Chatter.com sidesteps IT admins, encourages ad-hoc adoption

Salesforce.com’s decision to make Chatter free and launch Chatter.com in February is a bid to increase ad-hoc adoption of the social business collaboration network in the same style as Google Apps, according to the firm’s director of product marketing.

Salesforce released Chatter June 22 as a Facebook-style collaboration app to be used behind the corporate firewall. Connecting with the San Francisco-based company’s cloud-based customer relations management (CRM) service, users could broadcast what they were working on in status updates, share and update common files, and log work actions. For now, users still need the IT department to provision them an account, but that will change in February with the launch of Chatter.com.

Any employee at a company could use Chatter.com to create their own account for free. Once signed up, the company’s e-mail domain would be associated with Chatter’s network and all employees at the company could similarly create accounts and begin collaborating with the site. It’s a calculated move, says Salesforce’s Robin Daniels, director of product marketing.

Related Story: Chatter Mobile will make business more personal, says Salesforce exec

“The last couple of years show us that users want to be in power,” he says. “The whole model breaks down if you have to go through an IT person to do all of this.”

Chatter Free is already available for companies using Salesforce, meaning IT administrators can automatically provision users or invite employees to create their own accounts. Both Chatter Free and Chatter.com were announced at the firm’s Dreamforce conference last week. A Chatter Plus service will still be available for $15 per month, allowing users access to data from the CRM and Force.com.

The move is bait offered by Salesforce to get more potential customers on the hook, says Erin Traudt, research director of enterprise collaboration and social solutions at IDC Corp.

“Salesforce.com can help seed the market with their social software capabilities to encourage companies to try the functionality,” she says. “If users like the experience and would like more functionality, then they can upgrade to a fuller version of Chatter and then perhaps become a sales cloud, service cloud, or Force.com customer.”

London, Ont.-based Interactive Voices Inc. (Voices.com) already uses Chatter for all of its 15 employees and plans to soon use it to replace instant messaging entirely. The firm, which allows businesses to find voice-over talent online from its large database of actors, started with Chatter by using it like Facebook – posting status updates what what they were working on, but soon found a better way to collaborate.

“For us, it’s about documenting knowledge of an idea,” says David Ciccarelli, CEO of Voices.com. “Chatter shines when the conversation originates around an object, whether that’s a new sales lead, or even a support ticket.”

Still, there’s a couple of features Ciccarelli would like to see added to Chatter. Namely, the ability to send a direct message from one user to another and a capability to allow someone from outside your company to participate in Chatter.

The direct messages part is definitely coming soon, probably mid-next year, Daniels says. There will also be the addition of a “Like” button similar to Facebook’s thumbs-up icon. New analytics tools will help companies assess who their key contributors are.

But allowing outsiders into a company’s Chatter domain isn’t planned for release yet, the Salesforce director says. Chatter’s focus for now is to provide a secure workspace for a company to share internal information.

“It’s certainly something we’re looking into very heavily,” he says. “I hear that request all the time.”

Maintaining Chatter as an internal service is the responsible thing to do if it ensures better security, IDC’s Traudt says. “But it is an area that Salesforce is going to have to continue to evaluate as customers as for this capability.”

Bringing in an outsider to his company’s Chatter would similarly useful to sharing something on Google Docs, Ciccarelli says. He’d use the capability for some of his voice actors that will host Webcasts on Voices.com, to show them the progress being made on confirmed registrations to view the Webcast.

“It’s like giving someone a virtual tour of your business,” he says.

There’s two workarounds to allow non-employees into Chatter, Daniels says. Assign them an e-mail address that ends with your domain, or add that user’s e-mail domain into your account.

Brian Jackson is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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