Just Ask Stevie Wonder: It’s All Sunshine at Dreamforce

September 17, 2015 Mark Emmons

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SAN FRANCISCO – Not that you probably needed it, but here’s further evidence about the growing gravitational pull of the Dreamforce mega-conference. It now has the ability to change the lyrics of Grammy-winning hits from the 1970s.

Stevie Wonder took center stage on Wednesday to sing a couple of his classics including “You are the Sunshine of My Life.” Only to mark the occasion, he altered the words slightly, singing instead: “Dreamforce is the sunshine of my life.”

Oh, and did we mention that Stevie was only the warm-up act? He was getting the crowd primed for the main attraction of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff with the keynote address about the continuing expansion and evolution of his cloud-based business empire.

“This is the world’s largest enterprise ecosystem,” Benioff announced.

And it’s why his signature event has become, well, Dreamforce. Benioff justifiably could brag about the record 170,000 attendees at the 13th-annual gathering, with another 10 million viewing some portion of the four-day event online.

Dreamforce no longer can be confined in a box as being “just” a trade show. But even Salesforce executives struggle to describe a technology circus that temporarily devours the heart of San Francisco – spreading throughout 19 official venues and closing off an entire city block for a pedestrian mall.

“Dreamforce is the Grammys, TED and the World Economic Forum all rolled into one,” Salesforce executive Michael Peachey told Marketwatch.

Elizabeth Pinkham, who oversees the event, also tossed in a Woodstock comparison when interviewed by USA Today.

They could have added that there’s plenty of Las Vegas glitz here, too, with the countless happy hours and parties. You might as well mix in a dash of Comic-Con when you consider how many costumed company mascots were wandering around. And don’t forget the philanthropic emphasis as Salesforce collected books for kids, raised money for the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and invited non-profit organizations to learn how tech can help them as they assist others.

What’s clear is this has become a noisy celebration of the cloud-based economy. It’s the must-attend event for any company that does business in Salesforce – and that number continues to rise at a remarkable rate. Benioff repeated his prediction that Salesforce will be the world’s fourth-largest software company by next year.

“Dreamforce is big because Salesforce is the CRM with the most customers,” said Jon Miller, a Marketo co-founder who came to the conference to promote his new startup, Engagio. “But it’s not just that. You have so many partner companies who live and die with the Salesforce ecosystem, and they’re all here talking about themselves, too. So all of that gets amplified louder and louder, especially when you add in the ancillary things like the parties.”

But at some point it has to stop growing, right?

“I don’t know about that,” Miller added skeptically. “Not yet, anyway.”

In fact on the floor of the expo halls, a sea of humanity jostled its way through a maze of vendors, who were doing everything possible to catch the eye of conference attendees. Consider this: Dreamforce is so sprawling that there are strategically placed maps, like the kind you find at malls, to direct people.

“It’s a zoo,” agreed Gary Gerber, the head of product marketing at Conversica. “But this is important because our whole world is here, and we need to be noticed.”

That’s why Gerber and his team were decked out in decidedly un-tech clothes – overalls, checked-shirts and even straw hats. They were drawing a big crowd as they gave away a tablet device every hour.

“We just wanted to do something different, get a little attention and have a little fun,” said Garber, explaining how the “cherry-picker” theme works for a company that helps businesses identify their best sales leads. “Hopefully it serves a serious purpose because it’s giving us a chance to tell our story.”

Think of the expo halls as the place where marketing budgets come to die. Every company was giving away the usual knick-knacks of pens, squeeze toys and such. Cheap sunglasses also were popular. That figures considering the Salesforce world is so bright that you gotta wear shades.

Countless vendors had the same bright idea this year: Come talk to us for a chance to win an Apple Watch or a GoPro camera. One company was giving away a toy drone in exchange for a product demo. Apptus, the eCommerce firm, was dangling the chance to win a Tesla. (OK, a leased Tesla.)

But while there was a Maserati parked in the Accenture space (MSRP: $95,000), it was just there for show.

“We have beautiful flowers and candy, but no, we’re not raffling off the Maserati on Friday afternoon,” said an Accenture staffer with a smile.

Maybe the most innovative idea, though, came from advocate marketing company Influitive. It staged a very cool “Most Wanted” campaign where bounties were placed on the heads of B2B sales and marketing executives that Influitive really wanted to meet at Dreamforce. If those executives were “caught” and brought to the Influitive booth, the bounty hunter and desperado each received $50. The round-up concept was an ideal example of personalization techniques used in Accounted-Based Marketing.

The swag and cash, of course, was a lure to get people to listen to a quick sales pitch. Then, hopefully, that would lead to the question: “But what could you do for us?” The goal was to spark real conversations.

For all the flash and star-power – Patricia Arquette and Jessica Alba were part of Thursday’s Women’s Leadership Day agenda – it still all comes down to business. Companies came to promote their wares while others looked for new innovations. The 1,600 sessions were designed to share industry trends and learn more about the engineering that powers the system.

And as Benioff was touting the cloud economy Wednesday, real clouds began rolling into San Francisco. While it did sprinkle, nothing truly could rain on the Dreamforce parade.

As Stevie Wonder sang, it was all about the sunshine. Well, and maybe some cool free stuff, too.

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