As a few of you already know, (but most of you probably don’t), I was a featured contributor in technology and autos for Yahoo! prior to turning my attention back to web development and social media full time. Even though I’m not as active as an auto journalist, I still write from time to time, and there are still a couple hundred followers on my Twitter account that followed me specifically for automotive tweets.
Due to this little known fact, I was invited by Dodge to travel to Austin Texas last week to get one of the first looks at the new Dodge Dart. The trip was amazing and I’m happy to say the car is pound for pound one of the best vehicles on the market. The project that is taking most of my time these days however is Social Media Sun, so I was extremely curious to learn about the group event I was taking part in and what had made Dodge start looking to social media influencers during their media events.
Yeah, I’m @Chrysler
My luck was realized when on Wednesday I found myself in the car with Ed Garsten on the way back to the hotel. Ed was a former CNN Bureau chief, and is currently the head of broadcast and electronic communications for Chrysler. I wasn’t aware of it then, but he’s also been a silent driving force behind Chrysler’s social media efforts.
The last week of the Dodge Dart Drive is the culmination of several years of progression that was championed by Ed and now Mike Driehorst, the director of online communications. Chrysler’s marketing, public relations and customer service divisions are separate. The drive was actually handled by the public relations and broadcast media teams, so I was extremely surprised to find out that Ed’s group controlled the @Chrysler Twitter account. He saw the value in it before the marketing division took Twitter seriously – before a lot of people took it seriously.
Including a social media group in a program that has thus far been reserved for journalists for main stream automotive magazines is a nod to the direction the world is going in. Social Media is a powerful channel for brand awareness, and until last week the only thing I had ever heard about Dodge’s social media marketing was about the incident when an outsourced marketing firm haphazardly used an obscenity on their primary Twitter account. Dodge was making noise, but it wasn’t good noise.
Make Dodge the News, not the Broadcaster
Most of the attendees were automotive bloggers and writers for popular auto journals and forums. Berry Lowman who heads #Motorama chat on Twitter, Christopher Crouch who runs the #MoparChat, and Eric McFetridge who has a popular Facebook page dedicated to the SRT brand were notable exceptions that used social media as a primary means of content output. In addition to the car guys, Dodge invited some other technology and lifestyle bloggers that were considered influential when it came to cars.
One of those bloggers was a tech/relationship blogger named Jen Friel. She was involved in the Ford Fiesta movement, and has recently been given the Chevy Volt on loan as part of a Klout promotion. She is self admittedly not very car savvy though, but that didn’t stop an upset columnist at the car blog Jalopnik from taking some wild shots at her presence during the event.
Most of you probably aren’t familiar with Jalopnik either, but they have a pretty big following in automotive circles. Their article on Jen Friel’s attendance at the social media event created quite a stir among their readers, who for the most part agreed with the people who were there; regardless of how she reviewed the car, Jalopnik’s cheap shots didn’t have any weight with the car purchasing public. The website is known for its crass humor, but car people and the general public aren’t too keen on singling out people to rip on. There were several people involved with far more car experience than the kid who wrote the article, and there were some that weren’t. Something we all had in common: everyone in attendance was invited by Dodge because someone thought we’d enjoy driving the car and knew for a fact that we’d Tweet about it.
Now the event had a story. It had an arc, it had a villain, and it had some legs. Dodge wasn’t making noise now, their car was; their event was. All sides were in agreement that the Dodge Dart was either an awesome vehicle, or “probably not a terrible car”. Without including one of the largest websites in social media week (I’m not sure if they were invited to attend as journalists), there was still a piece written about the event on their website. It turned out that the blogger who was supposed to be the least car savvy was one of the most effective promoters of the event in the short term, even if it wasn’t a direct result of her actions. That’s the recipe for viral content, and you couldn’t have found a better Twitter protagonist than Jen Friel.
This is How you Make Brand Advocates
That’s how social media works. It’s about the people, it was never about the company, and a car doesn’t have a good shot at connecting with others either (unless that car is Knight Rider). We stayed at the W Hotel in Austin, had a great time with some great people, and we got to meet some of the engineers who oversaw the development of the Dart.
Just staying at the W Hotel in Austin made me start thinking of Dodge more like I think of Cadillac. My first drive was in the LE version, and the leather seats, digital dash display and large dashboard mounted monitor helped re-enforce that feeling. The car felt premium, even if the sticker price didn’t agree. It’s a car you have to drive for yourself because I can’t convince you the way that the Dart can. I can however make some noise, talk about it, and make you aware that a new Dodge Dart even exists. That is what a social media event of this kind is meant to do. Besides reaching thousands of readers that would have normally missed a car launch, a single thought leader converted into brand advocate can do far more for a product than a one-off magazine article.
Still Some Work to Do
As I drove back from the Texas hill country with Ed we talked about Dodge’s social media efforts. Internally the marketing, PR and customer service departments are still fragmented. Ed assured me that every single legitimate complaint or inquiry about a vehicle that they receive through social media channels is escalated to the proper party and responded to privately. I feel like you should handle as much as possible out in the open in social media, but in most of the cases that a company like Chrysler deals with, the customer will often need to respond with personal information.
Dodge/ Chrysler is definitely headed in the right direction. Detractors like Jalopnik only become advocates for the brand when they take the low road in social media. For a large corporation that sales big purchase items, the best social media strategy is one that enables regular people to become brand advocates. Having the social media group at the Dodge Dart Drive does a couple of things:
- Disseminates information about the product through social channels.
- Spurs niche influencers to make the car a topic.
- Highlights high end features of the car that would usually go unnoticed.
- Associates the brand with a high end experience.
- Helps promote the engineers and public relations professionals that are best suited to be advocates for the brand as legitimate social influencers.
- Removes the brand from the role of newsmaker.
- Introduces a highly connected web of influencers to brand employees who can receive escalated inquiries, through a personal recommendation from a thought leader.
The most important component missing from Chrysler’s marketing campaign is a publicly endorsed evangelist. Ford has elevated their marketing officer, Scott Monty, to a visible public facing position with great results. Microsoft once had Robert Scoble, and I believe a person at the helm of a corporate blog and a sponsored Twitter account could help their social campaign tremendously. Someone who has the power to be objective, but at the same time serve the interests of the brand could infiltrate the masses much easier than an automotive giant that is inevitably associated with the negative connotations that come with the industry.
I realized however, that Chrysler is more than equipped to fill that void. The representatives from the engineering teams were younger than you’d expect, and all of them were well spoken. I wouldn’t hesitate to put Cyril Benitah, the engineering manager who was in charge of the Dart, or Ryan Nagode, the chief of the interior design studios, in a public facing role for the brand. Those are just the design engineers that I had met – from the looks of things, Dodge’s talent pool for possible brand advocates is as deep as it is wide.
With the exceptional talent, and forward thinking employees like Ed Garsten and Mike Driehorst involved in their online media efforts, and employees like Kathy Graham translating online influence into physical logistics, and back into online influence again, it’s only a matter of time before Chrysler is a shining example of how to best use new media as a platform for big business. The major obstacles are the company’s own infrastructure, and a confusing chain of command.
There is far too much synergy to be had with social media to compartmentalize related divisions these days, but as with any large company, practices and procedures become so ingrained in corporate culture that it’s much easier to explain the advantages of how a particular company is organized than it is to champion significant progressive change. However, the auto industry has never been as progressive as it is today, and there are employees in place who get it; I think it’s only a matter of time until the departments are reorganized to better address the changing media landscape.
Chalk it Up as a Win
The line between blogger and journalist is blurring more and more each day from a marketing perspective. This is just another small win for bloggers, but media moguls in the know already acknowledge the power of social media. The bulk of the resistance is no longer coming from the companies, but from the staff of traditional media outlets and other pundits who feel threatened by change. Much like the folks at Chrysler’s electronic media department, I can see the value in both new and traditional media, and know that the best campaigns are as comprehensive as they are progressive. The same skills that made Ed Garsten a success in all other forms of broadcast media are apparent in his latest YouTube videos and social media use.
Vacations are usually fleeting experiences that are forgotten soon, and have little lasting impact. This trip was far from fleeting, and after I checked out of the hotel, had my last meal at the W’s Trace Bar, boarded my flight, and finished this article, I still have a long list of friends that I made in Austin. The most successful aspect of the event was the fact that without exception, every single attendee was someone that I genuinely liked and would meet up with again if given the chance. If Dodge didn’t investigate all of us to make sure that the group didn’t have bloggers that were unlikable, then they got very lucky in the turnout. In the end a successful social media campaign always comes back to the people, and Dodge people are a class all their own.