How Salesforce Ohana Became One of the Strongest Case Studies for Effective Community Building

If you’ve visited San Francisco recently, chances are you’ve seen a glassy new skyscraper rising above the city. At 61 stories tall, the almost-finished Salesforce Tower will soon be the second-tallest building west of the Mississippi. Its namesake, the cloud computing company Salesforce, has made a profound impact on the tech industry in the less than two decades it has existed by aspiring to use business for social good—and expecting other tech companies to follow suit.

18 years after its founding, Salesforce remains an innovative organization. Over 6,600 employees fill its San Francisco offices. And from its workers to its customers and partners, Salesforce devotees exude drive, happiness, benevolence, and a solidarity and togetherness unique to the Salesforce culture. It’s the sort of organic, grassroots brand loyalty that most organizations can only dream of. So how exactly did Salesforce create such a thriving, healthy ecosystem of compassionate, involved, and loyal users?

Back To The Beginning: Dreaming Up the 1/1/1 Model

During his time at Oracle in the 1990s, founder and CEO of Salesforce, Marc Benioff, consistently cultivated a passion for philanthropy. After a sabbatical on Hawaii’s Big Island in 1997, he realized he didn’t need to sacrifice his love for business and work in order to do good. “There’s no reason why your business, your personal philanthropy, and your corporate philanthropy can’t be integrated,” he says. “On the contrary: If you can get all the wood behind one arrow, that’s how you’re going to increase your impact.”

Salesforce donates 1% of its software, 1% of its equity, and 1% of its employees’ time to give back to communities worldwide. Click To Tweet

When founding Salesforce two years later in 1999, that vision carried over. The Salesforce founders sought to establish an institutional philanthropic philosophy as a core part of their corporate DNA. A key component of that philosophy is the 1/1/1 model. As an organization, Salesforce donates 1% of its software, 1% of its equity, and 1% of its employees’ time to give back to communities worldwide. This unique social responsibility model has repeatedly earned them the distinction of “The World’s Most Innovative Company” from Forbes Magazine. In 2017, Fortune ranked Salesforce 20th on a list of the world’s most admired companies. It also topped a list of workplaces that give back.

Start from the Inside: Building The Salesforce Ohana Community Internally

But Salesforce does more than just contributing to charity; the organization has worked hard to create a company culture that transcends the workings of the business.

Enter the Salesforce Ohana community. Drawing inspiration from the Hawaiian concept of family—which includes both blood relatives, adopted members, and intentionally chosen connections—the Ohana community is a close-knit group of Salesforce devotees, both inside and outside the company. Salesforce describes Ohana as: “a deep-seated support group we nurture inside our company. And it doesn’t stop at our employees — it extends to our partners, customers, and members of the communities that we call home. We collaborate, take care of one another, have fun together, and work to leave the world a better place.”

To do so, the Ohana community seeks to embody its nine core values:

  • Trust
  • Customer Success
  • Growth
  • Innovation
  • Giving Back
  • Equality for All
  • Wellbeing
  • Transparency
  • Fun

In order to build a community around a product, it’s crucial that the community spirit you’re trying to build permeates internally. Salesforce Ohana does this incredibly well. The company institutes practical initiatives to reflect each value listed above. Equality for All, for example, spawned Ohana Groups—nine employee resource groups that provide communities for underrepresented identifies and their allies.

Equally important is that the company leadership leads by example, another thing Benioff has made sure of “For us in the Office of Equality, the number one priority where I spent [a quarter of my time] would be empowering our Ohana Groups,” Benioff comments. “Our Ohana Groups are the backbone and the muscle and the fiber that carries the company’s equality culture forward.”

Employees who want to feel the Salesforce Ohana spirit even have a dedicated physical place to do so. The Ohana Floor in Salesforce Tower is more than just a symbol of the company’s dedication to growing its community—it actively enables that community. With a fully open floor plan, the top floor of the building is completely devoid of sterile offices or conference rooms. Instead, the floor is a gathering place that hosts community-building, value-nurturing events. “We have gathered folks together a couple of times over the last few months inside the company to have an open space for people to express and process how they’re feeling and for people to listen to them, see them, and respect them in a way that is nonpartisan and in a way that respects all views,” says Benioff.

You don’t have to build an entire floor dedicated to your community in order for your employees to feel invested. Salesforce Ohana uses smaller traditions as well to help keep the sense of community alive. Every Friday, for example, community members don Hawaiian shirts. Sam B., a Business Development Representative at the company, explains why: “We’re remembering the early days of salesforce.com when the company was just a few people and a bunch of servers in an apartment. We’re reminding our teammates that even today, it’s possible to work hard and have fun at the same time. At the end of the day, they’re just shirts—but the shirts represent a history that I’m proud to support.”

Spreading the Spirit: Customers Are Salesforce Ohana, Too

Employee rituals and internal support groups are only one aspect of a thriving community. Any strong brand community must tap into your greatest advocates: your customers. Because Ohana includes intentional family, it extends to Salesforce customers. “While not everyone embraces the concept actively, they are still all part of Salesforce Ohana, and the family will step up and step in to help anyone in need,” says Sharon Klardie, Workato’s Salesforce Evangelist and a Salesforce MVP from New Hampshire.

Klardie explains that, in her mind, Ohana is embodied by selfless acts of kindness between total strangers. “I think of Salesforce Ohana as people who don’t know you at all lending a hand when a member of the community loses their house,” she explains.

This description certainly hits home for Nana Gregg, a Salesforce user who lost her home to a tornado in 2015. “Within a few hours of the destruction of our home, a community came together,” she recalls. “A community that spans oceans and borders. People I’d never met in real life. People who speak different languages. While we were still standing in front of our ruined home in the rain trying to figure out what to do next, the Ohana were putting out a call to action to help us.”

But the Ohana spirit isn’t limited to grand gestures of charity; it also plays out in smaller, more localized events within the Salesforce user community. “For example, lots of customers meet informally every weekend with other local Salesforce users to teach and to learn,” notes Klardie. Salesforce also runs a robust customer support community known as the Trailblazer community, where users can browse informational articles to self-help, seek assistance from others, and share best practices.

So how does a company build such a powerful, engaged community?

Erica Kuhl, VP of Community at Salesforce, says that treating customers like extended team members is crucial. “I built the Salesforce community intentionally,” she told CMX in 2014. “I knew I could never hire anyone fast enough or keep up with all the trends or channels popping up. We decided to tap into our most passionate advocates to become extended members of our team.”

Kuhl explains in the article that to inspire users to actively participate in a community, you have to understand their motivations. Why would unpaid customers work hard to advocate for a product or offer support to other users? One reason is that they want to be seen as knowledgeable and helpful, especially if they’re up for a promotion or work in a customer-facing field themselves, like consulting. Being an active community member, for them, is almost like a professional certification; it signals that they’re at the top of their game and working hard to stay there. Alternatively, they might want recognition for their work—which Salesforce offers in the form of special event access, networking perks, and badges they can display on social media.

In building their community, Salesforce successfully leveraged these two motivators. A great example is their Most Valuable Professional (MVP) program. Every year, Salesforce experts have the chance to be nominated MVPs. This designation brings with it a lot of responsibility—MVPs must demonstrably contribute to the community every year in order to have their status renewed—but also quite a few perks, like community recognition, premier product support, and networking events. Of course, most MVPs aren’t in it solely for the perks, but they’re Salesforce’s way of thanking those dedicated users for their work and support.

The company invested a lot into making the MVP status worthwhile for its members and the company. At the beginning of the MVP program, for example, members had to sign nondisclosure agreements because Salesforce would frequently consult with them on new ideas or projects. “We were giving them a seat at that table,” says Kuhl, “all based on the fact that the commonality of everyone in our community is our product.”

The key takeaway here is that to inspire your customers to invest in your community, you need to invest in them first. Instead of approaching them as outsiders or only customers, you need to see them as partners in community-building. If you approach them as valued equals—and reward them for their voluntary participation in building your brand—they’ll be more likely to contribute consistently.

Dreamforce: Where the Ohana Community Unites

Today, the Salesforce Ohana spirit is felt across the globe by 25,000 employees worldwide—plus partners and customers. And nowhere is the community more evident than at Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual conference.

In 2003, the first iteration of the conference took place in a small hotel ballroom in San Francisco. The company welcomed 1,300 attendees to the event, all of whom were itching to get their hands on what Salesforce had to offer. Fourteen years later, Dreamforce has grown into a breeding ground for innovation. In 2016, the conference welcomed over 171,000 people and featured a special performance from U2.

The key to Dreamforce’s growth? Leveraging the Salesforce community, of course! Salesforce Ohana community leaders are scattered throughout the conference with a desire to reach out and connect with other individuals who are keen to join the family. Whether you’re at a networking event, panel discussion, or afterparty, Salesforce wants you to make meaningful, lasting connections—not just with its products but with its people.

Likewise, events can be a powerful resource for community-builders of all stripes. Whether it’s a weekly coffee meetup or an annual holiday party, there’s nothing like bringing people together physically to inspire and unite them!

Bringing Ohana to Your Own Organization

Salesforce’s commitment to community offers a rare insight into successfully and intentionally building a company ethos. At Salesforce, culture isn’t just key; culture is king. But that culture has to be well-intentioned. If you’re cultivating it for the wrong reasons (like simply growing your brand), you’ll fail. Culture has to be grounded in a desire to do good—for your employees and your customers.

Attending Dreamforce? Connect with us at the conference, and be sure to read our tips for running a successful booth.