SAP cultivates customer communities

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As the software industry has consolidated and diversified, successful companies have increasingly been those that build an ecosystem of customers and partners who support each other and share customized programs.

Like many companies, German software giant SAP has long operated discussion forums where developers and customers swap support and advice. Over the last three years, however, SAP has added social media features to redefine its concept of community.

The company has assembled a base of more than 1.5 million members in its SAP Developer Network (SDN) and Business Process Expert (BPX) communities. Using discussion forums, blogs, wikis and e-learning technology, SAP is not only enabling conversations but actively promoting the work of its best developers.

Each day, about 6,000 new entries are posted in the two communities’ discussion forums. More than 2,000 members regularly share their advice and discoveries via SAP-hosted blogs, said Mark Yolton, senior VP of the SAP Community Network. The activity is largely self-sustaining.

“We don’t talk about ‘managing’ the community; we talk about ‘orchestrating’ the ecosystem,” said Yolton, who heads a core team of about 30 people who oversee the online activity. About 400 SAP employees also regularly publish to the network, with hundreds of others publishing occasionally.

Each software tool in SAP’s community arsenal serves a different purpose. Basic support questions are handled by discussion forum, while blogs enable individuals to expound on bigger issues. Some 2,000 people, including many SAP employees, have personal blogs.

The wiki is used to capture frequently asked questions into a kind of living advice document. “People get tired of answering the same question again and again, so we give them a place to post very complete answers on the wiki and point others there,” Yolton said.

The wiki has also sprouted new wings as a project manager. One group used it to build an entire social media software application that was eventually submitted to the Apache Foundation standards group. Developers value the wiki’s ability to support all kinds of documents and enable collaboration among groups.

An innovative dimension of the SAP program is a system that rewards the most active and helpful community members with points tied to their profiles. The points have no monetary value, but as medallions of expertise, they can boost the careers and the income of frequent contributors. Prominent members can earn consulting contracts, raises and attract calls from headhunters. SAP recognizes them at conferences and invites them to exclusive briefings with top company executives.

The benefits of the community “reach everywhere across SAP,” Yolton said. “We’re getting inbound feedback constantly. We get daily feedback instead of quarterly market research studies. Partners can spot unmet needs and deliver extensions to the product line.”

And then there’s perhaps most important upside: customer satisfaction. “By having customers engage actively in our communities, they can implement their own solutions faster and with higher quality,” Yolton said.

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