With more than 30,000 customers, SAP AG, an enterprise resource planning and e-marketplace vendor for dozens of sectors, last year realized the potential marketing benefits an online community might generate.
Raimund Mollenhauer, SAP AG global director-new media/Internet strategy, said the company's customers wanted to exchange ideas with peers and experts.
"We've learned that people who do e-business have the ability and the wish to share best practices and knowledge with others," Mollenhauer said.
So in September 1999, the Waldorff, Germany-based company debuted a feature allowing members to communicate with each other on its mySAP.com Marketplace, an extension of its Web site www.mySAP.com. Dubbed mySAP.com Communities, the feature is a password-protected, open-enrollment electronic hub intended to help its users create intercompany relationships for buying, selling and collaborating within and across industries.
mySAP.com Communities consists of industry-specific portals for members to learn about trends in their specific businesses, get advice on business processes, collaborate with partners, and participate in online chats and forums.
The site's 24 Communities are organized into seven general areas: Discrete; Services; Financial Services; Process (which includes chemicals, metals and pharmaceuticals); Public Sector and Education; Consumer Products; and Cross Sector (including business technology and human resources).
Alan Warms, CEO of Chicago-based Participate.com, which helped build the communities and manages them, said online communities can help marketers recognize and develop their most valuable customers.
"You can leverage the propensity of business partners to talk to each other [anyway], and as a result, learn how to service your customers better," he said. The initial communities content format was top-down advice written by experts, who would then hold online chats with a particular community. But over several months, the communities evolved into more user-generated content as visitors wanted more than expert advice, Mollenhauer said.
"We figured out we needed to offer an overall decision-support atmosphere," with peer-to-peer interaction, he said.
To accomplish this, community managers from various sectors were recruited to run chat forums between users, as well as schedule special events with experts.
To coordinate the communities, Participate.com account executives and their counterparts from mySAP.com confer by phone several times a week and conduct a monthly review of the amount of user activity each community generates--suggesting changes when needed.
In community building, Participate.com's role with mySAP.com is to identify potential community participants and the features from which they would benefit. Participate.com also trains someone to run the communities, provides moderators for live events and helps mySAP.com choose new editorial content each week.
One risk in such open dialogue, of course, is that some member postings may be critical of SAP technology or of corporate partners.
Mollenhauer said mySAP.com has learned to accept this and encourages free expression. "We were a little bit scared at first, but we learned that [community members] really appreciate it. If we don't provide it, they will go to other sites that do."
Mollenhauer declined to give total community membership figures but said the count has more than doubled in the past four months.
Soon the communities will begin to offer personalized, opt-in e-mail updates when new online events are scheduled or content posted, as well as more live chats and perhaps some multimedia content. Although content is only in English now, Mollenhauer said that next year mySAP.com will "identify a time frame" to build communities in Spanish, French and German.