Tuesday, May 4, 2010

User-Generated Content as the Platform: Thoughts about Salesforce.com's Acquisition of Jigsaw

On one level the recent $142 million acquisition of the Jigsaw online business information service by software-as-a-service vendor Salesforce.com is a no-brainer. Salesforce.com's AppExchange has featured Jigsaw's Prospector app as a highly rated option for people wanting to integrate fresh contact and company information into their Salesforce marketing data. While other business information providers such as Hoover's, OneSource and InsideView have also been aggressive with providing Salesforce content integration, Jigsaw stood out as an up-and-comer with a rapidly deepening database of content that is now refreshed regularly both from its online community of professionals and from enterprises using its feed-oriented data cleansing services.

Given that Jigsaw's business model emphasizes content sharing as a means to generating quality data, being able to facilitate that sharing via Salesforce's rapidly expanding base of sales and marketing-oriented customers gives Salesforce some very interesting advantages. Professionals using Salesforce.com for contact management are adding new contacts regularly. Being able to both harvest and supply those updates as part of a database drawn from Jigsaw in a more integrated service can enable Salesforce.com to become a business data powerhouse in its own right, underscoring its "solutions, not software" sales theme quite handily. Certainly Salesforce.com intends to remain a "friendly" with major business information suppliers, as underscored by its decision to have Jigsaw stand as a separately held company for now. By the same token, the success that business information suppliers have had with Salesforce integrations continues to be one of their best entry points into user-driven revenues that are tightly bound with a workflow-oriented Web platform that's driving productivity in enterprises of all sizes.

But as with its budding social media efforts, Salesforce.com is perhaps acknowledging in its Jigsaw acquisition that to some degree content itself is the platform that will drive its future growth. SaaS is seeing widening acceptance in many enterprises, but enterprise-oriented business information suppliers have been in the SaaS business for many years in a sense, providing tools that are targeted increasingly at integrating their premium data sources into enterprise workflows. In fact, if you look at major enterprise content technology plays, many that rely on end-user applications, either on or off the Web "cloud," are stalling in their growth for lack of unique and regularly refreshed content from relevant sources that's an integral part of their services. Enterprise-oriented content technologies are in many ways very mature at this point, turning the advantage to those that can leverage them to deliver new content and new types of content services more rapidly than their competitors. Thinking of the Mark Logic user conference that I am attending this week, their XML database and query technologies enable their clients to develop content clouds very rapidly from any number of content sources. While the Mark Logic "glue" is very important in its own right, it is its ability to present well-formatted content for any number of display applications that is the essence of its platform value.

The "glue" from a Jigsaw perspective is its users, both those using the service directly and those feeding in updates via enterprise-supplied feeds. I find myself speaking increasingly with clients and other professionals about owning user profiles as a key ingredient in generating content value. While networking with other services' user profile logins can accelerate the use of an information service, being able to activate people using your platform to be suppliers as well as consumers of high-quality content creates both content and a networking effect that can generate unique value that's expressed both in data quality and customer retention. Salesforce.com sees this in a rudimentary way with its new Chatter online collaboration service, but it's a model that's been proven in the financial industry for decades based on contributions of private deals and securities quotes on vendor networks with private logins.

So who will get to the users first to "own" the user-generated content platform, the technology platform providers or the information companies? It's a footrace, to be sure, since both are focusing intently on many of the same customer requirements. At this point, though, you have to give somewhat of an edge to companies like Salesforce.com and Jigsaw that have a more agnostic view of what constitutes quality content for enterprises. Often traditional publishers are far less of the "quality is as quality does" mindset, with legacy operations oriented towards content packaging that may not be moved easily into focusing on locking down content assets contributed by their audiences, either directly via services like Jigsaw or indirectly via the usage data that they provide. But this will vary quite a bit from one marketplace to another. With a "horizontal" focus on business roles found in many different types of companies, Salesforce.com can "own" the content platform more easily than in vertical markets that have dominant sector-specific content technology providers.

Still, the general trend seems to be towards a new middle ground between enterprise content and technology providers providing whatever it takes to get people to use their platform as the primary place where they provide important information about their areas of expertise. You need not call it "social media" or "user-generated content" if these phrases make you squeamish; you can think of it simply as a new way to "own" a unique relationship with your clients that can lead to subscription contract renewal lock-ins that will be very hard to dislodge. Or, in the instance of Jigsaw, it can even lead to new incremental business models that can turn usage into self-service sales far more pervasively and rapidly. Whatever the label or the method, you have to take you hats off to honor Salesforce.com for locking in a key growing content resource. In the battle to own highly valuable content generated by business professionals around the world, score one for the platform.
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