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Planning and Building Salesforce Integration in Drupal

While I couldn’t make it to Drupalcon Barcelona last week, I insisted on giving a presentation somewhere. Forum One let me do it as a webinar: Planning and Building Salesforce Integration. There are some truly wonderful tools for integrating Salesforce with Drupal out there, but the tricky part is planning, documenting, and estimating the task.

My webinar presentation doesn’t cover the basics of Salesforce or Drupal. Rather, it is tailored for a certain (basic) level of knowledge about both systems: what they are, how to set them up, and the basic data models. It covers the toolset you need, its strengths and weaknesses, how to plan an integration, and what kind of amazing cool stuff you can do if you’re smart about it.

Salesforce is an extremely powerful CRM platform, and that includes options for external integrations. There are two different APIs available, but basically all you need to do is wrap requests in an OAuth2 session, and query the Salesforce data with their own query language, SOQL.

That said, I would never send you off to go and write totally custom integration code. There’s already a fantastic suite of modules written for Drupal that provide this base functionality and more: the Salesforce Suite. The Suite is actually a set of 5 modules, providing an OAuth2 wrapper and SOQL query builder, two different ways to connect to Salesforce, an interface to map Salesforce objects to Drupal objects, and separate modules for both pushing data into Salesforce, and pulling data from it. It’s a pretty complete package, and it is an excellent base for even highly-customized integrations.

Out of the box, the Salesforce Suite also does an excellent job of direct, 1:1 mappings between Salesforce Objects and Drupal entities. It schedules and queues synchronizations well, and offers a lot of hooks to help with your custom development. When you’re planning your integration, you have to look out for “red flags” that will help you estimate:

  • Conceptual objects in Drupal that are actually made of two or more Entities, e.g., users with their profile2 objects.
  • Modules that don’t store their data in entities, e.g., the Webform module.
  • A wide variety of different types of fields. Many fields actually need some translation between Drupal and Salesforce, and you will have to provide that yourself.

Very often, custom code is the best way to augment the synchronization that you’ve built in the Drupal UI. The following are some of my favorite examples:

  • Salesforce stores country names in a non-ISO format. If you’re syncing to a Drupal location field, you will have to do a little bit of translating.
  • Salesforce booleans (checkboxes) are stored differently from Drupal booleans.Again, a little bit of translation is required.
  • Salesforce doesn’t have the same validation rules as Drupal, e.g., Salesforce Contacts are not required to have an email address, but Drupal users are.

All this by way of saying that custom code is almost always required for an integration to go smoothly. It doesn’t have to be complicated code, but it is there.

With all this in mind, I recommend planning your integration around use cases and user stories for both systems. We paint a picture of the people who will be using both the Drupal and Salesforce sides of this, and what information they want to have readily available. In most cases it boils down to a long list of objects and fields to integrate. You can use this list to estimate based on the number of different field types, number of 1:many object mappings, etc. You can also use it to consider large-scale architectural options, like the decision to install the Redhen Drupal CRM to map all your data into these entities, and then sync from there.

Another important question (brought up by a participant during the live broadcast) is whether to keep your data customizations in custom Salesforce fields, or in Drupal custom code. Salesforce allows you to create custom fields that are filled automatically according to rules that you configure. So that country name problem I mentioned above could be solved by syncing Drupal with a custom Salesforce field that translates the names for you. That saves you the trouble of coding in Drupal, which otherwise seems like it would be hard to maintain. As a general policy I prefer to keep “code-like” customizations in the site’s codebase, where I can then easily find them in case of a problem or change. It can save serious headaches down the road! For those of you who are more comfortable in Salesforce, however, the same reasoning might push you towards the opposite decision. You should take the route that seems the most maintainable to you, and not worry about what some guy on the Internet said in a blog post.

The webinar also includes a quick walkthrough of a simple integration between Drupal and Salesforce, synchronizing users and contacts. We right away run into some of those very predictable problems that our estimation process was designed to root out, and we talk about how to solve them.

My favorite part of the presentation (if I do say so myself!) is the “blue sky” section near the end. Salesforce and Drupal are each incredibly powerful, flexible platforms on their own, and so I really enjoy coming up with cool ways to have them magnify each others’ power. Some fun ones:

  • If you include Salesforce data in Drupal user objects, you can do A/B testing in Drupal based on peoples’ engagement in other channels.
  • You can tag users in your analytics package based on their Salesforce profiles. Imagine a special analytics report of how your donors behave on the site, or simply people who opened the last newsletter, or whatever other user group you can imagine.
  • You can track user engagements from your website in Salesforce. For example, including a user’s comments on blog posts as a part of their Salesforce history.
  • If your site is a user community with points, referrals, and other rewards for interaction, those should definitely be reflected in Salesforce profiles.
  • (My #1 favorite) You can integrate information from social media, email blasts, human contact, and the website to provide little surprises and personalizations for users. Imagine a message like, “we saw you shared our blog post on Facebook – thanks!,” or, “have you checked out the newest version of our product yet?”

We had some great questions come up in the Q&A section, as well. We talked a bit about using machine learning (and Salesforce’s new Predictive Decisions feature) to drive website content decisions, and potential future areas for development in the Salesforce suite around the Salesforce metadata API. Cool stuff, but you’ll have to watch the video to get it.

The Salesforce suite offers an excellent foundation for building Salesforce integrations. As always though, the really exciting stuff is on the cutting edge of what the industry offers. To take advantage of that, you’ll need more than just a small custom module, and you’ll also need serious strategic and developer leadership. I’m looking forward to having that conversation with you soon!