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Dell's Tech Center as marketing asset

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Dell Computer's Enterprise Technology Center was never meant to be a marketing vehicle, so the staff was pleasantly surprised last year to learn that the community site had touched millions of dollars' worth of new business for Dell.

“Customers have come into the briefing center and asked to meet DellServerGeek or SANPenguin,” said Administrator Scott Hanson, referring to Twitter handles used by two of the site's four full-time administrators. “The relationships we're building [with enterprise IT professionals] feel like they're going to last a lifetime.”

Dell introduced TechCenter three years ago in an effort to build a community specifically tuned to the needs of its growing ranks of enterprise customers. The core system administrator audience can go there to find advice on Dell-specific hardware issues as well as resolutions for multivendor software conflicts that often bedevil data center managers.

The community is designed as a presales support resource rather than a lead generator, a fact that has required some negotiation within Dell's sales-oriented culture. The four techies who dispense advice and keep conversations on track understand the mindset of the core audience, however. “The last thing IT people want when they come to a technical resource is an ad asking them to buy a laptop,” Hanson said.

It turns out, though, that ditching the hard sell is an effective way to grow business. The technical audience has come to like and trust the Dell TechCenter staff so much that the team often meets socially with members at conferences and trade shows. A core group of 40 to 50 very active members have been designated “masters,” which means they get special recognition, advance information and even the occasional T-shirt. “What our users really want is to be noticed,” Hanson said.

Personalities are critical. In the early days of Twitter, the Dell staff adopted a single @DellTechCenter ID for tweeted messages. That handle still exists, but many communications are now handled one-to-one via personalized Twitter accounts. “It's more important to be yourself,” Hanson said. The strategy seems to be working. Two years ago the site had modest traffic. Today the traffic has increased 50-fold.

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