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Interview: B2B Online Community Insights from Mark Yolton, SAP Community Network

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff

Q: Tell us about yourself and your background -- what did you do before running the SAP community?

A: I'm Senior Vice President of the SAP Community Network. I've been at SAP for 4 years. I've spent 25 plus years in business, mostly technology. Back in the day I was at Unisys, Sun Microsystems, PeopleSoft, Oracle, and then SAP. My background is in marketing -- that's where I spent most of my career. In the mid-nineties, that led me to the web -- I did early corporate websites at Unisys. And I helped Sun transition to e-business. Then I was at Sun and PeopleSoft in marketing roles. I've been at SAP for four years, since 2005.

Q: The SAP Community Network (SCN) is six years old and has 1.7 million members. How and why did you grow to that level?

A: Core to the success is that we offer specific value to the members. We call them members rather than users. "Members" feels like part of a club -- not cold and distant like "users." We embrace these people as an extension of our company -- as important customers and thought leaders -- and we treat them respectfully, in a transparent manner.

We provide them value they can get nowhere else -- connections to other customers, innovators, and thought leaders in the tech world -- but also in their industry as well. Those in banking learn from other bankers, consumer product people from others in that industry, and so on.

We can extract content from SAP content organizations -- other third-party sites can't do that. We offer tools through downloads, and offer rich connections through discussions, blogs, wikis, and top contributor webinars. Our members develop relationships with peers and partners. Content and connections are key.

Q: Does real business occur in your community? If so, how do you track this?

A: We help individuals and companies accomplish their jobs faster and with higher quality. This is tracked through anecdotal evidence including feedback from surveys, comments to blogs, discussion forum replies, and so on. We get 6,000 forum posts every day, and the median time before the first reply is seventeen minutes. We track how quickly people get answers. There are 3.4 answers to every question on average. A member usually gets one quick answer, than other answers that offer additional info. We ask for feedback about quality -- and that feedback says community members get extremely high quality answers. Our Net Promoter score in the 60% range. A good score would be in 30-35% range.

We also measure whether they return and whether they engage -- there have been more than five million individual visitors over the past year -- more than 20 million total visits. They wouldn't visit if they weren't happy.

Many how-to questions are asked in our forums regarding best practices with SAP software, or "Does Product X fit with Product Y?" When non-support-type questions are asked in support forums, we encourage them to ask their peers. We've seen a number of misdirected questions to customer care drop -- well, the rate of increase has slowed -- the customer support team is asked fewer how-to questions, and these questions have increased in the forums. The answers to those questions help people do their jobs better, and faster.

Q: What do your team's 35 employees do?

A: The important aspect of social media is that the community itself is as engaged as possible: sharing content, authoring whitepapers, blogging -- our customers, partners, and thought leaders in the enterprise software world. My team runs programs that encourage best practices and sharing of experience, and encourage customers to help other customers and partners. We have reputation programs. A small handful of our team runs programs that encourage grassroots communication and knowledge sharing. Another part of our team is involved in content publishing -- there is an account manager to draw content out of SAP organizations, format it, and make it more web-ready and publishable. We have project and program management -- we seek to innovate and offer the community new features and capabilities. For example, earlier this year, we started a University Alliances Community to address university communities to engage them with developers, business analysts and consultants. The goal is to get students and professors to talk to each other and get them collaborating with actual practitioners in the workplace on real-world business and technology issues. They form connections, so when students graduate, they know how to be technologists using SAP systems or businesspeople leveraging our systems. And they learn the expectation of collaboration with peers in the working world.

Q: How does online and offline community intersect at SAP?

A: We believe that virtual community is great, but the connections that you form virtually can be enhanced and enriched through physical events. We have a conference, SAP TechEd -- there are four each year in cities all over the world. Our members see it as an annual "family reunion." We extend these conferences on Facebook and Twitter. This physical manifestation of community is crucial to our success. Events deepen and enrich relationships. Our communities are so global. We have a member from Peru who was active in our online community for many years and he finally was able to attend a TechEd conference last year. He was like a kid at Christmastime, encountering one thousand laptops with the latest technology, meeting his heroes. They went out for a beer, shared meals, chatted between official program sessions. They helped him fix code, and advance his career for years virtually, and he finally got to meet them in person at our event.

Part of our social media strategy around events is "letting the community take care of it."

- We use Twitter to talk about events beforehand, during, and after the conference. We get people excited about who's speaking, and the topics they will be speaking about. Speakers share previews of their content before the conference. During events the Twitter traffic is incredible -- hundreds of thousands want to know what's going on -- it allows the people not present to stay up-to-date. We did a product launch in NYC earlier this year and we sent some top contributors who polled a larger audience through Twitter at our press conference. Then we asked questions that came from Twitter of the person on stage -- which we then webcast and tweeted out to the community. This broadened the reach of conference, and as a result we were among the top-ten trending topics on Twitter that day.

- We use flickr -- so individuals can each take their own photos and tag them and then the community can see them aggregated.

- We use LinkedIn to promote the event and give updates during the event.

- We use community blogs for speakers to share presentation abstracts, ask questions of the audience before their talks, and to draw people to their sessions.

- Some of us even use Facebook connections, and of course Digg and other tools

Q: How do you set your strategy and measure success given the constantly evolving field of online community and social media?

We do set up strategy each year for the coming year -- and we're currently working on an updated three-year strategy. At the beginning of each year, we set strategy depending on the maturity of the community at that point, the accomplishments from the year before, the members' expressed priority wishes, our business strategy and priorities, and other factors. This is largely organic, fluid, and flexible within certain parameters.

- Of course we want to grow -- so we want to increase membership. We ask ourselves if the things we're doing are creating value for the audience we're trying to serve -- measured by traffic to our communities.

- Another element is measuring engagement - this is Web 2.0, not Web 1.0, and Web 2.0 means engaging and getting a groundswell of grassroots user-generated content (UGC) in wikis, blogs, and so on. We measure that engagement by tracking the increase in forum conversations and numbers of blogs from our community.

- Some of our metrics are more tied to business goals -- are we gaining efficiencies -- for example, we look at pseudo-support questions that are redirected to the community to answer. Are these set of questions best answered by other customers being redirected -- at the appropriate quality and speed?

- We also track top-line goals like revenue, market share, and product adoption. We notice when we launch a new product with a community component, the rate of adoption is much faster. There is a ramp-up period, when a product has gone live but has not yet achieved enough market penetration to be generally available. Until then you need to invest money, time and effort in marketing and education. We've had products go slow through the ramp-up process, but then we help by introducing a social media component, and then product adoption goes much faster.

Q: How has online community enhanced SAP solutions?

A: SAP Ecohub is an online community-powered marketplace for partner and SAP-type solutions -- tools built around our core. Those partners want access to our customer base. We used to publish a partner solutions catalog, but then we built SAP Ecohub, which gives members the ability to use screenshots, to include technical specs, to show demo's, and really drill down to business problems. The community members are able to rate, rank and review different SAP and partner solutions according to their value to them. The voice of the customer is used to enhance the product catalog. Before the community started, there was not as much richness.

Marketing used to push content, but now there is much more conversation -- it's more balanced now. Social media and communities allow us to engage throughout our company and throughout our ecosystem. Product managers get feedback from customers. If there's some kind of issue in the marketplace, we know immediately because of Twitter, our blogs, and so on. We know before the issue becomes a black eye -- we can address it first. Q: Has SAP's corporate culture had to change to embrace online community values? Was there internal pushback?

A: We are fairly conservative. To be this aggressive with community and social media required change within the company. And by doing this, the perception of SAP changed. People realized we can be agile and transparent, authentic, and still be careful about quality. They realize that we are interested in helping our customers to be successful, and that we are embracing the ecosystem of our partners. Customers expect us to help them run their businesses, so we have to be both conservative and innovative.

There was internal pushback -- how far should we go? How fast? What are the right ways to orchestrate such a community? What are the right controls? Our CEO and board members have a deep understanding about what we're doing with communities and social media, and they understand the strategic benefit and that the benefit is much greater than the risk. They understand that the risk of not participating is greater than the risk of something going wrong. We can differentiate from the competition by engaging very actively. We can plug into the power of member influence. This requires constant internal marketing of the communities, and a sales job to bring later adopters to the table.

But our ecosystem strategy, of which community is part, is also a corporate strategy for SAP. SAP has chosen to engage actively and aggressively with its broad, global ecosystem.

Q: According to Charlene Li's Altimeter Group's recent report that deep brand engagement correlates with financial performance -- do you think that's true? Or is it the reverse? SAP was listed as a brand using best practices for engagement -- your engagement is not limited to a few social media experts, but extends across your brand.

A: It's a chicken and egg question. Are successful companies more engaged in social media because they can be -- because they are successful, or are they successful because they are engaged in social media? There is a correlation...we don't know if there is causality. I can say that being engaged in community and social media has brought SAP tremendous benefits, including product adoption, market penetration, and so on -- and also richness of relationship which can translate into customer satisfaction and success -- and I would guess that would translate into customer loyalty.

I know that these communities have brought SAP tremendous financial and non-financial benefits.



Image Credit: NanoStockk / Getty Images
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