* Q4 sales forecast slightly better than consensus
* ExactTarget acquisition going smoothly, sales goal lifted
* Shares trading near all-time highs
By Gerry Shih
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Salesforce.com Inc forecast fourth-quarter revenue to come in slightly better than analysts' projections, helped by a strong performance by newly acquired email marketing firm ExactTarget.
The San Francisco-based cloud computing company paid $2.5 billion in June for ExactTarget, its most expensive acquisition to date and a sum that has invited scrutiny from investors.
But Salesforce executives Monday said they had raised ExactTarget's estimated revenue for the year from roughly $140 million to $180 million, alleviating concerns about the deal.
Brian Schwartz, an analyst at Oppenheimer and Co, said ExactTarget's new revenue forecasts topped his own projections by $20 million.
"They're starting to execute on their marketing strategy," Schwartz said. "They have traction in there."
For the fourth quarter ending Jan. 31, Salesforce predicted revenue of between $1.12 billion and $1.13 billion, versus $1.12 billion expected by analysts.
It expects fiscal 2014 sales to come in between $4.05 billion to $4.06 billion. It also projected 2015 sales of between $5.15 billion and $5.2 billion, in line with analysts' estimates of $5.2 billion.
Chief Executive Marc Benioff has roughly quadrupled top-line sales in four years and its shares are trading near all-time highs.
Much like Amazon.com Inc's chief executive Jeff Bezos, Benioff, who founded Salesforce in 1999, has for years shrugged off calls from Wall Street to turn a bigger profit by arguing that it was more important to re-invest earnings to gobble up market share.
GETTING THE RIGHT BALANCE
For the quarter ended Oct. 31, Salesforce said revenue rose 36 percent to $1.08 billion, narrowly beating Wall Street expectations, as its core sales software business held firm.
Excluding certain items, it earned 9 cents per share in the third quarter, in line with a Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S analyst consensus.
Salesforce's unbilled deferred revenue, a critical measure of contracts that have been closed with business customers but remain off-balance sheet, rose to $4.2 billion, up 40 percent from a year earlier.
Total operating expenses rose 38 percent from a year prior.
For the fourth quarter, Salesforce said it expects to earn 5 cents or 6 cents per share, slightly below the 7 cents expected.
Benioff said Monday that he would seek to balance "growth and profitability" but stressed that he would not jeopardize his company's "outrageous" pace of revenue expansion.
"We've got that balance right," he said. "There's more we can do on profitability and we're absolutely committed to that. The only time that gets slowed down is when we acquire something or do one of these hiring surges."
The company's shares closed down 3.1 percent, or $1.80, at $55.51 on Monday, after reaching an all-time closing high of $57.87 on Friday. In after-hours trade on Monday, the shares dipped less than 1 percent.
Salesforce this week kicked off its annual Dreamforce conference held in San Francisco. At this year's conference, which had roughly 130,000 registered attendees, Benioff is expected to showcase "Salesforce 1," a comprehensive software platform that ties together its various products in sales, marketing, customer service, as well as third-party apps.
The company will also release an application programming interface (API) for hardware makers, which will allow them to connect their products to Salesforce's customer service software so they can be alerted when a product breaks down.
Salesforce also announced on Monday a new partnership with Hewlett-Packard Co, saying it would begin selling its software on HP's enterprise business hardware units.