Today, Saleforce takes the wraps off Chatter pilot program. After several months of testing with select customers, it is going into production for this group. We reviewed Chatter with SalesForce's VP of Corporate Strategy, Bruce Francis and SVP Product Marketing, Kraig Swensrud to find out what all the excitement was about.

Chatter has the goal of bringing the best of the social media tools to the enterprise, making enterprise sales as easy to use as Facebook or Twitter. With all of the buzz around privacy and social networking tools, it's refreshing to hear that these tools use a the same security models that the rest of SalesForce has built in to its platform.

Adding Collaboration to the SalesForce architecture

Chatter is a new module in the SalesForce architecture that takes advantage of the existing APIs and services, while providing rich collaboration features. "Collaboration as a Service" is now trending as a new category in the industry.

Adds Dialog to Existing Sales Flow

If you're used to using SalesForce today, you'll see new features embedded in your screen with Chatter, including the "What are you working on" box, which mimics the experience of posting status on Facebook or Twitter.

Similar to Twitter, Chatter users can team can add a hashtag to their post and create a new topic to share in the enterprise, inviting others to join them in dialog use the same hash. For those of you not familiar with the #hash, it is used to create a 'topic' that is known by individuals to increase the ability to search posts about the same topic. Learn more about the hash on Wikipedia.

We had questions about these features and whether the #hash would be robust enough to support enterprise sharing. In Twitter today, we see groups overwriting each other and having "hash overload". Will this happen in the enterprise? From our investigation, it seems that SalesForce has this figured out, and is adding more features in this area. We're not sure how yet these dynamic groupings will work alongside more static topics that may exist. This seems to be an area of opportunity for companies to build their own patterns.

Follow People, Documents, and Applications

Chatter supports setting up follower lists and teams and advanced permissions for supporting projects. In addition, a person can follow a document, or a record in a database. For example, a person may want to be apprised of all changes in a sales forecast document and have those changes piped to them in their feed. This feature follows the "like facebook" mantra that we've heard from the SalesForce product team, instead of the user going to the document, the updates are coming to them.

Dominic Shine, from Reed Exhibitions gave us some insight into why his company is a first-mover in the pilot program.

"Many of our employees use Facebook and/or LinkedIn or Twitter so are fairly familiar with the concept but we've never managed to get these to work internally properly. We are very enthusiastic about the concept of having that sort of functionality integrated with our sales and marketing processes and also as a more general purpose tool that will allow general social networking but also the ability to "follow" what is happening in processes or on platforms."

We still have a few questions about how easy this be for users to use the following mechanics correctly.

Will there be social blunders in the enterprise, where your favorite team member doesn't follow you back? Will employees "game" the system and follow everyone? These questions and more are some of the things we look forward to learning more about from customers as they proceed in their production roll out of Chatter.

We asked the SalesForce team about these questions. Kraig Swensrud, SVP Product Marketing shared his perspective on the design goal is for followers in Chatter:

  • It is designed to be less about popularity contest and more about the people who you need across company
  • The followers will represent the social graph of connections in a company
  • Will see custom "groups" of followers as a pattern around projects, sales leads, and business processes.
  • Trending topics. What are most followed documents, records, bringing the most valuable enterprise assets up to the top

We have additional questions that aren't yet answered. For example how it works to bridge Facebook and Twitter, and what it means for a Chatter user to "follow" a Twitter person (does the Twitter person know that they are considered a lead). So, to dig in a bit deeper we asked a few of the SalesForce customers their experience in setting up the tools during the first phase of testing, whether they are seeing any surprises. Here's what we heard so far:

Our question: What are your thoughts on how you promote "proper" following in your enterprise. Have you seen users do things that you wouldn't expect? Any social challenges or surprises?

James Sheppard, from Vetrazzo responded:

"Some gravitate to heavier use than others, as would be expected. I'm very pleased that many employees have stopped communicating the old fashioned way of "Broad CC" email and instead are turning to Chatter to both ask questions and share ideas and resources. It's too soon to call them "social patterns" perhaps, but I see real potential to have topic oriented conversations in a way that's far more intuitive and useful than email."

Dominic Shine, added:

"There's some natural interpretation about who to follow at first. But people have talked for years about how work really gets done through informal networks. The surprising thing about Chatter is that it's a simple way to for people to interact through those informal networks without chasing people. If someone is great at vendor negotiations, I follow that person. If someone is a superstar account rep, I follow that person. I can start to pick up and replicate their success through that collaboration. And, with Chatter, everyone can tailor it and its use for their own needs. I think we're starting to see, and will see more of, Chatter helping to "flatten" the organisation so that people at all levels of the organisation can collaborate around an issue, sale, product etc whereas the communication on these items can be hierarchical in organisations and there is frustration sometimes about slow communication or decision making up and down the hierarchy - Chatter can democratize that communication flow."

All in all, this seems like a great move by SalesForce. It is going to likely take some tweaking to get it perfect, but it seems on track to be a hit for SalesForce customers. Customers that we spoke to have been giving feedback on features that can be enhanced to meet their needs. And, to the credit of the SalesForce team, they are taking the time to get feedback and get it right.

The enterprise is becoming more social. Maybe soon you'll be able to tweet your way to a nice bonus, thanks to Salesforce and cloud computing.

Is your enterprise ready for social sharing and the power of Chatter?