The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

What Salesforce Connections 2021 Can Teach Us About e-Conferences

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A few weeks ago, Salesforce conducted its Connections 2021 event via the internet, just as so many other technology companies and trade associations have been compelled to do in the last 15 months. Connections has always been popular with its large Commerce Cloud (formerly Demandware) user community. Since Salesforce acquired Demandware in 2016, the event has gotten the full Salesforce treatment; the overal design, the agenda, the content, and the speaker presentations have been coordinated to a Disney-like level of precision, just as we’ve come to expect from Salesforce events like Dreamforce.

I can’t think of a Salesforce conference without being reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s theory that “the medium is the message”. To illustrate what he meant by that, McLuhan once wrote: “The instance of the electric light may prove illuminating in this connection. The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message….[1] Salesforce events are among the brightest lights in the constellation of industry events. They are big, exciting, fun, and extremely well produced. And they deliver a strong brand message about Salesforce and its values. It’s all about possibilities: blow past the barriers! Get to the next level! Make the world a better place!

That having been said, to some extent this e-conference ran into the same stumbling blocks that many of the other conferences we’ve attended from our homes during the pandemic encountered. So, we should talk about e-conferences as a medium. Though it appears that nations are emerging from the lockdown, and we may all go back to the practice of physically gathering from time to time (I’ll explain why that’s important in a minute), e-conferences are likely here to stay. Hopefully they will keep getting better, and the Salesforce Connections 2021 sheds some light on that too.

So let’s review why we spend the money and time to “do” conferences of any kind – ‘here goes! Conferences, whether they are physical or digital, have three objectives:

First, they are brand-building exercises. ‘Nuff said – Salesforce excels at this! The company pays really close attention not only to the messages being delivered, but the frame that they are delivered in. The digital event prominently featured an absolutely identifiable a look and feel that is consistent with the design of the company’s physical events. Everyone in the industry knows it by now:

Say what you will about cuddly-cute animal animations, there’s no doubting which company we’re talking about!

Second, they are opportunities to disseminate useful information, for example, user case study presentations. The objective is to share “news you can use” with attendees – tips that practitioners can take back to the office. Salesforce, like other companies, featured discussions with selected client companies to feature how they are using new features to deliver some new business value.

Salesforce Connections offered both live and on-demand “episodes” and “interactive learning” sessions (which are still accessible), and several of these featured customer case studies. One episode entitled Set the Experience Standard with Headless Commerce featured a speaker from American Golf to help explain a technological concept (in this case, headless or API-first solutions). Another one was focused specifically on a customer’s success story, for example How Orvis Meets Shoppers Where They Are, which was more focused on the business challenge (in this case, maintaining a unified view of the customer across channels).

Salesforce did a good job making the content available, and in most cases the sessions were extremely well produced. That being said, the sessions were afflicted by the same conundrum almost every e-conference we’ve attended has had: viewers’ short attention spans vs. the desire to deliver useful information. In the 20-30 minute time slots each vignette was afforded, it was almost impossible to convey much beyond “it works! Try it!!” The good news is that it’s easy to get the names of the presenters (LinkedIn helps track those folks down, if you want to follow up).

Third, conferences are networking opportunities for the attendees. This is the part of conferences that I miss the most by a country mile. Meeting with friends and colleagues and talking about what is being shared at a conference is essential. Over and above that is what you might call “birds of a feather” conversations – when I was a CIO, I guess that 90% of all the things I wanted to do were ideas I learned from other CIOs that I talked to at conferences.

The earliest e-conferences we attended in early 2020 were dismal at creating networking opportunities – but gradually companies started to figure it out. Virtual breakout rooms are now pretty standard. Salesforce took it a step further by offering networking sessions where attendees pre-register (for example, one session offered up a discussion about the “five key takeaways from the year that changed everything”).

But even though the industry keeps getting better at creating e-networking opportunities, I believe that this is the thing that will force us trudge off to places like Orlando and Las Vegas. I am remembering something I learned in a Communications course back in my college days, that “60% of all human communication is non-verbal”, and one often-quoted book[2] claimed that as much at 93% of our communication with each other are not words (according to the study, the non-verbal component was made up of body language – 55% and tone of voice- 38%). Most of us don’t want others to see us from the neck down in Zoom meetings, and so I don’t think that tech is going to solve this anytime soon.

So, what does Salesforce Connections teach us about e-conferences? #1, companies need to focus primarily on brand-reinforcement. This reminds me of another “communications” lesson I learned back in the day, Coca Cola is a sugary soft drink, but it’s brand is “cool and refreshing!” As I said earlier, Salesforce is as precise about this as Disney – other companies need to follow suit. Every presentation either reinforces the brand message or detracts from it.

#2, content IS important, but be sure to give e-attendees a way to get back to it. Replays work well, but each session should also have a “to find out more” button, so that additional details can be provided. Related to this, there’s nothing as good as a good case study – hearing from a practitioner is much more interesting than listening to a sales pitch. But practitioners are often not great public speakers, so they need to be coached. It was evident at Connections 2021 that the speakers were coached – it’s a worthwhile investment of time.

#3, networking in the e-space is getting better, but that’s damning it with faint praise. The industry has to keep trying and learning. But I suspect we’ll see you all in New York next January.



[1] Marshall McLuhan, “Understanding Media”

[2] Silent Messages, 1971, Albert Mehrabian