Salesforce.com has a pricing problem. They do a great job of positioning the roadmap of their platform as social and engaged with the customer. They've got some great features for engaging with customers -- ideas, answers, knowledgebase, communities, sites and Chatter. But with all these cool features, and despite all of their talk about bridging this connection, they've built a giant wall between these features and you taking advantage of them -- pricing.
The inherent problem with most of these features is that, in order to make them available and meaningful for your customers, what you really need is Salesforce.com's Customer Portal product. Salesforce customer portal product has been around for a long time. It is as it sounds, a way for your customers to be able to log in to a Salesforce window and for you to share unique information with them.
Historically speaking, Salesforce's pricing model for this service is to treat those customers as users and those portal visitors as seat licenses. Perhaps their strategy was to protect the pricing on their full priced CRM seats from some aspect of license cheating using Portal, but the cost of a customer portal seat license was expensive. As their customer engagement offerings have expanded and features have started to eat into customer portal functionality, Salesforce has opened up a new method of pricing -- a shared pool of logins, kind of like a family plan. In this way, you essentially pay per login for your customers to access the special content that you want to share with them.
Ironically, their overall pricing model reminds me of the one that Oracle uses to calculate your annual service and support costs.
Here's the problem with this model. First, if your just dipping your toe into implementing a customer portal, there is a steep entry cost. You need to make some sort of guess as to how many customers will use your portal and pay for that. Imagine your traffic to low and you're pricing sucks. Imagine your traffic too high and you're saddled with a massive annual boat anchor. Customer portal -- it's an exciting way to engage with your customers, unless your customers include your own internal finance group.
Common sense tells you there must be a better way. Common sense tells you that, until you reach a certain threshold of visitors in your community (and that number should probably be a lot), you probably want to just pay for certain features. When you go to the salad bar, you don't want to pay for the salad you build leaf by leaf, you just want to have a salad. And if the salad bar was part of a bigger meal, you'd probably also expect to pay less the salad bar than for the other parts of your meal.
The Solution is Out There
There are paths to make the platform you envision work. After searching for a while, I've come across a number of different possible solutions. Depending upon your requirements, there probably is an alternative. Surprisingly, if your requirements are to spend even more money, there are solutions for that as well.
In this case though, my real take home message is my complete and utter disappointment in Salesforce.com. Ultimately, I feel like all of the stuff that they've been pitching on their community capability is kind of a bait and switch. I would love to be able to manage all of this functionality from a single, integrated platform, to manage my community from within Salesforce, but when doing that costs more than having my sales team work with customers, I call that a FAIL.