Welcoming your critics online

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Here's an assignment for you: Stage a corporate event and invite everyone, even your worst critics, to attend. Let them all have stage time to say their worst about you. Then publish their comments on your corporate letterhead.

Sound bizarre? Well, two of the largest companies in the world just did exactly that. Welcome to the new age of marketing.

General Motors Corp. and Microsoft Corp. have every reason to play defense. Both are under a lot of pressure these days. That makes, a Microsoft Web site about open-source software, all the more remarkable.

I won't bore you with details; just know that Microsoft's relationship with open-source software supporters has bordered on hostility for years. Microsoft launched Port25 in late March to explain its strategy and invite comments from its critics.

And comments it got. Hundreds of them, many of them nasty, some vulgar. "MS is pathetic, Port 25 is a waste of time," reads one typical post.

Microsoft has persisted. Its staff has responded to comments courteously and promptly. It has updated the site with substantial new content. None of the criticism has been removed, although anonymous comments are no longer allowed. And the conversation has become more positive and constructive as a result.

GM launched a Web site, www.chevy, to accompany its sponsorship of NBC's "The Apprentice." The site lets visitors create their own TV spots from an assortment of video clips and text tools. More than 22,000 were created and, not surprisingly, environmentalists took their shots. "It will kill every plant in its path," read one ad, showing the Tahoe driving through an open field.

GM didn't remove any of the negative ads, and it has declared the campaign a success. "Early on, we made the decision that ... we would be summarily destroyed in the blogosphere if we censored the ads based on their viewpoint," wrote Ed Peper, general manager of Chevrolet, in a post on GM's corporate blog. GM said the vast majority of the user-generated ads were positive.

Proponents of social media like to say that markets are conversations, not one-way messages. And in that spirit, GM and Microsoft should be praised for their openness. It's never easy to read hate mail. It's even harder when you publish it on your corporate stationery.

It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago for a corporation to invite criticism in an open forum. The fact that two icons of industry are taking a leadership role in that area shows how much the rules have changed. It remains to be seen whether others will follow GM's and Microsoft's lead. But the fact that both companies are declaring victory with these campaigns indicates that a fundamental shift has occurred. Increasingly, conversation will rule the day. M

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