By Chandler Bruns, Social Media Manager, Rooster Strategic Solutions

It’s being called the #ChickenWar. Popeye’s fired the first shot in August by introducing a new spicy chicken sandwich after two years of testing. Its fans roasted other fast food companies on Twitter for their perceived inferior offerings. Chick-fil-A jumped into the fray, promoting its popular sandwich as “the original,” which isn’t surprising for a company whose Twitter description reads “We didn’t invent the chicken, just the chicken sandwich.” Popeye’s jumped on Chick-fil-A’s tweet, asking “y’all good?” Wendy’s quickly attacked, tweeting “y’all out here fighting about which of these fools has the second best chicken sandwich.” Popeye’s tweeted back at Wendy’s, “sounds like someone just ate one of our biscuits. Cause y’all are looking thirsty.” KFC, Church’s, Zaxby’s, IHOP, and others sniped from the sidelines. McDonald’s stayed silent.

Popeye’s was the clear winner, at least in the short term. Customers lined up outside the chain’s locations and quickly ate through a 3-month supply of chicken breasts in 14 days. But the war isn’t over.

Comparative advertising isn’t a new phenomenon. Chances are many of the social media generals involved in the #ChickenWar weren’t alive when Pepsi launched “The Pepsi Challenge” in 1975, calling out Coca Cola by name in national advertising. In fact, comparative campaigns have been waged since the early 1900’s. But social media, with its immediacy and legions of fans that can weigh in on one side or the other have changed the landscape. Guerrilla social campaigns like the #ChickenWar are becoming increasingly more popular – and more aggressive.

To date, there are only a handful of examples of agricultural companies attacking each other on social channels. Should you or your clients jump on the bandwagon? Maybe. But be aware of the risks. Here are a few suggestions on how to make your social media more effective as you consider the pros and cons of guerrilla warfare.

Follow your competition. According to Adweek, more than 80% of U.S. companies actively follow competitors on social media. That’s wise. You can get a feel for their primary messaging, which products and services they’re promoting, and the benefits they highlight. You can also see which efforts work well, which don’t, and how their customers respond. All this data should be of use as you formulate your own messaging.

Learn from criticism. You’re already aware of your own customers’ complaints; you should also look for any mention of your company by your competitors’ fans. If you react quickly, you can turn these into moral victories. For instance, a consumer tweeted at KFC last year “Dear KFC, no one likes your fries. Yours sincerely, the entire world.” Rather than ignoring the complaint they turned it into a PR campaign announcing a new initiative to improve their fries, helping make them appear more credible, relevant, and decidedly more responsive.

Retweet or like posts. It’s not uncommon for a firm to retweet or like a message generated by a company outside their industry if they think it would interest their fans, and it’s becoming more common to retweet competitors’ messages. Curating social media is so common that consumers might mistakenly believe the tweet was yours in the first place. Even if they notice it’s not, there can be a positive response to collaboration – like the response to the Christmas store Santa in Miracle on 34th Street who refers customers to different stores. Readers may see your willingness to repost competitors’ messages as confidence on your part.  But you have to be careful –if you retweet too often your fans may decide your competitor produces more interesting content than you do. Plus, it goes without saying that there are some companies you simply don’t want to be associated with, no matter how interesting their messages might be to your customers.

Reasons to go on the offensive. If you’re a new or lagging competitor and if you’re in a mature market and if you’ve already adopted an aggressive social presence it may make sense to attack the big dog directly. Note the ‘ifs’ here. If you’re already the dominant player in the industry it rarely if ever makes sense for you to call out a competitor directly; all you’re doing is offering them credibility. There’s a reason McDonald’s sat out the #ChickenWar. And if your tone of voice has been passive and accommodating, a sudden attack may make you look inauthentic, damaging your brand. But if you’re struggling to attract new customers in a mature market, you may have to poach them from a competitor, and research from Nielsen demonstrates that brand loyalty is decreasing – only 9% of   consumers said they’re loyal to the brands they’ve traditionally purchased, which suggests that customers may be persuaded to give you a look if you demonstrate a better product or service. This is another big ‘if.” You must be able to show a clear benefit to doing business with your company. Otherwise you’ll look like IHOP attacking chicken sandwiches at Popeye’s.

Reasons to avoid ‘Guerrilla Social’. Anytime you mention a competitor by name you’re weakening your own narrative by including their name in the conversation. And by focusing on a competitor’s deficiencies you run the risk of consumers questioning whether you’re any better, or – even more damaging – if you’re a business they want to work with. Yes, brand loyalty is waning, but it hasn’t evaporated. If Ford tells you that their truck is superior to the Chevrolet you purchased, you may feel that Ford is telling you that you’re stupid, or – at the very least – that you made a stupid decision. Nobody wants that! If you decide to go on the offensive you also must adhere to established advertising law – you can be held liable to defend any competitive claims you make in social channels, just as you would with print, direct mail, or any other medium.

What should you do if competitors bash YOU?  When you’re attacked it’s important to react quickly. You should already have social monitoring and response strategies in place, and these should include a series of questions that guide you in your response. Does the messaging hurt your brand? Are you at risk for losing customers? Is there significant marketplace discussion? You may decide a non-response is best; if you’re the marketplace leader, you’re probably used to taking shots – or should be – and you likely have a legion of fans that will defend you, which is always the best outcome.

If you decide to respond, do it quickly – the longer you let the initial message linger on the page, the better the chance it furrows into your customers’ collective psyche. You might consider a humorous response. When Taco Bell ran ads featuring customers named Ronald McDonald who preferred Taco Bell’s breakfast offerings, McDonalds responded with a Facebook post “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” over a photo of a clown reaching down to pet a small Chihuahua. Another option is to simply ask “Why so bitter,” or something similar – although in doing so you must be prepared for a potentially drawn-out and nasty discussion. One response you should probably never adopt is to delete the offending post, as tempting as that may be; your own customers may challenge you for perceived cowardice, or conclude that the offending statement was valid.

Here are a few more stealthy methods of guerrilla warfare. New algorithms and technologies are available to help you generate buzz and attract customers without engaging in a public war of words on your or your competitors’ channels. For instance, there are a number of ways to quietly engage with a competitor’s Instagram followers or monitor negative reviews to find prospects. Facebook allows internet-based targeting that lets you identify potential customers who like your competitor’s brand and products. And Google’s custom affinity audience lets you identify people who are interested in your competitor’s websites.

There are just a few of the ever-changing strategies available to ramp up your social media battle plans. If you’re interested in discussing these or other ways to increase your social effectiveness, please reach out and let’s have a discussion.