Social Networks Bring Companies Like SAP Closer to Customers

Ann All

One of the keys to making social networks work, companies are often told, is to offer users something of real value. That can include special promotions and similar sales offers. Dell, for one, has been pretty successful with its Twitter promotions, selling $6.5 million worth of gear via its various Twitter accounts. But many companies seemingly struggle to garner social benefits beyond sales.


Dell (again) is a notable exception with its IdeaStorm community, which has earned it customer goodwill, generated some product ideas and become a pretty effective focus group.


Wouldn't it make sense to offer a similar experience for corporate users of technology? It makes so much sense, companies are already doing it.


SAP hosts a virtual community that includes partners, consultants, customers and even competitors in addition to SAP employees, as I found when I interviewed Mark Yolton, senior vice president of the SAP Community Network, earlier this year. Yolton told me:


We have lot of smart people at SAP, but we don't have all of the smart people. We want to hear insights from others, especially from our customers and partners. Maybe a manufacturer in Mexico can help a chemical company in India apply some operational best practices or use their SAP software in a different way.


More than 1.6 million people from 200-plus countries and territories are members of the network. Some 5,000 are active contributors, with only about a third of them SAP employees. The community includes wikis, discussion forums, blogs and e-learning opportunities, said Yolton. SAP has extended the concept to its annual TechEd events, which Yolton said are appreciated by folks who "communicate most often online but want physical contact as well." The idea is to achieve a "borderless enterprise," a concept Yolton discusses in far more detail in a post on the Community Network. He says:


Within the SAP Community Network, members -- primarily SAP customers, partners, and consultants -- use a range of social media tools to engage with one another and to help shape SAP's future direction. They help us identify priorities and to define policies at SAP. They interact with product managers. And that highly networked level of interaction, in turn, benefits members looking to get the most from their SAP experience via the community.


Several members of the network met with SAP executives at TechEd 2008 in Berlin and asked for the ability to share code and to gain access to a more open SAP NetWeaver license agreement, notes Yolton. The result? At this year's TechEd, the company said it's building a Code Exchange to enable individual community members to share code for solution /add-ons/extensions / tools. SAP is also offering perpetual developer licenses to supersede the long-established temporary developer licenses that expire after 90 days. Yolton stresses:


Important to note is that some of our most-active and most-respected community members represented the larger community in making a series of requests, that SAP listened and was willing to be directed by this outside feedback, and that those community members affected SAP's offerings and policies.


Just this morning, I found a Computerworld item from last week that describes a virtual community of HP users called Connect. There's an HP representative on the 14-member Board of Directors and the article mentions HP engineers are sometimes recruited to contribute information, but it looks as if HP assumes an otherwise low-key role. The group resulted from a combination of three smaller HP user groups and has 50,000 members on six continents. Like the SAP Community Network, the Connect site includes blogs, forums and other interactive elements.


Connect's outgoing president, Nina Buik, said the crummy economy has boosted both membership numbers and online page views of the community site. She said:


People see user groups as a more cost-effective way to keep up to speed on technology.

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