The core of the Communities offering is the Salesforce platform -- and all the sales, service and marketing content and activities organizations run on it -- and Salesforce Chatter, the microblogging feed that enables people, processes and even products to communicate. But Communities are greater than the sum of their parts, such that Salesforce.com is proclaiming "the end of legacy portal software."
From Salesforce.com's perspective, there's no longer a need for separate, transactional partner and customer portals, each creating separate copies of customer and partner records and separate sales and service cases to manage. Ditto separate collaborative systems built to foster conversation, "but disconnected from the business," according to Salesforce.
With Communities, the theory is that you can build transactional, collaborative and mobile-device-ready experiences for business partners and consumers all on the same information available in (and feeding new transactions and conversations back into) the Salesforce.com Sales, Service and Marketing Clouds.
[ Want more on the Salesforce.com's new strategy? Read Salesforce.com's New Message: It's The Customer, Stupid. ]
"The next generation of enterprise apps are social with business data embedded at the core and accessible from any device," said Alex Dayon, Salesforce.com's president of applications and platform in a statement.
Salesforce.com isn't the only company looking beyond the confines of current product capabilities. SAP, Oracle, Infor and Microsoft are all working on the blend of CRM, social, collaboration and mobile. Salesforce.com was out ahead of this bunch when it announced Communities last August, but they're still not quite market ready. The company now says Communities will be delivered in the Summer '13 release (expected in June) and will cost $500 per community, per month (another example of why customers are switching to all-you-can-eat enterprise licensing).
Within Communities for Sales, companies will connect with distributors, resellers and suppliers, exposing sales channel analytics, sharing leads and registrations, and connecting experts inside the company with partners looking to improve product understanding and sales. Within Communities for Service, customers can expose knowledge bases, support options, and internal and community expertise.
Communities for Marketing support collaboration with agencies and creative teams, speeding approvals, ensuring version control and enforcing adherence to branding guidelines. Marketers could also mine insights from sales and service communities to get a better handle on what's selling, what customers are complaining about and what customers are asking for that might lead to the development of a breakthrough product.
Many of the bits and pieces of Communities -- Chatter, Chatter Answers, the Salesforce platform, etc. -- have been around for a while, but Salesforce is extending certain capabilities to enhance the community experience. Branding capabilities and access controls, for example, need to be robust to ensure that only the right information is exposed to the right constituent. What you would expose in a partner community, for example, would be very different than what you would expose to a customer community. And within each of those communities, you might need to be very selective about what you expose to and about community members as partner resellers, for example, are often competitors.
Participants in the Salesforce Communities beta program have included The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), General Electric, French liquor manufacturer Pernod Ricard and the World Economic Forum. The FDA is piloting multiple Salesforce applications with the goal of providing better customer service, developing expert networks, harnessing the power of social media and "creating a better FDA-Industry engagement model," according to Anjali Kataria, Sr. Technology Advisor at the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health.
The Communities functionality is being tested as a way to streamline drug and device approval processes. "We've made significant progress and see a number of benefits," Kataria told InformationWeek in an email interview. "At the same time we are proceeding with appropriate caution as we explore and test performance, security and other aspects of Salesforce as well as other cloud solutions."
Communities look particularly promising for greenfield deployments, but it's unlikely companies with legacy portals, collaborative platforms and knowledge bases will quickly rip and replace. To that extent, it may only be the beginning of the end of the portal era, as old silos of information hang on.