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Salesforce Dreamforce 2020: Rebuilding tech conferences to be more inclusive, more global and more personal

Salesforce sees tech conferences of the future as truly hybrid in-person/digital events. Dreamforce to You 2020 will be a major step toward that future, if it succeeds.

Dreamforce is always a critical event for Salesforce. The cloud software company’s annual gathering is a time to showcase new products, highlight wins for the current year and outline strategy for the year ahead. Dreamforce 2020 however, will be more consequential for Salesforce than any event they’ve hosted in recent memory. Dreamforce to You 2020, as this year’s event is called, will be a bridge between the in-person-centric events of the past and a new hybrid digital/in-person event model Salesforce believes is the future.

“I think people are always going to want to get on planes and be together, said Karin Flores, SVP of Strategic Events at Salesforce, in an interview with TechRepublic. “But I, personally, and I know that our team and Salesforce, we’re excited about the future. We’re excited about a hybrid model because I think just like when I was talking about TDX and Dreamforce, there is sort of the inclusiveness that comes with virtual and with hybrid, where you’re really able to reach more people and make all this content and education available for everybody in a new way.”

I had a chance to talk with Flores about Salesforce’s efforts to build an online Dreamforce that wasn’t just a collection of streamed keynotes or video-on-demand (VOD) sessions, but a new experience tailored for a digital audience. During our conversation, Flores emphasized that Salesforce wanted to completely reimagine Dreamforce to be “everyone for anywhere.” Dreamforce to You 2020 is the culmination of that effort. The following is a transcript of my interview with Flores, edited for readability.

Dreamforce to You 2020 kicks off with a keynote hosted by Salesforce Chair and CEO Marc Benioff on Wednesday, December 2 at 9:30 a.m. PT. Between December 14-18, attendees will be able to participate in DreamTX, which is a multi-day series of sessions, demos and other online activities tailored to three geographic regions (Americas, Asia Pacific, and Europe).

Dreamforce to You 2020: All digital, more personal and more global

Bill Detwiler: So Dreamforce 2020, it’s going to be all digital this year as we’re dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. TrailheaDX earlier this year was all digital, so now we’re just taking what happened there and up-sizing it. How are you approaching Dreamforce 2020 this year?

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Image: Saleforce

Karin Flores: Yeah, absolutely. So this has definitely been an interesting year, and I’m glad you mentioned TrailheaDX, which was really one of the first large programs that we, just like everybody else, took totally virtual. And I think when I think about Salesforce, I think a lot of people really sort of connect us with Salesforce as a brand we’re known for our large in scale person events, our community, the passion that we bring, the fun that we bring, the education and networking and learning.

So us, like everybody else, struggled to really think about how we were going to pivot and TrailheaDX was such a great example. Here, we took our premier developer, community admin event and really had to think about, how are we going to get engaged? How are we going to continue this learning? And I know you had a chance to speak with Sarah Franklin earlier this year, but to me, one of the greatest sort of silver linings of this is really the inclusiveness that has come with the virtual platform and the virtual events. The barriers of travel, of cost, of time have sort of been alleviated. And with that, we’ve seen a surge in our attendance and especially in our global attendance and TrailheaDX was a great example of that.

So when we started to think about Dreamforce this year, it was really challenging. Again, here is sort of the crown jewel of Salesforce, it’s the epitome of our brand and who we are and what we stand for and bringing it to life in San Francisco, our community for all of our customers is something that the entire company rallies around. And I think we really started to think about Dreamforce for everyone for anywhere and those were really kind of the first seeds when we started to think about it, taking a lot of lessons learned from TDX and what they had accomplished.

And I think especially in the beginning, as we sort of went through the summer all of us together, I think there was a little Zoom fatigue, I think there was this sense of, how long is this going to go on for? But as time went on, we started to really think about, again, Dreamforce for anyone from anywhere, what are the things that really matter? And as we started to think about reimagining Dreamforce, I think we came down to three pillars that you see now.

One is smaller, personalized, customized content. What do our customers need to hear from us? Right now, they need us more than ever and we’re all about our customer’s success. Number two is really our Dreamforce keynote, really allowing Mark with our customers to tell their stories, to talk about what’s top of mind, share our product innovation. And then three is the deep learning set in a myriad of situations, right? Networking, community, hands-on.

So I think as we started to think about Dreamforce, those were really the three pillars that rose to the top. And I do think that those were born out of TrailheaDX.

Dreamforce to You 2020: All digital, more personal, more global

 Bill Detwiler: How is Dreamforce working this year?

Karin Flores: So it’s definitely new, it’s definitely different. So first and foremost, the way in which it’s working that I think is really exciting is that we have basically created Dreamforce to You, which we are personally customizing and delivering to all of our customers. And our AEs [account executives] who are incredible are spending the time doing discovery, talking to their customers, what’s top of mind? We’re also sharing what’s top of mind for us, our global pandemic operating model, how some of our customers are thriving and succeeding in this environment and really thinking about their digital transformation. So, first and foremost, that is what I think has changed the most and how it’s working.

You’ll see next week we’ll be doing our Dreamforce keynote. It’s incredible. I’ve seen it. Mark and the entire team are bringing incredible stories of customer success which they’re going to share with Bentley, with Rhode Island, with the State of Rhode Island and with AT&T. So you’ll see those next week. And then with the learning, it’s a little bit different. With Dreamforce, we used to come together for five days over 2000 sessions, and this year we’re bringing five broadcast channels with content, but we’re doing a follow-the-sun model so you’ll be able to watch DreamTX in your own time zone with your local MCs guiding you through. So definitely some differences and a new approach this year.

Salesforce Dreamforce to You 2020 keynote

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Salesforce Dreamforce to You 2020 keynote

Bill Detwiler: Can anyone register for Dreamforce 2020? So unlike in previous years where there was obviously, as you mentioned, travel involved in coming to San Francisco, a fee involved for actually attending the conference, going onto the show floor, getting into the sessions as there are with every big tech conference, so how does it work for the attendee this year?

Karin Flores: So there is no fee to attend Dreamforce and really those three pillar events. So if you go to, you can sign up and you can attend the keynote, you can attend DreamTX, you can attend all of the sessions. So we absolutely made the decision this year that this was not the year for us to think about charging a fee, and absolutely meaning no disrespect for those who decided to do that, but we just really knew that we had to show up for our customers and continue to provide content, education, and learning. So everyone is welcome at Dreamforce and also Dreamforce in your own time zone. So we’re definitely taking the follow-the-sun global approach, but absolutely everyone could sign up and there’s no charge. Dreamforce for everyone.

SEE: How Salesforce plans to make virtual TrailheaDX 2020 a better, more meaningful tech conference (TechRepublic)

Bill Detwiler: How have your goals for the conference changed this year versus in the past?

Karin Flores: So that’s a really interesting and a great question, because I think I can answer that really two ways. In some ways our goals have not changed, right? Dreamforce has always been about inspiration. It’s been about education. It’s been about our community. It’s been about sharing our product innovation and showcasing our values. And I don’t think that’s changed. I think that’s even more pronounced than ever in the way that we’re going to show up.

I think what has changed is we’ve had to really rethink our content to what’s most relevant now, right? The world has changed and we talk about this a lot and Mark talks about this a lot is that we’ve opened a door and gone through it and we’re not looking back and we need to think, all of us, need to think about our digital transformation. And we have the tools to help our customers get there and keep moving forward. So I think that is one of the biggest ways that our approach has changed, right? It has to be relevant content that’s relevant right now in 2020. And that content is different than it’s ever been before.

And, I think the second way is the personalized experiences. We knew that we had to make it as easy for our customers as possible. We need to bring what is most relevant to them in the moment that they need it. So while the core pillars of Dreamforce haven’t changed and they never will, there are definitely nuances that of course would have to change because 2020 is quite unlike any year we’ve ever had before.

Building a platform for virtual professional networking

Bill Detwiler: So one of the things that was always really special about Dreamforce and a lot of conferences is the networking aspect of it, those face-to-face meetings, those hallway conversations, meeting people from around the country, around the world. How are you trying to replicate that virtually this year?

Karin Flores: Yeah. To me, that is one of the biggest challenges of virtual. And even when we think towards the future of hybrid, right? And I think that I and our team, we think of it in a couple of different ways. I don’t think you can replicate it, right? It would never be the same as you, Bill and I sitting down and having this conversation over a cup of coffee at Starbucks, but I do think there are ways in which people are engaging and I think these small personalized programs are really one of the ways in which we’re solving for that. I do a lot of customer meetings with six, seven customers at a time where we’re sharing, we’re sharing the struggles that we’re going through, we’re sharing how we are solving all those problems. And those, I think, are the moments that are starting to maybe not replicate, but a new way of us connecting. So I think you’ll see that in Dreamforce.

And then of course on the platforms, we’re implementing different ways for people to network and chat and have private rooms. But I really think as a team we’re trying to not lift and shift, again, it’s not replicating, how do we rethink it? How do we connect? And then how do we connect in the future, right? When we move into this hybrid model that we think will kind of set the path forward.

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Bill Detwiler: And you had an experiment with TrailheaDX this year that you talked about the learning experiences that you could bring from that over to Dreamforce. What were some of the points of feedback that participants in TrailheaDX this year gave you that you incorporated into Dreamforce?

Karin Flores: Yeah, so we are so lucky that the Trailhead community are so active, so engaging. I mean, you just really could not honestly ask for a better community who give awesome feedback, who participate. And I think we heard a couple of different things. Number one more content. Number two, on the plus side, access for everybody, this is great. We saw thousands of people register for TrailheaDX after the conference was closed, just so they could go back and engage with the content. That to me was a huge silver lining right there.

Global, again, that’s one of the reasons we’re implementing the follow-the-sun model. It was such an easier way for people to participate in TDX. So we had this like take off your US blinders, we really have to think about this global. So absolutely that follow-the-sun model was direct feedback from our TDX community. And sort of what you were talking about, that networking connection fun piece. And nobody does fun better than Trailhead. And so you’ll see a lot of different activities that we’re going to be doing at DreamTX, and I don’t want to give everything away, but different ways that we are getting people to engage, maybe things like virtual scavenger hunts, but all of these programs are really meant to allow people to not only take a little break, have a little bit of fun, but communicate, network and connect with each other.

Hybrid events will be the new normal for tech conferences

Bill Detwiler: So you alluded to this earlier, and I think it’s a great place to kind of wrap up, which is the future of these events. You talked about a hybrid nature, and I think it’s a really important point, which is, this is an often overused phrase, which is the new normal. I’ve been in the tech industry for 20 years now and before that I was an IT pro myself, so we’ve heard new normal over and over and over whether it was sort of the pervasive workplace of the early two thousands and mid nineties, whether it was internet 2.0 or whatever it is, there’s always a new normal. But something does feel a little different this time, especially around digital transformation as we look at how sort of communication interaction is changing with COVID. I’m sure we’ll go back to getting on airplanes, having those face to face meetings, but there does seem to be a shift or an acknowledgement that we are at an inflection point. How is that translating, do you think, or will translate into events like Dreamforce 2021, 2022, 2023?

Karin Flores: Yeah. I think that the phrase, the new normal, I like to think of it now as we’re moving forward, we are on a fast cycle, we are moving forward. I don’t think we’ll ever work the way that we used to. And I think that’s okay. I think there’s a lot of lessons being learned about how we actually can learn in a virtual environment. There’s a lot of pros to that. Look at what we’re doing for the environment. I think people are always going to want to get on planes and be together. But I, personally, and I know that our team and Salesforce, we’re excited about the future. We’re excited about a hybrid model because I think just like when I was talking about TDX and Dreamforce, there is sort of the inclusiveness that comes with virtual and with hybrid, where you’re really able to reach more people and make all this content and education available for everybody in a new way.

And I think that perhaps gone are the days when everybody’s in an office and we might see it more remote and I anticipate that we’re going to see that. So I think that we have to think about, how are we going to develop and grow and move forward? And I absolutely believe that hybrid is the model. And I believe that hybrid is the right model. I believe it’s going to be the right model for the way in which we’re going to work and from a digital standpoint, the way that people are to consume their information, right?

I think that you’ll see companies who may be in the past could only afford from their budgets to send two or three people to a conference and now with a hybrid model, it’s like, great, we can open this up and 50 people have access to all this education, all this hands-on learning. So I think there’s this sort of democracy that’s going to come with hybrid that’s really, really exciting. And I think the reach, and I think the ability to go global and search faster is the future. And I know that we always say this, I know I mentioned it, we’ve gone through a door, we’re going forward. We’re not looking back, we’re looking forward.

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