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Content Marketing All-Stars: Q&A with Michael Brenner of SAP

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Content Marketing All-Stars: Q&A with Michael Brenner of SAP


Michael Brenner, VP of Global Marketing at SAP

The rise in content marketing efforts by brands has been dramatic. CMOs and marketing leaders have recognized that strategies beyond traditional advertising and media are critical to building customer awareness, and are utilizing content programs as a new way to reach potential customers.

It’s not just consumer brands that have been bit by the content bug. Enterprise organizations have created resources and web properties to engage their customers with more than just traditional sales-focused rhetoric.

We caught up with Michael Brenner, VP of Global Marketing at SAP, the enterprise software giant. SAP has been a leader in pursuing new ways to build relationships, publishing resources and connecting with customers across a variety of channels. Michael sat down with us to offer his thoughts on the effectiveness of these new content strategies, and where he thinks the future of content marketing is headed.


Over the past two years there has been a dramatic increase in content marketing amongst companies both big and small. For enterprise in particular, there seems to be a growing mindset of “brand as publisher”. What do you see as the underlying reasons for that?

The reason brands have begun to think and act like publishers is reflected in the growing cost and increasing opt out rates for many types of marketing. 99.9% of banners are ignored. 95% of emails are never opened and 99.95% never receive a single click. Cold calls go unanswered by more and more of us. And of course most of us fast-forward through TV ads.

Pushing promotional messages at consumers today just doesn’t work. We scroll right past the content we don’t want to see. So the only solution is to become the information consumers want to see. And that is why brands have started producing content people are looking for. Whether it’s news or helpful tips and tricks or even entertaining videos, brands that aren’t creating content their audience wants are just wasting their marketing dollars.

What type of results are generated?

The results speak for themselves. American Express Open Forum is one great example of a brand acting like a publisher. They created their site “to help small business owners get more business.” They did this by hiring professional writers and experts in small business who wrote about the things that would be helpful to small business owners – to give them the information they needed. As they grew their target audience, they invited readers to open an account. The site quickly became their largest source of new card members. Not because they beat their readers into submission. But because they added value first. They earned the attention of their future customers. They provided helpful information. And their own business grew as a result. New business has to be earned. Publishing is the cost.

What have you learned from other brands’ publishing efforts and how have you applied it at SAP?

SAP has been one of the leaders in this space. Our SAP Community Network started in 2003. And while it started as a user forum, it quickly evolved into a publishing platform where our ecosystem discusses technology and trends. Our Business Innovation site was launched in 2012 to provide a platform for internal and external thought leadership. It quickly grew to our 3rd largest platform after our corporate website and our community. SAP was also the first publisher to participate with Forbes BrandVoice. We have been the first to test out new approaches from other sites like the New York Times and Business Insider. And we are taking advantage of all the new channels and content types that our audience is looking for, such as videos, Vines and more. One example, our 99 Facts On The Future of Business was one of the top business publications on Slideshare last year and has now been seen by more than 230,000 people.

Which brands do you admire for their publishing efforts and why?

Some of the companies who we think are doing a great job acting like publishers include Hubspot, Marketo, GE, Cisco to name a few. Hubspot showed that they could really “walk the walk” in inbound marketing through an amazing corporate blog approach. Marketo has been a leader in Influencer Marketing. GE has learned to humanize their brand by creating amazing content across a wide variety of channels and I like to cite their CMO Beth Comstock who talks about their goal with content marketing to “shout louder than they spend.” And Cisco has done a great job infusing humor into their marketing efforts by hiring an accomplished comedian in Tim Washer and providing him the freedom to create some amazing video content. Of course there are other brands out there doing some amazing work as well.

What are some of the mistakes you see other brands make?

The biggest mistake brands make when making the shift to publishing is to think in terms of “campaigns.” Being a brand publisher doesn’t mean you create an e-book. And it’s certainly NOT about making “viral videos.” It’s really a cultural shift away from the “campaign brain” and towards continuous content development, curation and distribution of content that results in conversations, community and ultimately conversion.

Today you are a featured speaker at many marketing events as well as a frequent contributor to publications, both inside and outside SAP, but you had to start down this path somewhere along the line. What was the “ah ha” moment for you that really convinced you to push SAP into publishing as a marketing and engagement tool?

My own personal journey started with my being head of digital marketing for our North American region. I wanted to show the group that I could lead by example so I started blogging. In 2010, I committed myself to two blog posts a week and have stuck pretty close to that goal ever since. Blogging really helped me to see the value in some of the other social channels like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, even some of the newer channels. I started to participate in Twitter chats and online events and then the speaking opportunities really started opening up from there.

What are SAP’s objectives in publishing content, from both a company and journalistic perspective?

I have found that there is a direct correlation between our ability to provide value online to our ability to gain an audience’s attention offline. All of those interactions have to be real and authentic. That’s what builds trust. Some people in marketing and some business leaders think content marketing is just a buzzword. Or a fad or trend that will go away in a few years. I believe it’s become the most important aspect of marketing and the best way for businesses to gain new customers because it is the biggest gap between what our customers want and what brands currently publish.

The business leaders that reach for a higher value and truly seek to help their customers, these are the business cultures that will find success in content marketing and brand publishing. The others will have to fake it before they make it. And frankly, today’s consumers are too smart for brands that are insidious in their brand publishing efforts.

Our goals at SAP are to reach the next generation of consumers. The ones who don’t know who we are or what we do. But who know that technology and innovation are the drivers of success in the future of business. We want to become a trusted source of information for them. Every day we attract a couple thousand new visitors who never before associated us with the Cloud, or Big Data or the Future of Work. Some of those visitors become daily subscribers of our content and some of them go on to become customers.

How does SAP balance branding with thought leadership? Is there a formula? Is it gut feel?  How do you know when the balance is off?

All we want to do is help our readers. We have one editorial rule: no product promotion. We allow the company and our products to be mentioned as a “call to action,” but selling cannot be the main intention of any article. We also bring in experts and authors from outside the company. Roughly 70% of our content is authored by one of these experts. We don’t edit their content. We find people who also are looking to help the audience grow in their careers, get smarter or even be entertained and distracted for a moment. From there we are just working on building the relationship between our authors and our readers on the platform we maintain.

We do have a couple of ground rules. We want to take the brand out of the story. Yes, you might see a small logo on our thought leadership blog site or on the longer-form content. But that’s it. We do not need to talk about SAP. That’s what our corporate website is for. We also want to make the reader or make our customer the hero of the story. Finally, we strive really hard to make sure the content is interesting or compelling.

Marketers at any size company need to justify their efforts for any campaign. How does your team measure and report success to SAP’s CMO?

I am an extremely outcome-driven person. I started my career in sales and find it difficult working on marketing activities that cannot quantify the business outcome of the efforts. So when we started, we said we were going to report on our goals and results across the company every month. Our goals include Reach, Engagement and Conversion, with metrics to support each of those three. We created an infographic to show our results. So every month, my team creates the infographic, as well as a couple dozen slides analyzing what is working on our publishing platform, what is not working, which channels are driving results and how well we are trending down the funnel.

It’s somewhat of a risk – not everyone publishes the results of their marketing efforts across the company. But no one has asked us to stop. We’ve been trending in the right direction. And we’re building a community of practitioners inside and outside the company that is connecting communities of interest and adding value to our contributors as well as our readers. So far, so good.

How do you see branded content evolving over the next couple years?

Where is all this going? I think the future will see brands putting customers first in everything they do. The outwardly self-interested companies just won’t survive. I think brands also will need to collaborate with publishers to reach their audiences and also to learn how to tackle the toughest challenges in publishing. Finally, I think brands will move beyond publishing and into full blown entertainment. In a way, we’ll go back to the days when P&G sponsored “soap operas.” You’re already seeing this with Netflix and Red Bull and Amazon, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of this as brands battle for customer attention with television producers and movie studios and musicians.