Many organizations using or evaluating Salesforce or Convio’s Common Ground ask about “Chatter.” Salesforce calls the now-in-beta Chatter its “real-time collaboration cloud.” Trying to explain Chatter may be met with interest, skepticism or boredom. I suspect that over time, it will represent a change that will be attractive and mirrored in many contact and data systems.
Please bear with me in the comments that follow: I have used Chatter at conferences though no one we work with has taken part in the beta. Yet I have seen enough of it to recommend a close look for three reasons.
New options for organizing and present data
First, most people do get used to Salesforce's way of presenting information, its menus and data management pages have one standard look. Yes, the default interface has been Web 2.0 refreshed a bit this year, but the basic layout remains. The only way around this involves costly programming pages from scratch--doable yet reducing Salesforce's implementation advantages.
Chatter will immediately offer users an alternative interface for finding and viewing important data. And it will be the now pervasive interface of blogs and social networks. To me it means that a mix of senior staff and casual users especially will be able to find and follow organizations, projects, prospects as needed without the sense of using a database. I suspect they will like it.
Enabling users to Friend the contacts and projects you need to follow
Second, Chatter will give Salesforce users more control over their “favorites.” Salesforce search tools work well, with lots of options. And database admins can create views and profiles that give select users the lists they want. This is not the same level of individualized control that users of social networking sites have come to depend on. A core concept of Chatter is that you will be able to “friend” a donor prospect, a project you are interested in, a forthcoming event—or any other built-in or custom object you want to follow. It will be familiar and easy.
Like other database systems, Salesforce’s security and view/reporting tools are geared to specifying which categories of data I should check every week. Or they can easily restrict what data I cannot see because it sits outside of my domain. I suspect that the larger the organization or active database, the most users will take to the idea of selecting in a positive way the things they want to follow.
It may take some getting used to. I have been watching comments on the nonprofit Salesforce email list and know that some beta users, including folks I know and trust, have skepticism. I could be wrong, but once Chatter comes out of beta and there is more documentation and use cases for it, I suspect it will catch on.
Worth noting is an unpublished survey result from the Salesforce Foundation that close to 85% of nonprofit users report that it has significantly helped them improve internal team and staff collaboration. I’m not surprised there. It is one of the things that we find refreshingly easier to support than in other data systems. If this is true, then Chatter will give more options for what is attractive already.
Monitoring Public Social Media from the inside
Third, and last for me for now is the prospect of easier integration with public social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. I put this third because many nonprofits are wrestling with what level of integration they want to have with these services. Chatter is more about private means for managing staff and volunteer collaboration than about blurring the boundaries between public and private social networking.
Yet already some large companies are using add-ons to monitor and respond to social media threads within Salesforce. They can use these add-ons to improve their customer service or marketing channels. It gives them new options for tracking and responding to their customers and prospects.
I do wonder whether part of the reason why it is taking so long for Chatter to come out of beta has to do with challenges in figuring out what and how to make this public/private integration happen. We’ll have to see on this one, including how it will work for smaller organizations already struggling to find time to monitor social media. The important thing is not to conflate Chatter’s promise with the public social media.
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Still skeptical? Interestingly, though not as automatic as Chatter promises to be, thinking in blog or social media format works now as an architecture to present data in Drupal, and yes, it is attractive. It is also the natural groove for communication tools such as Basecamp or Central Desktop. It is what makes them relatively easy to promote for project management. I suspect that if Chatter catches on, other contact management systems will quickly offer similar features. I'm more interested in whether this is part of the reshaping of the shape of database architectures of the near future than whether Salesforce gets it right this summer. We’re all getting used to these interfaces, including as a way of compactly presenting data on mobile phones and such. When it arrives in a few months, Chatter will aim to, hmm, bite into all this.