by Thomas Wailgum

Q&A with SAP’s Social Networking and Marketing Strategist

Sep 15, 20088 mins

Steve Mann is helping SAP chart its online marketing and customer-engagement strategy. So just what is his job, what is SAP's social-media strategy and what have they learned so far?

SAP’s Steve Mann is a blogger, a big Twitter user and is hooked into many other online services—LinkedIn and the Social Media Collective, to name just two. Mann is wedded to and embedded in all things related to social media.


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He’s trying to do the same, in a sense, with SAP. As a vice president of global marketing, he is tasked with leading the German software giant’s evolving social-media strategy. Mann has been at SAP for six years in variety of roles—from marketing innovation and intelligence, to competitive strategy, to customer experience.

Steve Mann
Steve Mann, SAP’s social media strategist

Not only is SAP’s own marketing department using social media tools (virtual meetings, blogs, wikis) to bring teams together, share best practices and save some money, Mann says, SAP as a software company is using social media to listen to and interact with their customers in new ways that provide insights into exactly what SAP customers want. (For more on SAP’s strategy, see “Five Things About SAP’s Strategy That You Need to Know.”) Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum talked with Mann about his job, the social marketing strategy and the results so far. “At the end of the day,” Mann says, “customers want to be in control. They want to be delighted, and they want us to be credible and proactive.” What exactly is your job?

Steve Mann: Currently, I’m focused on developing a comprehensive social media strategy for the marketing enterprise. Now since it is social media, you can’t just silo it within marketing. So out of necessity, we’re also involving the development organization, communications, services and support, the partner system—all the major functional organizations of SAP. The goal is to really deliver a strategy to provide greater customer engagement and really jump into the conversations that are happening in the market about SAP.

Wherever those conversations are happening?

Mann: Conversations don’t always take place where you want them to, so the goal is to participate. Organizations that are just going to implement social media for social media’s sake are going to fail. But when you approach social media from the perspective of: I have specific business objectives as an organization that we want to address, and you tie social media directly to those business objectives, and you use it to turn up the volume on the customer experience that your customers will have when they’re trying to engage with your company—that’s a recipe for success with social media.

Our strategy has been to tie social media to specific business objectives, and the reason why we’re focused on customer experience is that as an organization we’ve recognized that a lot of the power in the market has shifted. Traditionally, vendors were very much in control of selling cycles; we don’t believe in selling cycles any more. We believe there are buying cycles now, and in buying cycles, the customers are in control.

So our focus around social media has been to ensure that we’re giving customers the tools they need to be empowered, to make the right decisions regarding the software services and selection process, and that will predispose them to do business with SAP.

But isn’t it hard to always be “on message” on the Internet?

Mann: You raise a very good point, in that organizations are used to tight message control and tight management of their brands. Organizations will always have, to a large degree, control over their message and brands. But now with the advent of social media, the customers and prospects in the market, in general, participate in the management of that brand.

I think of it as: If you have promoters of your brand—people who really love what you do and say—they’re going to evangelize the brand on your behalf and what’s more is they now have platforms to make that evangelism heard. And so the job of a marketer not only becomes one of message creation, but message conversation and then almost tribal management, where you’re actually managing and participating in the conversation that the tribe in the market is having about your brand. So there are new skills that are needed in order to accomplish that. That’s the challenge that organizations like SAP are facing today.

SAP’s known to be conservative and sometimes quiet, but this is very different. How did this get started?

Mann: There’s always been a lot of grassroots efforts underway because SAP has always been innovative, and there’s always a lot of room for experimentation—employees taking it on themselves to try something new and different in the service of the company. Also we’ve had huge success with the SAP Community Network, which has over 1.3 million members now and is growing at about 25,000 individuals a week.

The third leg of the stool that put this thing off was that Marty Homlish, the CMO, and I were having a discussion about how do we use community to increase the effectiveness of marketing. So, after some discussions with Marty, we decided we needed not only a strategy around community, but a strategy around social media and Web 2.0 in the service of marketing.

What has SAP learned from your customers by using social media tactics?

Mann: The first thing we’ve learned is on the notion of product innovation: Customers are really motivated to co-innovate on products and services with us, and more than we had ever thought. Every single customer that we talk to really wants to participate in some way, shape or form in the future roadmap that our products take. They are very willing to talk with us and give us information on where they think products are going and absolutely co-innovate on SAP products and services. So, co-innovation is one of the key benefits that we are gleaning from having a social media strategy, especially around the development organization.

A second thing is that customers need a place for them to be able to share knowledge with one another because although we have best practices with the software because we built it, our customers are using the software. They need an environment in which to talk to one another where they’re not disintermediated from one another because of SAP, where they can connect directly with one another.

So a lot of what happens, for example, in the SAP Community Network is just that: Customers coming together and sharing best practices and learning how to do things. This whole notion of customer peer support was an unexpected benefit that we discovered.

With your ear to the ground you hear a lot of the good stuff—what’s working. But what about the uncensored negative stuff, where customers aren’t happy with SAP?

Mann: Addressing the negative issues is more important than the positive, because it’s those issues that impact the brand and ultimately impact the bottom line. We’ve used social media as a channel to hear that from the customers, address those issues and turn them from detractors into promoters.

How do you do that?

Mann: By listening to them, talking to them and then addressing their issue. Danny Meyer, the [New York City] restaurateur, has this saying: Customers are never always right 100 percent of the time, but they always deserve to be listened to. I’ve taken his advice to heart in the B2B environment. Customers always deserve to be listened to, and when they have valid issues—valid, meaning both the customer and SAP believe it’s an issue—it has to be addressed.

While community members want to be able to get in touch with SAP, they also probably don’t want SAP people to be lording over them?

Mann: We talk a lot about the fact that we really don’t control the SAP community, that the community members control the communities. That’s exactly what we want. We want the discussion to be about what the community wants to talk about—not what SAP wants to talk about. Of course we can use these communities for “voice of the customer” insight, and we do. That was one of the strategic intents of our social media strategy: that we drive voice of the customer insight into our product development cycles. But more important, we want to make sure the customers are empowered so that they control what we talk about, and what’s talked about in the communities.

It seemed like in the late ’90s everyone was talking about creating communities online, though the results weren’t great. Have you have figured it out now?

Mann: I think that social media and the notion of robust virtual communities are critically important to the health of the organization. And because it’s a place where customers learn from each other, where customers have the power address issues in real time with SAP as well as with other customers. What more can you ask for from a social media effort than to have the ability for a buyer to engage with their provider?