How Salesforce.com increased event ROI 10 times and what you can take away from it

On a recent flight home, I read a book telling the story of Salesforce.com, “Behind the Cloud”, written by Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff. As many know, Salesforce.com is one of the world’s most successful companies. Here in Silicon Valley, Salesforce.com is known as a marketing and sales juggernaut because of its innovative marketing execution and well-honed sales culture.

Among the many interesting stories the book shares about how the company grew from an idea to a multi-billion-dollar company, the stories I found most compelling were the ones about the importance of events to the company’s success. Even more powerful were the ones about how they evolved their events to achieve greater event ROI. Any company or organization hosting events today can apply several simple ideas to achieve better event ROI.

As an event organizer, you either work on corporate events (directly or at an agency) or industry association events. If you are a corporate planner, your goal with user or partner conferences is to ultimately get more customers for your company. (If you run internal events such as sales kick-offs, then your goal is to get the sales team fired up for upcoming objectives.) If you are on the association side, your goal is to retain and increase attendance year-over-year and attract more members into the organization. Either way, your ultimate goal will be to attract more “customers” to the organization by increasing the engagement and effectiveness of your events.

Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce and City Tours

As many know, Dreamforce is the company’s signature annual conference. Last year, more than 160,000 people attended the event held up the road in San Francisco, putting it among the ranks of other very large events like CES and South by Southwest (SXSW).

Dreamforce 15 By The Numbers

But Salesforce.com had humbler beginnings in its early days as a startup. Before Dreamforce was started, the company began with small City Tours around the US. Their purpose was to create awareness and sign up more customers to use their product. These City Tours were originally held in four and five star hotels and restaurants across the country. Marc would keynote the events himself, followed by a demo, and then a Q&A session. (He still keynotes Dreamforce these days.)

ROI from networking

The company soon discovered that if customers and prospects were invited to the same event and given the opportunity to talk to each other and discuss the product, this approach would turn out being more effective than any pitch given by a company representative. In fact, attendees weren’t there to meet the company; they came to meet other people using the product. As Marc realized, “the most effective selling is done not by a sales team but by people you don’t even know who are talking about your products without your being aware of it.” This discovery led them to plan a networking session in the form of a cocktail party at the end of every City Tour. With this format in place, when a prospect came to one of their events, they were able to close a deal 80% of the time.

“Networking is a vital part of every event. Help attendees meet each other, exchange contact information, join your community, and learn from one another.” - Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO

The City Tours eventually became so successful that they could no longer afford to host them in more cities. It was at this time that Salesforce.com made one its most important discoveries. The insight came from one of their East Coast salesmen who said, “I don’t need or even want the content,” referring to speakers or the demos. He suggested that there should only be a social mixer where customers could simply talk with prospects. In the book, Marc admits that this approach was unconventional, but since he considered Salesforce.com an unconventional company, they decided to give it a try.

To their surprise and delight, the new format was just as effective at winning customers but at a much lower cost. In Marc’s words, “the bill was almost one-tenth of a standard City Tour, but the net effect was virtually the same. Customers learned from one another, and the prospects were swept up by the customers’ gusto”. That’s when Marc became a stalwart of networking at events. Marc shares his view by saying, “Networking is a vital part of every event. Help attendees meet each other, exchange contact information, join your community, and learn from one another.”

This Salesforce.com story is one of my favorite stories about the ROI from networking. It shows that while event planners often go to great lengths to innovate on the event experience with something new and creative, it is often the power of latent customer testimonials—shared with others—that may be more effective than other forms of experiential marketing.

Key take aways

Here are some ideas to generate more ROI for your next event:

  1. Whether you run corporate events or industry association events, invite both customers (or members) and prospects (or non-members) to the same event so they can learn from each other, helping you achieve your own event goals. Trust that they will connect with the right people and have the right conversations.

  2. Take advantage of your customers’ voice and invite them to speak on panels to share their personal experiences with the audience. Don’t be afraid of the open environment in which they might share both positives and negatives. They will more than likely be flattered to be given a voice at your forum and be constructive.

  3. Besides speaker-oriented sessions, set aside time for networking activities where the goal is for attendees to connect with other attendees. Many types of networking can be planned from simply allocating time lasting 30 to 45 minutes to structured activities such as speed networking, hosted buyer programs, and even newer “brain dating” activities.

  4. Use technology tools where helpful to facilitate networking so that both attendees and your overall event can genuinely realize the benefits from such tools.

Marc’s book is well worth reading if you are a marketer because it is rich with stories about successfully running events, leveraging social media, and executing amazing marketing and sales. I like that their experiences provide confirmation that attendee networking leads to measurable improvements in event ROI.