Another Plea for Plain English!

Yesterday, I was listening to NPR’s Here and Now at lunch time while running a few errands in my car. I tuned into a great story about the “Plain English Campaign”, which was founded in 1979 by now 71-year old Chrissie Maher.  The organization’s mission is to campaign against “gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information.”

Host Robin Young and Ms. Maher shared a lot of interesting statistics on how organizations from the Veteran’s Administration, the Navy, the FAA to General Electric have saved time, money and even lives by rewriting documentation and other materials in clear, simple language instead of a lot of jargon and babble. The two used terminology favored in the financial services industry to illustrate how complicated, contrived, dense language makes financial documents so difficult to understand—and probably contributed to the economic meltdown.

Hmmm…I thought, the technology industry suffers from this too. But my overall impression is that as an industry, we are communicating more clearly than we have in the past. Sadly when I got home, I realized we may have further to go than I thought, as I opened a press release for “New Adobe Flash Builder for Force.com Increases Developer Productivity for Creating Rich Internet Applications in the Cloud” in my inbox. The first paragraph reads as follows:

SAN FRANCISCO – October 26, 2009 – Salesforce.com [NYSE: CRM], the enterprise cloud computing company, and Adobe Systems Incorporated [NYSE: ADBE], today announced the availability of a new offering that unites the power of the Force.com platform with the richness and ubiquity of the Adobe® Flash® Platform to enable a new generation of cloud-based rich Internet applications (RIAs).  The new offering, Adobe® Flash® Builder™ for Force.com, integrates the two platforms to bring the richness of the consumer Web to enterprise cloud applications to enable a significantly improved level of developer productivity.

Whoa—translation, please! I think that the release is saying that these two vendors are teaming up to make it easier for developers to write cooler, more interactive Internet applications. But what was the person (or people) that wrote this thinking–or drinking—when they came up with that? Between “power of the Force”, the cloud, the flashes, the RIAs and the rest of the hot air, they’ve made it unnecessarily complex to sort through. You might even think this was an alliance between different empires in Star Wars, instead of two technology companies.

Believe me, I understand that it very tough to break down complex, technical things into understandable terms. And of course, it can be hard to resist trying to make all this stuff sound (more?) exciting. I’m setting up an RSS link to the Plain English site as another reminder to always at least try to demystify the technology solutions I’m writing about, instead of making them harder to understand.

PDFSalesLeads-A Clever Solution to the Pesky .PDF Problem

In our industry, vendors spend a lot of time and money developing white papers to educate prospects about new technologies. White papers that are well-researched and clearly written can help explain the value of  new or complex solutions to the audiences that can potentially benefit from them.

Of course, vendors also want to generate qualified sales leads from their white papers. But when it comes to tracking and measuring how well they actually perform in terms lead generation, many marketers find themselves in a quandary. After publishing a white paper in an Adobe .pdf file, do you gate access to the paper by requiring people to fill out one of those annoying registration forms (and risk losing the reader), or do you just put the document up without a registration gate, and  leave it to chance that prospects will contact you on their own?

Last week, Vitrium briefed me on it’s new solution, PDFSalesLeads, which I think will give both vendors and Web surfers a happy medium. With PDFSalesLeads, you can embed a registration form anywhere in your .pdf document, so that the reader can take a look at the information first, and   then decide if they want to register and receive more information or be contacted.

The software-as-a-service (SaaS) based solution comes with 8 standard registration questions, you can use as few or as many of these as you like. You can embed the form in 5 steps, which the site guides you through. Pricing is $49/month, for an unlimited number of documents and leads.

One of the things I really like about this solution is that  there is a skip button. So if a reader doesn’t want to fill out the form, they don’t have to. This is great for people like me, who are often doing secondary research–not shopping. And actually, this should save vendors time and money  too when you think about it. I can’t even count the number of sales calls and emails I’ve gotten from downloading .pdfs for things that  I’m really not  a prospect for. So while marketers may get fewer leads, they should be better quality leads.

Another cool thing about the solution is that the embedded registration form stays with the .pdf. So as the .pdf gets circulated around via email, subsequent recipients can register if they want to, giving you the potential to capture these viral leads.

Vitrium is also developing an on-premise, enterprise version for companies that want to run it internally, but they are going to prove it out and work kinks in the SaaS environment. The enterprise version will have features for batch file loads, and system to system integration with CRM systems.  Vitrium will likely also find a market for this with white paper aggregators, such as Ziff-Davis or TechTarget, who can offer the service and manage leads for their clients.

Workingpoint’s New Twist on SaaS Pricing for Small Businesses

In a post earlier this month, I raised the issue that SaaS vendors targeting small businesses need to start experimenting with different pricing options if they want to create a true volume market for their solutions (Prescription for Subscription Fatigue? Time for New SaaS Pricing Models). While per user, per month pricing has become the norm in the SaaS world, monthly fees can add up quickly for small businesses–and at a certain point, individuals and decision makers in small businesses balk at forking out for another subscription.

Last week, Tate Holt, CEO of Workingpoint (http://www.workingpoint.com) gave me a briefing and demo on their solution. In case you’re not familiar with Workingpoint, the company was previously called Netbooks, but they have scrapped that name, along with the old Netbooks product. Workingpoint is built on new code and sports a much cleaner, easier to use UI than it’s predecessor. The solution provides small businesses with a business management solution that includes accounting, contact management, expense tracking, dashboard and reporting–along with some other neat things, such as— a profile page to create a one-page starter Web site to get indexed on the Web.

Workingpoint has come up with a new twist on SaaS pricing that is worth taking a look at. The vendor’s strategy is to offer small businesses “a compelling free product without a time limit with compelling reasons to upgrade”. The first user subscription is free “forever”.

This in itself isn’t that unique; several vendors offer a free seat or two. However, Workingpoint charges one flat fee that covers both additional users and premium services–kind of like a buffet. For $10 per month, you can register as many additional users as you need. So whether you add 1 user, or 5 more, you’re covered with that one, $10 per month charge. —In addition, the flat  $10 per month fee will also give the small business access to use many of Workingpoint’s planned premium features, such as banking integration, Web store integration, and mapping service for Schedule C Level tax reporting.

To make this business model work, Workingpoint needs to convert about 25 percent of its users to the paid model. After formally launching the solution in July, the company has taken it’s first baby steps towards this goal, signing up its first paying customers this month. It will be very interesting to monitor Workingpoint’s progress and see if it can make this alternative pricing model work–both for small businesses, and for itself.

FinancialForce: A New Force in Cloud-based Accounting

Last week, Unit 4 Aggresso, parent company of CODA, announced that it has teamed up with Salesforce.com to launch FinancialForce.com. FinancialForce.com is actually Coda2Go, the cloud based accounting application that CODA built from the ground up on the Force.com platform, and sold through AppExchange. The deal pushes FinancialForce into the spotlight as a poster child for Force.com, and underscores Salesforce’s determination to break down the barriers that have kept companies from running their accounting and financial applications in the cloud.

But how much will this move the needle for cloud-based accounting–which has never been able to gain the kind of market momentum that cloud CRM has enjoyed? There are many reasons for the gap, but mostly because the financials/accounting function is a very different than CRM. In comparison to CRM, accounting solutions usually serve a much smaller, more bounded set of users. CRM users typically span several line of business areas, from sales to marketing to customer service, while accounting users reside primarily in the financials area. CRM users are more likely to be geographically dispersed and mobile, whereas accounting users are usually located in headquarters or major branch or divisional locations. In addition, those financial types have a reputation for being pretty set in their ways.

And, let’s face it, it’s not like cloud-based financial solutions are anything new. NetSuite (which launched as NetLedger in 1998) has actually been around a year or so longer than Salesforce. Intacct, Intuit QuickBooks Online, and several lesser-known companies including Workingpoint, Clarity, Less Accounting, Freshbooks and others offer cloud-based financials aimed at small and midsized businesses.  These players have made some headway—especially in the SOHO space—but the vast majority of companies still choose to deploy traditional, on premise accounting solutions. In comparison, close to half of all new CRM deployments are cloud-based.

However, with the formation of FinancialForce, Salesforce is now bringing its considerable marketing clout and savvy into the ring. While Salesforce.com’s stake in FinancialForce is undisclosed, my call with Jeremy Roche, Coda2Go CEO, who will continue in the helm at Financial Force, leads me to conclude that the investment and alliance is considerable:

  • FinancialForce has opened a new headquarters location in Salesforce.com’s incubator building, supplementing existing offices in Manchester New Hampshire and Harrogate, England.
  • FinancialForce is earmarking a good chunk of the Salesforce investment to aggressively ramp up its sales personnel and initiatives.
  • The two companies are using Salesforce.com’s service cloud to link their support systems, and Salesforce will provide front line support for FinancialForce.com customers. This will enable  FinancialForce to scale quickly to support all the new customers that they expect to gain from the expanded sales team and the fresh cache of the Salesforce association.

I believe that financials and accounting will never be as obvious a choice for cloud computing as CRM, collaboration and other applications that need to serve a bigger, more diverse and more mobile set of users. However, this new venture will bring cloud-based financials into more frequent and serious consideration for more customers—especially as Gen Y/Millenial workers replace retiring baby boomers and Gen-Xers. Salesforce has more marketing DNA than any other B2B company that I can think of, and a large, growing user base that it can prime for FinancialForce. It can appeal to CEOs with a message of tight integration between the two solutions on Force.com and in the Service Cloud, and reassure CFOs with CODA’s 30 year of financials experience.

In fact, as it’s done in the CRM arena, Salesforce will create a rising tide that will lift the boats of other cloud-based financials vendors as well.  After all, FinancialForce won’t be the best fit for every company, but Salesforce will do what it does best—and get more people interested in considering the cloud-based option. As the tide rises, vendors of traditional, customer premise financial software—particularly in the small and medium business markets—will face more pressure to rethink re-think their cloud strategies—or lack of them.

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