Online user communities can help harness the knowledge and collective wisdom of a company’s customers and complementors around the globe. These networks can gather input for new product development, reduce the cost of customer support, and facilitate the sharing of platform-related knowledge and practices. But how should companies best establish and manage them?
SAP SE, a leading enterprise software company with headquarters in Walldorf, Germany, was among the earliest companies to unlock the potential of social media to address the need for customer engagement and support. Realizing that it could not keep up with the demand for customer support through its traditional in-house channels, it established the SAP Community Network in 2003 to let partners, customers, and solution providers help one another. This virtual community includes a network of well-defined online forums in which users can post questions on a wide range of topics related to the implementation, customization, and use of SAP’s software; peer members can respond by providing potential solutions. The network also offers expert blogs, a technical library, a code-sharing gallery, e-learning catalogs, wikis, and other tools that support open communication between active members of the community.
Getting a peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing platform off the ground is not easy, however. Online support forums have two distinct segments of community members: those who seek product support and those who provide it. Knowledge seekers are hesitant to ask questions if knowledge contributors are few and far between, and knowledge contributors will not sign up if there are not enough problems to solve. It is a classic chicken-or-egg challenge. To address this, SAP adopted a strategy that involves what we call “knowledge seeding” — in which a company asks employees to provide free technical support by answering questions posted in discussion forums. The high-quality content provided by SAP employees gave the forum the jump-start it needed, attracting more users seeking solutions, which, in turn, enticed more knowledge contributors to get involved.
Our study of SAP’s virtual community has helped to answer several critical questions that almost all platform businesses face.