What does SAP's co-option of the Oracle Open World hashtag spell for the future of business to business social media relations?

At Oracle Open World, Larry Ellison was talking at the opening keynote on September 30th about Oracle Exadata X3, an in-memory database for companies that need to crunch terabytes of data quickly. Being Larry Ellison, he couldn't help but quickly tweak the competition by saying,

SAP has an in-memory machine, you know, that's a little bit smaller than what we offer. We have 26 TB of memory; they (referring to SAP) offer point-five terabytes of memory. It's called HANA; her name is HANA. I promised Mark (referring to Oracle President Mark Hurd) that when I did this presentation I was not going to mention them, I'm glad to keep the promise. The HANA in-memory machine is like really small."

So far, this seems pretty typical. Every vendor event has speeches where executives play up their products and position them against the market, both by playing up their own speeds and feeds and by potentially denegrating the competition or legacy practices. However, whether Ellison was off script or hadn't been briefed, he hadn't accurately depicted HANA. In May, SAP had announced a 100 TB memory deployment of HANA, which is a couple of orders of magnitude larger than the Oracle claim made.

Typically, a vendor would react by taking these words into account, scripting up an appropriate response, and developing a countermessaging campaign that might be released throughout the Fall season. Interestingly, SAP moved much faster than this and did so on multiple fronts.

SAP Rapid Response

Early in the week, Vishal Sikka, CTO and Board Member at SAP, replied with a factual rebuttal of Oracle's claims. In addition, Steve Lucas, an SAP Executive Vice President, provided multiple interviews to the media and SAP placed full-page ads in multiple newspapers. This Rapid Response strategy was effective, but represents a standard big-budget response at this point.

The interesting angle from a social business perspective occurred when Mark Yolton, SAP Senior Vice President of Digital, Social and Communities started using Twitter to share this information with Oracle Open World attendees via the #OOW and #OOW12 hashtags on Tuesday, September 2nd and continued to do so throughout the show.

Vendor-run tradeshows tend to be closed ecosystems where it is difficult to provide an opposing viewpoint. Yolton and other executives were able to provide SAP's perspective on Oracle announcements and presentations since they were either on-site or able to observe via the YouTube livestreaming of OpenWorld.

SAP became increasingly heavy-handed in its countermessaging efforts for Oracle Open World throughout the week as additional SAP employees and partners added traffic to the SAP HANA meme, but this type of social media-based effort is unprecedented in the B2B technology world and SAP was ultimately able to open up discussions regarding the comparisons between Oracle Exalytics and SAP HANA.

In that respect, SAP was successful in its efforts but started to receive message fatigue from OpenWorld attendees and followers as the campaign progressed throughout the week. In that light, this social media tactic brought up multiple concerns from the end user community.

Questions and Concerns

One key concern mentioned was around SAP's intrusion into an event-based hashtag and whether this was fair game to do so. After all, what would keep Oracle from returning the favor at SAP's SAPPHIRE or other events? And it is easy to see how a too-aggressive approach can lead to a scorched earth policy where two sides constantly shoot messages at each other while the rest of the world actively blocks out and ignores the warring factions.

Every public social network is open and available to interruption. For those of us who have involved with online social networks over the past 15-20 years and used hashtag channels on Internet Relay Chat, this is far from a new phenomenon. It is one of the prices that we pay for having an open network where anyone can interact with anyone else.

This direct communication has been considered one of the strengths of Twitter for years and has been directly related to the "Arab Spring." Every social network has always had moments where users make assumptions about how proprietary and structured social networking should be, only to find that it is still an open free-for-all. SAP's efforts should be seen as a new twist on the B2B social media paradigm.

Realistically, in today's society, we are used to an environment of fact checking, counter arguments and instant response. The inability to quickly respond to a negative claim within hours is now perceived as acceptance that the claim is true. Innocent until proven guilty may be true in courts of law, but not in the courts of human sentiment and perception. And does anyone actually believe that vendors should be able to make product announcements and competitive claims in a vacuum where competitors are unable to respond?

In this context, SAP took the next logical step in terms of messaging and response and found a forum where thousands of potential customers and solution evaluators would be able to access this information. From a pure marketing context, the visibility and mindshare associated with this approach is justified if this several thousand dollar labor investment in social and traditional media can affect even one mid-sized deal.

I will leave the question of whether the use of a competitor's hashtag is a "civilized" or "acceptable" use of social media to Miss Manners, but the business case for making this effort depends on the marketing and PR approach that a company wishes to take.

The value of Twitter is in broadcasting your personal, corporate or organizational perspective. One of the biggest challenges that companies have had with social media is that it cannot be fully filtered and controlled. In addition, companies that are uncomfortable with or unaccustomed to social media may struggle with their social outreach or response strategies if they lack fluency with this form of communication or lack the online community to quickly share their point of view.

SAP's countermessaging will make Twitter a messier platform for events going forward, but this possibility always existed. SAP's deliberate intrusion and real-time interaction with Oracle OpenWorld will increasingly become a routine practice for vendors seeking to quickly react to competitive events or negative claims made at a vendor event. However, as this occurs, vendors seeking to go this route need to learn both from the pros and cons that SAP experienced as they broke new ground last week.

Protecting Your Turf

Vendors seeking to further control their social environment can potentially react by creating custom social environments that deliberately block specific individuals or topics. This may lead to an increase in social intrusion detection solutions in the market where unrelated or unwanted social messages or social sources can be blocked from specific feeds in a nuanced and sentiment-based fashion.

Vendors must be very careful as they take this approach both because this approach will provide additional work for employees and make the vendor susceptible to claims of censorship and fear of competition. The best practice recommended would be to only remove obvious spam from the feed while both keeping competitive dialogue and responding to it as well.

In addition, vendors should also identify and follow key customers and influencers who are online before the event rather than find themselves flat-footed when these rapid media cycles occur. The best way to respond to competition is not to block them out, but to tell your side of the story. Every mid-sized to large company has competitive market analysis resources in place; these employees need to be on call during an event to react as necessary. If your company can secure its messaging with its prime audience, then the competition is wasting its time.

Entering the Dragon's Lair


Vendors seeking to make a competitive rebuttal need to also be careful to remain factual, relevant and conversational. Social media quickly loses its value when the information degrades from factual assertions that are contextual to the moment to canned, "he-said, she-said" emotional tirades and rants.

In this particular B2B context where a vendor is providing countering educational material, the clever one-line zinger tweet makes you the loser, not the winner, because you've given up on providing useful content to your audience. Leave the comedy to the entertainers and focus on your own value.

Also, vendors entering another vendor's event must track the level of traffic on the vendor's hash tag. If the formal and direct countermessaging effort is providing more than 5 percent of the hash tag's traffic or if there are more than two consecutive tweets or updates in a row from your organization, it stops looking like an educational campaign and starts looking like desperation. If your organization is pursuing a coordinated counter-campaign, be aware of the total traffic before adding additional commentary.

Finally, if your side of the argument starts going viral, you can let up. Although everybody in the social world wants to "go viral," it's not always clear what to do next after that happens. At this point, your company doesn't need to make the argument any more because it's being accepted by the community.

But can you provide additional detail? Are there price, technology or business value components that you can add? Is there anything else to counter or are you interested in following your competitor without taking the Schroedinger's Cat approach of further affecting the conference?

This step is an important aspect of going viral and determines whether you're a one-hit wonder or if you can continue to gain benefits from social interaction. 

Image courtesy of Fotokostic (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Hyoun has many insights into the social enterprise including: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Collaborators