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Michael Dell tweeted: "If HP spins off their PC business ... maybe they will call it Compaq?"
He followed up a couple of days later with another tweet: "@HP PC business 100% committed to ownership change to new unknown owner(s) w/unknown strategy, on an unknown time frame." Dell was tweaking one his biggest competitors during a challenging period, while at the same time drumming up a little publicity for his own firm. The Compaq joke generated some 1,300 re-tweets.
Are such tactics on social media and other online sites prudent, let alone productive, for small and midsize businesses (SMBs)? Controversy does breed an audience but there's no given it's the right one, nor that the publicity will be positive. Make a mistake, especially on social media, and you might become the next cautionary tale. The downside is steep.
That doesn't mean you need to sit quietly on the sidelines, though. "Engaging with the enemy" can be a great way for SMBs to generate online traffic and word-of-mouth, according to Jennifer Dunn, CEO of Social Street Media, which manages social media and online marketing for clients like Outright.
[ Learn the top reasons SMBs have no real idea what they're doing on social sites. See Top 5 Social Struggles For SMBs. ]
Dunn's version of enemy engagement is not so vicious as it might sound, nor is it simply a publicity stunt. The "enemy," in this case, is anyone with an opposing viewpoint, be they a competitor, media professional, customer, or some other person or group. In an interview, Dunn offered up some rules of engagement for building an audience with positive results.
1. Invite--Rather Than Attack--The Opposition
"In every industry there are big personalities and everybody disagrees with each other, and you do see a lot of hype," Dunn said. "A better thing to do, rather than get territorial, is to invite that person onto your turf--your Facebook page, your Twitter chats, or whatever you're doing--and just let them talk about [their perspective]." The goal is engage an audience by engaging an enemy, while maintaining civility. Dunn thinks the point-counterpoint format works well in this regard.
It doesn't have to be an actual invitation to a single individual; it can simply be an invitation to disagreement. Dunn pointed to her client FreelanceSwitch.com, which once published a case study on its website featuring the anonymous applications of two real jobseekers alongside an analysis of why one was hired over the other for a particular gig. "Most people didn't agree with it, but it got people talking and got a huge response," Dunn said. Such material becomes instant fodder for social sharing, too.
2. Pick On Someone Your Own Size
Michael Dell might have been kicking HP while it was down, but he was least picking on someone his own size. If he'd been picking on a small, local HP reseller, it might not have gone over particularly well. "You're going to be perceived as a bully," Dunn said, if you try to engage without a level playing field. A corporate entity picking on an individual blogger might be one scenario to steer clear of. Likewise, if you try to punch well above your weight class, your company could have a difficult time shedding the "frisky upstart" label later on. Look for people and organizations that make reasonable sense from a size and stature standpoint.
3. No Sucker Punches
This type of enemy engagement doesn't involve sneak attacks. It works best when all involved are in agreement about the topic, forum, and other ground rules, in order to minimize the risk of things turning ugly. Engage is the key word in enemy engagement; the goal is not "invite the enemy over and bash them," Dunn said. "That's not what we want to see." Among other reasons: No one will accept your invitation to do, say, a guest blog post or online chat if they think you're going to attack them ad hominem. "My goal is to get more engagement," Dunn said. "I'm looking at anything that's going to get people commenting, get people talking, even if they're arguing."
4. Opt For "Interesting" Over "Contentious"
A small business might find inspiration from Dell's dorm room success story, but Dunn doesn't think most SMBs should emulate the founder's HP tweets. Dunn said a "friendly disagreement" is the best bet. The goal should be to generate a discussion more so than a fight. Good topics for engagement don't need to be particularly combative or controversial to draw a large audience. There's a difference between a curious gawker and an engaged audience member. The latter is usually much easier to convert into a paying customer than the former.
5. Avoid Topics That Devolve Into Internet Muck
Certain topics tend to inspire such emotional opinions that it becomes difficult to maintain decorum, especially online. That's a danger zone for businesses that don't want to be associated with the related fallout when discussions get out of hand. Politics easily tops Dunn's list of no-fly zones for businesses looking to engage with the enemy online. Religion's another obvious one. Dunn recommends focusing on topics directly related to your business and industry, such as processes and ways of doing business, or aspects of working in a particular industry.
Doing so expands the number of appropriate channels for this type of engagement to include buttoned-up venues like LinkedIn. Dunn's also a fan of Internet radio and podcasts for point-counterpoint discussions.
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