Observing this event unfold was a content marketing masterclass

content marketing masterclass

This month, I had an opportunity to have an insider’s view of one of the most audacious digital experiments in history. It became a content marketing masterclass … warts and all.

In March, marketing professionals at software titan SAP were tasked with moving their annual SAPPHIRE NOW conference – an event that attracts more than 25,000 people – to an online virtual mega-show. Actual event planning could not begin in earnest until about May 5.

The SAP team had to find more than 50 celebrities, hosts and speakers, script a five-day event, align executive schedules, record content, connect with relevant customer stories, create eye-popping visuals, promote the event, and pioneer new presentation technology … in about one month.

Oh yes, they also had to accomplish all of this while working from home during a global pandemic.

In an earlier post, I had thought out loud (wrote out loud?) about some of the possible challenges and opportunities of this ambitious event. While others have covered some of the technical announcements from the event, I think my audience would benefit from examining:

  • SAPPHIRE NOW was created across different departments, different countries, and different cultures. How does the company deliver a relevant and seamless experience with that level of complexity?
  • What forms of presentation formats did SAP pioneer? How could this work for you and your customers?
  • SAP created SAPPHIRE NOW to replace a beloved annual event that brings people together in one location. How did they reinforce “community” in a virtual setting?
  • The company is on the cutting edge of content marketing. Will I see something inspiring and bold?

The gnats descend

When I was in the corporate world, I occasionally had to organize high-level sales events for my executive customers. One Florida resort conference I hosted went great – every precise detail was perfect … until the final 15 minutes. A swarm of gnats decided to descend on our pool-side farewell brunch.

To my amazement, even years later, everybody still talked about those gnats.

Overall, the SAP event was a monumental achievement but unfortunately, the company also had their swarm of gnats. What many will remember and discuss is that for the first two days, the technical side of the operation had a meltdown. The streaming platform didn’t work.

SAP had expected about 60,000 people to attend the conference and on streaming day, more than twice that many showed up.

Very quickly, the team effectively moved viewers to Twitter and LinkedIn viewing options, but the damage had been done as many gave up trying to view the content, at least on the first day.

It seems that the most loyal fans stuck with the company. SAP has had more than half a million content views already, exceeding expectations and far exceeding the reach of their traditional live event.

Presentation forms

What can we learn from the content form used for this event?

The primary communication method was pre-recorded one-hour videos with rapid-fire story changes. To SAP’s credit, viewers could select a geographical region and see content tuned toward different parts of the world.

At first, I was disappointed that there was not more interactivity (as had been originally envisioned). There were very few live and unscripted events.

But I came to understand that there had to be a practical trade-off considering the speed in which the event was created. The company had to take risks in the right places – do you place your bet on safe and reliable recorded video, or assuring that every part will work in a complex, global live-streaming broadcast?

One live and interactive stream on the final day was delayed by more than 10 minutes – that surely would have happened a lot more during a five-day event with speakers from all over the world.

This conservative decision was the right one. It also gave SAP an opportunity to show off some stunning visual effects and storytelling techniques. I was in awe as I observed how they pulled this off, considering most of their creative partners were also working from home!

Do yourself a favor and tune into some of the one-hour videos to see how the content was crafted.

As SAP gains confidence with streaming technology, I predict they will feature more unstructured interactivity in future events. 

Streaming + community

One of the most interesting challenges for any organization today is somehow replicating the community aspects of a live event when we’re stuck at home. Of course this is impossible, but I think in this pandemic era we simply have to find a way to keep the momentum of our business relationships alive.

In this respect, the event was very successful since it provoked discussions, broadened its reach, and provided “face-to-face” interactions with its top executives.

The event was highly-produced and perhaps too scripted at times, but there were also moments of brilliance:

  • CEO Christian Klein talking about the hope for his children.
  • An honest question and answer about SAP’s perceived lack of innovation.
  • Rockstar Sting singing “Message in a Bottle” with an emotional pandemic twist.
  • Watching the executive team warm-up to a live streaming format and actually joke around with each other toward the end of the final event.

These human moments were the best moments. Seeing the company and its leaders in an honest light promotes emotional attachment and community, even with a painful global lock-down.

Content marketing lessons

From an academic perspective, the event was fascinating to watch. Like every company in the world, SAP is heavily relying on content to maintain connections in a world where meetings, conferences, and business travel have been curtailed.

Here are some content marketing lessons for us all:


Trying something new takes courage and bold leadership. What SAP attempted to pull off in five weeks is certainly courageous … bordering on crazy! But it paid off for them as they took a giant leap forward in building a streaming content competency. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Production values

In an earlier post, I reported how SAP was taking its content marketing cue from Netflix. You could see that influence in the SAPPHIRE NOW event with dazzling programming that jumped from story to story. The event consistently kept your attention because even when it lagged, you knew the next story was just moments away.

Long-term value

SAP will continue to benefit from this event for years to come. In a short period of time they produced more than 10 hours of quality evergreen video content they’ll be able to slice and dice and re-purpose for a long time.

The power of influencers

SAP has a very sophisticated approach to influencer marketing and this was a primary method they used to promote the event. The actual attendance was double what they had planned. Yes, influencer marketing works.


The programming was occasionally interrupted by announcements of customer achievement awards. This was like disturbing the viewing experience with ads. I think the company is correct in using Netflix as a model … but Netflix doesn’t have ads.

This is one aspect of a live event that did not translate to the streaming experience. People don’t like to be interrupted, wherever they are viewing content.

Competent versus awesome

The subtitle of my book Marketing Rebellion is “The Most Human Company Wins.” The pandemic is amplifying this truth and speeding the change companies need to make to connect to modern consumers.

Watching the diversity of this content reinforced this powerful trend. When the company went off script, the content became so much more compelling and believable.

In the opening video, CMO Alicia Tilman kicked off the event with a pre-recorded, scripted message from a beautiful studio. In the final live segment, she was broadcasting from her home computer trying to moderate a global executive discussion.

In the first video, I thought “Alicia is competent.”

In the second video, I thought, “Alicia is awesome.”

Competence is important. Awesome is better. Every company needs more awesome in its content and the difference is showing up as a real, unscripted human being.

This is a critical lesson for us all. To win the war for attention, there must be an authentic, accessible, and perhaps even vulnerable human voice.

Experiencing the highs and lows of SAPPHIRE NOW was a masterclass in modern content marketing. I hope you’ll check out some of the content and let me know what you think.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of several best-selling digital marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.


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