LAS VEGAS—Ford Motor said “no thanks” to the federal bailout money, but it’s not passing on an opportunity to build its brand and sales through highly-orchestrated social media campaigns on Twitter, corporate blogs and its half dozen different Facebook pages.
During a keynote address here at the BlogWorld & New Media Expo Thursday, Scott Monty, Ford’s digital multimedia communications manager, explained that Ford (NYSE: F) has made significant investments in social media campaigns primarily to help change the perception that it’s a slow, unresponsive Old World company, unwilling or unable to connect with today’s consumers.
“We made a commitment two years to get into social media,” he said. “At first it was a hobby. Now it’s the way the world is connecting and we need to get serious.”
Monty, interviewed by former Wall Street Journal reporter and current AllThingsD.com correspondent Kara Swisher, pointed to the company’s “Fiesta Movement” campaign as the latest example of how large companies are embracing Twitter, Facebook and thousands of other product- and issue-centric blogs to evangelize their products.
For its Fiesta Movement project, Ford recruited 100 bloggers—which it calls “agents”—who were given the keys to a Ford Fiesta, a car that is the company’s top-selling model in Europe (scheduled for its U.S. debut in 2010) to enjoy for six months and then write reviews that are then fed back to Ford’s corporate Web site.
“We want it to be a social media hub where consumers can get third-party content, product information and reviews,” Monty said. “We aggregate it altogether as part of our effort to engage consumers and build our brands.”
When pressed by Swisher, Monty conceded that not all of the reviews were flattering and that some of the cars were even damaged during the promotion.
“But there will always be people who are critical of your company or your product or whatever,” he said. “Negativity is just a fact of life. But I think if we open it up and allow the discussion to take place, we’re stronger for it and people believe in our company and products more because we’re strong enough to take it.”
Ford and other companies—particularly travel companies, clothing retailers and video game developers—are increasingly using so-called sponsored bloggers and their sponsored conversations as a direct conduit to new customers. To some, the practice blurs the line between genuine opinion and outright payola.
By opening up its products to direct commentary from third-party bloggers, Ford and other companies also open themselves up to the possibility of subterfuge or crooks looking to sell counterfeit or stolen merchandise.
But Monty remains unfazed.
“We see it as an opportunity to get people in the product,” Monty said. “From this campaign, we’ve made 11 million new impressions and had 4.3 million YouTube views. We’ve had 50,000 people ask questions about the Fiesta and 97 percent of them are non-Ford owners.”
According to Forrester, more than four out of five online Americans are active in either creating, participating in, or reading some form of social content at least once a month. Among Internet users over 55, two in three are accessing or creating social networking content.
Ford is no stranger implementing new technology not only in its marketing and ad campaigns but in its latest products. It was among the first carmakers to install Microsoft Auto software to allow drivers to access digital products like cell phones and handheld computers in their vehicles.
“Companies that don’t acknowledge and engage in this new social media do so at their peril,” Monty said. “I mean who would have thought Ford would have someone at this show. I mean, wow. We’re showing up in a lot of places that most people wouldn’t have expected.