of this digital marketing sea change I had started to see welling up around me. 

I was at Dreamforce for a total of 2 hours before I found out this sea change not only had a name, but an entire industry with players of various sizes already thriving in it. It was called marketing automation. 

I then had a name for my obsession and the next three days were about that and only that. Since I was at Dreamforce, I was able to go to every single vendor of importance in the MAT space, get a personal demo of their platforms, and grill them about their offerings and how Newfangled might use their services for our own marketing needs as well as partner with them as a vendor to bring these services to our clients. 

Because of the size and quality of the attendee base at Dreamforce, vendors pay dearly for their stamp of real estate on the Expo floor, with some of the prime spaces going for hundreds of thousands of dollars per day (that’s not a typo). What this means is that those vendors take the event very seriously, and the booths are manned with the best people they’ve got. There is not a single question they can’t answer for you about what they offer. 

This is the entrance to the Expo floor, where, to me, the magic of the conference lies.


If I had tried to do this level of research from our North Carolina office over phone and web, I think I’d still be trying to figure everything out. As it was, I heard the term “marketing automation” for the first time on day one of the conference. By day three, I was better versed in it than anyone I knew and had a plan for exactly how we were going to use it. By day four, I had a partner contract signed with our primary marketing automation partner. 

Twelve months later, the offerings we’ve built around this service account for over 10% of our revenue. I don’t know, is that good ROI on a four-day conference? I mean, the ticket WAS like a thousand dollars or something. 

The revenue isn’t the thing I was most excited about, though. The primary value I derived from attending Dreamforce last year was that it gave Newfangled the intelligence and perspective we needed to effectively spread this message to all of the clients and prospects we’ve engaged with over the past year. The things we learned at Dreamforce in four days sowed many of the seeds for the expertise that allowed Newfangled to stay out in front of our fans, prospects, and clients for an entire year. 

Newfangled needs to do what your firm needs to do: be the clear expert in the room when it comes to matters within our domain. The four-day immersion into the world of digital marketing that Dreamforce provides helps us keep our edge, and I think it’d help you keep yours, too. 


Dreamforce from the Perspecitve of an Independent Agency Principal

I’ve been encouraging my friends who own small agencies around North America to join me at Dreamforce for years, but it was only this year that I started seeing some familiar faces at the event. I was lucky enough to catch up with three of my favorite friends and clients while roaming around Union Square.

I think the views represented in the video below by Kristine, Denis, and Mark do the conference justice: it’s huge, intimidating, invauable, and a little scary all at once. If you’ve got a few minutes, check out what they have to say:

After the major revelations and discoveries I had the previous two years, I had been hoping to find the next big thing at this year’s Dreamforce conference. I was excited about the idea of writing about it here, but you know what? I didn’t find it. For the mid-sized business market in North America, I think the sea change of the past 20 months is still being ridden out, and the next big thing is at least a year or two away. While my marketing world wasn’t redefined this year, I did come away knowing that the decisions we’ve made (particularly in regard to our fantastic marketing automation partner) over the past few years have been good ones, and that we’re definitely up to speed and still at the leading edge of the big-picture marketing trends. In short, the value I got from Dreamforce this year wasn’t a big reveal so much as it was acknowledgement that we’re on the right track, and, because I went, I’m confident in that knowledge. I know that the chances of getting blindsided by something in the coming months are pretty slim, and that feels good.

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