SAP has run its online community network for nearly ten years. Now, says Mark Yolton, senior vice president of SAP Communities & Social Media, it’s also using social media for “outside-in” market insight and as a mechanism to immediately tell the world about its new products.

Mark Yolton, senior vice president of SAP Communities & Social Media

As senior vice president of SAP Communities & Social Media, Mark Yolton oversees a huge array of interactions.

They include everything that takes place in the SAP Community Network, a hosted online community of nearly three million members including customers, partners, employees, influencers and competitors. They also include SAP's participation on third party social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google Plus and SlideShare. In addition to that he is responsible for in-person events for members of SAP's community and broad ecosystem, including SAP TechEd which will host 35,000 attendees at four locations around the world in 2012. And just recently, he took on the additional responsibility for the company's official website, SAP.com and its 72 localized country websites in 40 languages.

"Even with a company as complex as SAP, with 60,000 employees around the world, we really only do three basic things," says Yolton. "We build solutions, we sell solutions, and then we support our customers to be successful in using those solutions. And in each of those three areas, social media plays an important role."

In a conversation with David Kiron, executive editor of Innovation Hubs at MIT Sloan Management Review, Yolton talked about how SAP has continually modernized its online forums, how it nurtures idea development through crowd sourcing at its Idea Place, and the value of being able to communicate directly with millions of customers whenever it launches a new product or service.

The SAP Developer Network (now SAP Community Network) launched online almost ten years ago. What was it like then, and what's it like now?

Like a lot of companies, I think, we started down the online networking path with developers and technologists because those were the people most comfortable with the state of online collaborations in those days. The tools were pretty uncomfortable and not very beautiful, and perhaps not very intuitive like the way that they've evolved today.

Over those nine years, we've grown a community of nearly three million registered members. They're from all countries and territories around the world.

We've expanded from developers to IT people and technologists more generally, and to what we call business process experts, which are typically project managers or product managers, who often have one foot in IT and one foot in the business. We added business analytics people, mobile experts, even university students and professors at more than 1,000 universities around the world. And, increasingly we're moving from technologists to business people. Along the way, we re-branded from the SAP Developer Network to the SAP Community Network (SCN) — a coming-together of people with a variety of skills and interests who all share a common interest in SAP, technology innovation, and business advantage.

The SAP Community Network is an online community of nearly three million members including customers, partners, employees, influencers and competitors.

Our hosted communities include discussion forums and blogs and a Wiki. SCN hosts an idea platform where members can suggest improvements to SAP product features and functionality, and then vote on those and build on each other's ideas. We have a code exchange platform. We have free downloads of our software. We have how-to guides for the technologists. Whitepapers. Newsletters that go to more than a million email boxes a month. Rich member profiles. A reputation system that encourages sharing. Special programs for extraordinary influencers. And much more.

It sounds like a really active community.

It's a very robust community, with a great deal of activity. We see about 1.2 million unique visitors every month. Hundreds of millions of pages are viewed every year. There are 4,000 discussion forum posts every single day, 365 days a year, and about 15 blogs every day, 365 days a year, from any of the 3 million members.

So a large amount of my time is spent leading the team that manages and orchestrates this community. That includes introducing new capabilities into the platform, modernizing it in response to member requests for different functionality, dealing with complaints or problems or controversies, launching or expanding programs to encourage or discourage certain behaviors, and working with stakeholders to make the most of this incredible asset. Part of this involves encouraging the members of the community to share more of their pain and their solutions and their ideas and their insights with other community members.

In addition to the SAP Community Network, the company also is active in other social media forums.

Yes, we're on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, among others. SAP has some branded sites, like SAP on Facebook, or our brand-level Twitter accounts that we manage. And we're pumping information into those pages that we think will be interesting or valuable to customers and partners. We're watching and listening to what our fans or followers or members are posting. And we're responding, as a sort of first-level customer service function, to be on the lookout for issues that our customers or others in our ecosystem are experiencing. We're also on the lookout for any trends that might be developing around a certain topic or product.

Let's break that down, because you've covered a lot of directions and purposes for using social media. Let's start with the SAP Community Network or SCN. What problem did that social tool help solve?

One of the biggest problems that social tools solve for us is simply how to use our very technical and complex products and solutions most effectively. SAP software runs some of the most amazing companies on the planet, large or small, and so our solutions are complex.

So, we provide a platform. We host a community, and our customers are able to ask each other questions directly and get direct answers from us and from each other. Someone who is an enterprise architect in a consumer products goods company may be implementing some new SAP modules, and that person might want advice as she's planning, or some kind of problem resolution as she's going through an implementation. You know, performance isn't right or she's not getting the results that she expects, or a customization or configuration seems wrong.

So someone can go to our online forum and share what she's done with other SAP customers and get their feedback on where she's maybe configured it wrong or implemented it in less than the best way.

Our partners participate, too. Many of our systems integrator partners are engaged in our communities, sharing best practices with those customers directly. That, in essence, creates a richer set of solutions — real world solutions, not solutions from the product engineer who is sitting in an SAP office and isn't using the product in real life in the same ways that our customers are in their daily work.

You talked about "watching and listening to what our fans or followers or members are posting" in social media. That's different than helping solve problems.

Yes. I would say a second big focus for social media for us is getting outside-in market insight into SAP. That can take many forms. It can be general insight into trends that are starting to develop or messages that don't resonate as well as they could. Or getting some very specific product insight from individuals who are using one version of a product but would like to see features and functionality built into the next version.

We have something called Idea Place. It's like Dell Idea Storm or My Starbucks Idea, an online forum where our customers can suggest new features and functionality around one of our products or solutions. Other customers see those suggestions and can add on to them, building to create a better and more robust idea. And then people vote those ideas up or down. As a result, our product managers get a prioritized list of customer-driven feature requests. With that information, SAP can build next-generation solutions that better meet the needs of the marketplace.

Apart from Idea Place, we have 4,000 posts every day in the main community network. We're just constantly being washed with information; it's like a wave coming over us every day about what's working and what's not working, what customers want differently, all the way down to whether the documentation is clear. So Idea Place became the way that we organized this, because 3,000 comments at some point didn't become helpful anymore, either because they are duplicates of each other or because they aren't prioritized. Comment B could be really, really important to a large segment of our population and comment A could have just been somebody having a bad day.

Idea Place became the way that we made this scalable. In essence, what we said was, "okay, put all your comments in here. Suggestions for a feature or a product capability, put them in here. Then build on each other's ideas and then tell us the relative importance by voting them up or down." And through the wisdom of the crowd, by having hundreds of thousands of people voting on ideas, we would see the ones that would come to the top as being most important.

It's been really useful. Instead of getting 1,000 ideas that are all weighted the same, we can get 1,000 ideas and choose to implement the top 10 or the top 50 or the top 100 ideas. This is direct feedback from customers into the product developers.

How do the product developers feel about this? At what point to you ask for their buy-in?

The product managers are involved from the very beginning on these things. We won't even open a new product space to accept comments and voting until the product manager agrees that he or she is going to watch this area and is going to implement a certain number of the ideas. We don't want to set the expectation with our customers that we're listening when we're not, so we won't open it unless we agree that we're listening and will implement some of the best ideas.

We currently have more than 200 product features and capabilities that have been suggested by the community that have already been implemented in existing products. So over the course of a year or two, among the let's say 15,000 ideas that have been suggested, 200 have been implemented or are on the verge of being released. Others are in various stages of consideration, building, testing, and rollout.

Is there any downside to the Idea Place being so public? What about the ideas that everyone can see there that you don't decide to pursue?

You're right, our partners and even our competitors can see those ideas as well. Perhaps SAP will choose do to the top 100 — well, then our partners can choose to do the next 100, and develop a more niche solution, where it wouldn't make economic sense for SAP to develop the solution, but it would make economic sense for a partner to do so. That's great, as they fill the whitespace.

Of course, partners can also choose to implement idea number 17, 37 and 56. There's nothing preventing them from competing with us, but they at least have the visibility into what things have been suggested by the marketplace, what things are listed as highest priority, and what features and functionality SAP will implement.

I worry very little about our competition seeing customer suggestions. I believe that the massive benefits of open and collaborative innovation far outweigh the minimal risks. And I am fully confident that SAP can out-execute our competition in any event – it's why we are the market leaders in business software and why we are succeeding where others struggle to keep pace.

So you've talked about using social media for problem resolution, or maybe you'd call it best-practice sharing. And you've talked about using social media to listen to the "outside-in" voice of the marketplace, with its advice for feature sets or new products. What else?

I would say a third thing we're using social for would be giving us a platform to go to market.

When we go to market, we already have a built in, very loyal, very dedicated fan base of three million members of our community, plus the outreach on public social media that gets us even beyond that community through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so forth.

Our communications with this customer and partner base can be much more efficient. They can be immediate, and they can reach around the world in a matter of seconds.

When we announce something, we get tremendous reach, and it's reach with the right people who are most able and likely to act on that information, whether it's to evaluate the new product or to purchase the new product or to alert the business unit in their company that's responsible for that product. Our partners are communicated with at the same time our customers are.

So really, we are using social media for the full life cycle: first from product innovation, where we're getting outside-in, voice of the market into SAP and directly to our product managers and product developers. Next, from the go-to-market piece, as we take products or new solutions to market. And then post sale, with our tremendous capability to have our customers and our partners help each other be successful with SAP solutions.

Tell us more about the relationship between the first part of the cycle — product innovation — and the second — having new products or solutions. What kind of sentiment analysis do you do? How hard is it for you to identify trends?

In the early days, and we still do this, the way that we gauged sentiment analysis was very manual. We have 400 topics that are discussed within our community. It just represents the breadth of SAP, and the number of industries and lines of business and products and solutions that we span in companies of all sizes.

We essentially used topic moderators and topic experts to watch narrow slices of conversation. We still have these people today — 600 or 700 individuals, including SAP employees and some customers and partners volunteers — who watch a particular narrow topic area and alert us when there seems to be a trend emerging or a problem forming. Those people will respond directly or can escalate something to let us know.

Back in the day they would send us e-mails, and then it became Twitter, and then we put some tools on the community itself where they can flag something for moderation or for somebody in SAP to pay more attention to it.

Now on very broad topics we also have developed some sentiment analysis tools. I think in some cases the tools are so high level, and they're looking for so much, that it really takes full time people to watch the tools. So having the individuals always on watch, and still watching those narrow topic spaces, is probably more effective at this point, with the sentiment tools providing broad sentiment trends and topics.

Do you think social media will be more or less important to SAP in three years?

I would say that it's very important to our business today, but it isn't yet ingrained in the everyday business of people's tasks in their lives, and the way that they behave and work. I think it will grow to become a core capability that many if not most of SAP's employees need to develop.

For example, we have five transformational pillars that our marketing organization is focused on for 2012, and two of those pillars are directly relevant to social.

One is called "shift from push to pull marketing." The idea there is to move from a marketing organization that does negative things that marketing and advertising are infamous for doing, like pushing information at people, interrupting their lives, sort of imposing our will and our agenda and our timeframe on others. You can think about television commercials interrupting your program, or billboards interrupting your beautiful view as you're driving down the highway, or e-mail and phone calls coming at you all hours of the day and night.

Instead, what we're talking about is moving from that push model to a pull model, which means being there when our customers are ready to engage with us. When they're simply investigating and doing research on different products and solutions, have that information available to them in the form that they want it to be, any hour of the day or night, any place on the planet, in the format they are most comfortable with. It means providing the information in a different form than we've provided it in the past, where we feel like carnival barkers standing on a soapbox and shouting above the din of the crowd to try to get people's attention.

Instead of holding a megaphone up to our mouth, we should be holding the megaphone up to our ears with the little end toward our ears and the big end facing out to our marketplace, listening to what they need from us. And the tone with which we provide it has to change, so that instead of being pushy and insistent on getting peoples' attention, we should be sharing information openly in a more conversational and helpful way.

That's a different style of engagement.

It is indeed. So right now we see that as an important transformation that we, as a company, need to go through. The marketing organization is one of those that really needs to drive this. It's not yet core, but at some point it will be core, and it will be integral to many of the jobs and tasks that all SAP employees will have to embody.

Are there examples you can point to where you've seen success with this transition from push to pull?

Well, we measure something called marketing generated opportunities, or MGOs, which are essentially leads that turn into deals that came from marketing. We've set ourselves a target to increase those by more than 50% this year.

Of course you might imagine the innovator's dilemma here, because we have to continue to deliver the leads that our sales force expects us to deliver, but at the same time we need to take a different approach, and a longer term approach, in order to generate more of these from pull activities.

Pull does take longer. Our expectation is that it takes longer, although less expensive and more customer-friendly, and so there's a little bit of juggling that's going on within the company right now, and a little bit of selling to the sales force the concept that pull is important, that we can no longer afford to spend the money that we've spent on old, traditional marketing, because it's not as effective over the long term. And that we need to shift, but that during the shift it's going to be a little bit difficult for us.

You said SAP has five transformational pillars for 2012, with two directly relevant to social. The first is the shift from push to pull marketing. What's the second?

The other one is "humanize the brand." Today, many of the people who use our solutions will say, "SAP helps my company run better." That's great. That's a wonderful first step, but it doesn't mean anything to the individual. The individual may not like working with their SAP system. Some may love it, but to others it's kind of drudgery. Similarly, find somebody who loves working with an Excel spreadsheet. They're few and far between.

So what we're looking to do is to humanize the brand so that at some point people will say, "SAP helps me be more successful in my job, it helps me be more impactful, it helps me make a greater contribution to my company, it helps me run better." That goal is very much related to social media and to community.

Explain how social media will help with that goal of humanizing the brand.

In our community of nearly three million individuals, there is a specific group, probably the top 100th of one percent of this community, that we call SAP Mentors. They're nominated by other community members because they're professional in the way that they engage. They're obviously subject matter experts through their sharing within the community. Most of them are customers and partners. In essence, these people are super-influencers.

They're a little bit like our MVPs or some other grand designation. We call them "mentors" because they're the people who really mentor the community on ways to engage successfully and professionally. And they mentor SAP in ways we could be more effective, improve our solutions, change our policies or practices. They influence both directions.

These individuals are known to us and to the community. We know their names, faces, interests, biases.

In addition, social and community are inherently human. We measure our community not in terms of accounts or customers companies, but in terms of individual members. We put faces with names. We go off-topic and discuss vacations, or family milestones, and celebrate each other's career advances.

It took a heck of a lot of work over nine years to get that network to where we are today. But I do think that is a strategic advantage for us. I wouldn't measure it in the size of the community of three million people. When I really get down to it, I would really measure it in sort of a loyalty index, or an engagement index. Because I look at other companies in our industry, some competitors and some partners and friends, and they have communities, too, that are either larger or smaller. But I look at the level of engagement in our community and it's just extraordinary… and fulfilling because it's so personally engaging.

How replicable do you think it is, building that kind of online network of super-engaged people?

If Heinz Ketchup grows a community, I think they're going to have a little bit of trouble, because there will be some Heinz Ketchup aficionados who really care a lot about it, but they haven't built a career around ketchup. They're not going to live or die over whether they get Heinz Ketchup. But there are members of our community who have pinned their careers and their livelihoods and their professions and their mortgages on SAP.

So I think we do have an advantage in the type of products and solutions that we offer in the marketplace, and the way that people's livelihoods are tied to it over the long term.

Do you have any advice for a Heinz Ketchup kind of an organization, that can't rely on the level of engagement that your product and developers have around your product?

I think for companies like them, growing a community, there are the basic fundamental questions. Who are they trying to attract? What are they trying to achieve as a business objective? Is it simply awareness of Heinz Ketchup? Preference for Heinz over Hunt's? Awareness of new ketchup flavors, or the easy open bottle, or the no leak container, or whatever it happens to be?

Then the question is, what unique value can they offer to the members of the community that nobody else gets, or that the community gets first? Is there something special? Is it recipes? Is it that I know stuff before you know stuff because I'm on the inside with access to Heinz and you're not? What is the unique value that they can offer to the community? How can the company give that to them?

Before we finish up, I wanted to ask you about how the company uses social media internally, in operations.

Within SAP we are helping our colleagues to adopt social media and community behaviors. Our team is acting as a center of excellence, and we're helping our colleagues to adopt best practices — well, I hesitate to say best because it's so early that who knows if they're the best, but they are practices, and probably good practices — in how our colleagues can adopt social media and use social media and communities as well.

For example, should they open their own Twitter handle, or a Twitter handle around a certain product, or perhaps in a certain country? Or should they simply utilize the existing Twitter handles or the existing hash tags and get more critical mass, so the voices in the marketplace are not too fragmented?

Just about every day of the year we have something happening where SAP is meeting with customers in some large forum. How can we use social media before, during and after those events to make them richer, so that the event itself is more successful from the point of planning, then once people get there, and so it can be shared, let's say from Istanbul out to the rest of the world? How do we use social media to preserve some of the content and conversations and insights from those events, so that after the fact, when people get back home, they can refer back to it?

How can our sales force use social media to listen for opportunities or to forge closer customer ties? How can product development use social as a finger on the pulse of the market, a way to keep up-to-speed on the competition, and to spot emerging trends in technology? How can HR attract the best and brightest to SAP through social? What about procurement, or customer technical support, or other organizations who might use social media as a business tool?

Really, we're thinking about how social media can be applied throughout our company, in every department and division, and in every geography and country, and by every line of business within SAP. We are transforming ourselves into a social business.

6 Comments On: SAP: Using Social Media for Building, Selling and Supporting

  • nancy | August 7, 2012

    Great article and information from the enterprise wide system for social and community management. This goes beyond the realms of “engagement” to a strategy for consumer listening and product development. Very insightful. Thank you for sharing.

  • Lou Leporace | August 10, 2012

    I especially like the emphasis on using social tools for listening, product prioritization, and roadmap development. Thanks for providing an in depth view of the social effort within SAP. The points and lessons are relevant for SMBs as well as enterprise.

  • bernie | August 13, 2012

    A terrific and candid review of SAP’s strategic thinking on social media. I especially appreciate the last sentence: “We are transforming ourselves into a social business.”

    My question to Mark is does he have management and cross functional support to become a social business?

  • Emerging Technologies ECs 8/10/12 - AdaptableOrg.com | August 13, 2012

    […] SAP: Using Social Media for Building, Selling and Supporting (MIT Sloan Management Review) Big Idea: In a conversation with David Kiron, executive editor of Innovation Hubs at MIT Sloan Management Review, Yolton talked about how SAP has continually modernized its online forums, how it nurtures idea development through crowd sourcing at its Idea Place, and the value of being able to communicate directly with millions of customers whenever it launches a new product or service. […]

  • jerome.pineau | August 18, 2012

    This is truly a spectacular article and should be used as a roadmap in any large complex technology product organization IMO.

    The whole marketing shift Mark describes is absolutely on the money (no pun) and few folks get that. Take immense courage to pursue something like this internally.

    Brilliant dude 🙂

  • chris.kaufman | September 1, 2012

    Social Media is Big Data… Social Data is being driven from the edges of PR and Customer Support or even end of the tail of Marketing and being brought kicking and scratching into the core development cycles of JIT Businesses.

    Community Management is just a component of social engagement, providing insights into how the product/services should be delivered. Just as listening to and responding to tweets are. Is a community URL better than a hashtag? Hmmm, if I was SAP, I would see breaking down the walls and URL of custom engagement coded walls is like reading the clue train manifesto and getting started on building an AOL dial-up network…

Add a comment