Two years ago, multinational software company SAP set about changing the way it communicated.
It swapped long-format, jargon-heavy messaging with fresh, emotive content heavily influenced by US-style news media, especially its video news updates, The Spin.
But the change process hasn’t always been plain sailing, as Judith Magyar, a strategic director on SAP’s Global Content team shared with the audience at last week’s #eacd10 event in Sofia, Bulgaria. Communication Director spoke to Judith about disruptive content, meeting the challenges of new technology, and winning over resistant audiences.
In your presentation you mentioned that SAP was inspired to change the way it produced content when you saw how your employees were consuming content on their mobile devices. What can you tell us about this learning curve?
As a technology company we have to react quickly to new trends. Not only do people use mobile devices to work differently, but they also consume information differently. The work life balance was changing because of this new mobility, the IT landscape was changing because of mobility, and yet the communication landscape wasn’t changing. If we want people to consume information differently, we also have to produce it differently. That’s what triggered it. We had to change the way we produce content to make it more consumable. One example from the early days was our former CIO, Oliver Bussmann, who was young, hip, and who became a social media guru. He was reacting to the needs of the employees from the technology perspective, the impact it had on our IT department and how we had to communicate and work around this Bring Your Own Device situation. Suddenly we had a CIO who was tweeting all the time.
"If we want people to consume information differently, we also have to produce it differently."
Are you saying that the motivational power of high-level support, such as CIO or the CEO, was really an integral part?
Oh yes, surely. Our CEO, Bill McDermott was behind this change in the way we communicate. He’s the kind of CEO that is very social, articulate and has great rapport. As a company we’ve been increasingly getting our top executives out there communicating in a completely different style.
What was the reaction to these changes and what’s the situation like now?
When we launched The Spin almost two years ago, we got a lot of positive response from around the globe, especially from our younger audiences in the Americas or APAC. These cultures are used to consuming information in a completely different way than in Europe. Those audiences were thrilled that SAP was doing something different. Whereas the more traditional, conservative groups were initially more reserved, but now that has changed dramatically.
Because the business started reaching out. Everyone wants to be on the show. We don’t have a newsletter, we don’t have an email, we just have The Spin coming out each week with all the headlines. Nobody pushes it to you, so if you want to know the global headlines, you watch the The Spin. In the past you wouldn’t believe what it would take to pull together a newsletter from the executive board: getting people to send content, getting it approved, every word scrutinized, and this for an internal newsletter. Now we get short, snappy updates on all the global headlines, and it’s immediately out there on YouTube. That changes the way you produce and deliver content. You would think that it’s only interesting to SAP employees, but no it’s not, because we talk about our customers, our partners, our competition, our earnings. We talk about everything, and anybody can watch it. And each episode is only three minutes.
The internal/external divide came up clearly in your presentation. Your content is designed for external eyes, and there’s no division between internal and external messaging. How does that work in practice?
We know our content is going external, and obviously we take responsibility for our content. We’re not going to put it out externally before we know that it’s ready for external consumption. In the past, employee communications owned all internal content and internal channels. Now, we have two different teams. Employee communications is focused on purely internal topics and events like all hands meetings, whereas the content team develops stories and videos for all audiences highlighting SAP’s leadership in key areas like sports, healthcare, youth and innovation. Our news is out there. Anybody can go on the internet and find SAP’s quarterly earnings report. When you look at it, there are very few topics that should only be internal. But the change process around this has been painful. People were used to producing internal content in a certain style. Attracting new audiences and communicating complex topics in an entertaining way requires a different mindset.
Why is it important for SAP to revolutionize the way it communicates about itself?
We need to tell stories differently because people don’t understand SAP’s products and solutions. Over 70 per cent of the entire world’s revenue transactions goes through some SAP system or another. That’s mind-boggling, but the average person couldn’t care less; they don’t even know what that means. That’s why we brought new talent on board. The Spin’s newscaster, Megan Meany comes from morning news, CNN and E! Entertainment. We also hired John Leiberman who used to be a producer for America’s Most Wanted. We are bringing people with deep television production experience into the corporate environment and asking them to take that heavy, technical lingo and deliver it in a way that anybody can understand. On the other hand some of the old guard are still used to writing long complicated feature articles that explain the technology in detail, but who reads that now? People look at a headline; they might read the first few sentences. Any print article should be around 500 words, but traditional writers have trouble achieving that. They are afraid of being too superficial or not delivering enough content. Achieving the right balance between relevant information and an appealing style is tricky. That’s also the reason why we’re doing more video. With video you can tell a wonderful story in two minutes. You need the right storyboard and the right production quality, so it’s not simple, and we are going through this painful process of learning step by step where we have to change our style, where we have to upskill, where we have to improve our quality control and so on.
So it’s still work in progress?
We are still at the beginning of the journey. The deeper you start moving in that direction, the more you realize how challenging it is. You have to be brave, and you have to keep trying despite resistance and critique. People may laugh at you at the beginning, but then all of a sudden when it’s successful, everybody wants to be part of it. So if you want to change, you have to go ahead and start breaking those barriers. We’ve made some mistakes, but we’re learning from them!
- Read Judith’s account of the creation of SAP’s new content team published on communication-director.com here.
- Check out The Disruptors, stories about SAP’s innovative customers
Judith was a guest speaker at the latest in a series of events held across Europe this year to mark the 10 year anniversary of the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD). Find a summary of the event here. To find out more about the #eacd10 and other events, visit the online EACD calendar here.