There’s a fine line between inspiring and manipulating: Vala Afshar on the pursuit of social business excellence

Vala Afshar of Salesforce talks about his reasons for being bullish on India, his method to the madness that is social media, and of course, digital transformation.

The name Vala Afshar is enough. An influential martech voice, Vala bats consistently for digital transformation, customer trust, and social media good. He is also the Chief Digital Evangelist of global enterprise tech leader Salesforce.

Through the years, Vala has created a cult following on social media platforms Twitter and LinkedIn, and inspires millions with his bite-sized, easy-to-consume information with the intent to educate and inspire action.

A first-generation immigrant to the US, Vala considers himself an immigrant twice over.

“I am a digital immigrant,” he says in an exclusive online media roundtable interaction on Thursday, alluding to the fact that he grew up without a mobile phone and without internet.

Vala joined Salesforce in 2015 when the role of a chief digital evangelist was not really defined. He has gone on to carve out the role through trial and error, setting a benchmark for business leaders to follow. He co-hosts a weekly video series called Disrupt TV and his book The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence has received critical acclaim.

In the half-hour conversation, Vala talks about his reasons for being bullish about India, his method to the madness that is social media, and, of course, digital transformation and why the world will never be the same again.

Excerpts from the interview:

YourStory: It is a historic day for the startup ecosystem in India with Freshworks Nasdaq listing. What is your observation and how do you see the SaaS (software as a service) ecosystem evolve in India?

Vala Afshar: I wouldn’t be surprised to see more successful Indian companies go through with their IPO (in the coming days). Salesforce’s investments in startups, including in India, show our commitment to grow the Indian technology ecosystem.

In terms of mobility and the IT workforce, which is the largest in the world, India can be poised to lead the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution because of the heritage of IT infrastructure and service capabilities that exist. The last time I checked, which was in the middle of this year, there were 2,700 AI startups in India. Three years ago, that number was less than 400. I believe Salesforce’s success will be largely due to our work that is happening in India.

YS: What does your playbook for business leaders say about social media marketing?

VA: I’ll say it is the word trust. Trust means competence plus character (referring to Oxford lecturer Rachel Botsman’s book, Who Can You Trust). She further breaks down competence into capability and reliability. You have to demonstrate you are capable and you have to be reliable. Similarly, she breaks down character into integrity and benevolence. I love that word, benevolence. It means, what motivates you? What is your intent?

There is a fine line between inspiring and manipulating, and that line is defined by your intent.

So my intent when I share content is purely to educate and if I keep my fingers crossed, hopefully, it can lead to positive action. So if you are on social media, have a blog, a podcast, or anything that you are creating online, think of demonstrating competence, do it in a reliable way, and always with the highest integrity.

Talking about the trust crisis, unfortunately, social media has led to misinformation at scale. One of the reasons for this lack of trust is that people are not taking the time, care, or energy to figure out what they are consuming online is accurate. By the way, that does not mean everything I share is accurate, but the moment I find it is not, I delete it and apologise.

So my short answer to the question is if you are a decent person in life that will reflect on social. So take the time to share what you learn. That is what motivates me and gives me joy.

Q: Mckinsey's study says 80 percent of industries have begun their digital transformation journey but only about three percent have completed it. How has your view of the digital transformation changed over the last year?

VA: What COVID did was accelerate the (digital transformation) need from ‘nice-to-have' to ‘must-have’. We experienced a digital and cultural transformation accelerated by a decade. The cultural transformation was the realisation that employees can work from anywhere and still be productive. Many CEOs and business leaders did not think that was possible. And a good example of digital transformation will be ecommerce. Some countries have doubled the adoption of ecommerce.

This decentralised digital-only world that we lived in last year has now transformed into a decentralised digital-first mindset that has brought about an incredible change and massively impacted buying behaviour of consumers.

In fact, 60 percent of global consumers changed brands looking for better value, better availability, and quality. And the country that led the change in this consumer behaviour was India.

Ninety-one percent of consumers in India changed brands in 2020 for those reasons. In the US, it was 75 percent.

So you as a company need to recognise that the change has brought in more choices and voices. The growing adoption of the cloud is the result of this decentralised digital-first mindset. Research shows that cloud computing will be a major component of enterprise transformation. Today, 27 percent of digital transformation spend is on cloud computing and it is believed by 2026, it will be 37 percent.

An International Data Corporation (IDC) report states that in five years the companies in the Salesforce ecosystem will create $1.6 trillion of new revenue and as a result of growth in this ecosystem, we will see 9.3 million new jobs created in the Salesforce ecosystem.

This growth of revenue, partner success, and new jobs will have a profound impact on India as well.

Q: The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world. How to make trust an imperative?

VA: First of all, we need empathy. We need to listen more, be kind with our time, and be helpful because we are all struggling. This pandemic has impacted all of us. We are facing multiple crises. There’s the health crisis, economic crisis, sustainability/climate crisis (hurricanes, forest fires, floods, and more), and now because of work from home and the decentralised digital-first construct, we have a workforce crisis.

Talking to our customers and business partners, we see that only 15 percent of employees are coming back to the office. So these companies have to maintain the infrastructure for the same levels of productivity when the vast majority of employees are not coming back. We are witnessing great resignations and relocations. So all this added and including the inequality (women are twice as likely to lose their jobs in the pandemic), sacrifices that are being made today are not equal. A combination of these factors is, unfortunately, leading to a trust crisis.

So as business leaders how to gain trust with your stakeholders: number one, trust has to be your core value. Second, keep the customer at the centre of your decisions. Today, if I were to start a company, I would not be looking for a building or office space. Our largest acquisition this year was Slack. We believe Slack is a core technology needed to build a digital headquarters to stay engaged and be more productive and grow.

So the playbook of becoming a trusted enterprise is to keep trust as a core value, keep customers first, digital headquarters, health and safety of stakeholders, and take care of our planet.

It is very hard work to earn trust, but perhaps it is the most important success factor as an individual and as an organisation.

Q: In your book ‘The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence’, you talk about the importance of social media to retain market share and recruit the best talent as well. For customers, the role of personalisation makes a big difference. But today, in this hyper-personalised environment that we are in that is so competitive, how do you think this has changed and how can brands distinguish themselves?

VA: When I think of the internet revolution, today's most valuable companies are internet companies. Over time, the internet became social. I am a digital immigrant. I wasn’t born with a mobile phone with social networks and cloud applications. My 17-year-old son is a digital native. He is accessing information, fantasy sports, and gaming online. Brands need to realise that if they ever drift away from their brand promise, unlike any other time in history, they can be called out by their customers and stakeholders who know about their core values and guiding principles.

In this hyper-connected, digital-first social world, it is important that we recognise that it is our aptitude and our attitude that determine our success.

If you are good in life, you will be good on social media. Social is just a tool. Without the right culture, even the best tool may not help you achieve your goals.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai


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