Social Media Marketing Goes Mainstream

Call it Word of Mouth 2.0. Companies large and small have been turning to social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to get their message in front of potential customers. Now car manufacturers are eschewing celebrities in favor of social-media stars to sing the praises of their automobiles to their numerous followers.

Indeed, every major car company in the US seems to be running a social media campaign with these online heavyweights. Most of them are centered around a particular vehicle. For example, Toyota is promoting the Lexus CT 200h with online videos that show comedian Whitney Cummings riding and chatting with social media stars as they take the vehicle for a test drive in their home towns. Test drivers include include Baratunde Thurston, Web editor of the Onion; Brian Solis, a marketer who focuses on social media; and disc jockey DJ Qbert.

Online videos to promote a product aren’t new. The twist here is that the people who’ve gone on the test drive are also tweeting, blogging and posting to Flickr about it, thus spreading the word more directly to their own substantial groups of followers. 

It makes a lot of sense from a marketing perspective. "People trust people like themselves, and when we can tap into these people, it will sound less like Ford tooting its own horn," notes Scott Monty, Ford’s global digital-communications manager. Ford’s own social media campaign will include 100 people with strong social media followings to test drive its 2012 Focus around Madrid as part of the company’s “Ford Focus Global Test Drive” promotion.

Could such campaigns lead to charges of “astro-turfing”? It seems unlikely. Companies have learned a lot in the years since Wal-Mart made a serious mistake by not disclosing the “grassroots bloggers” traveling to Wal-Marts throughout the country and blogging about their experiences were actually being paid by the corporation. So has the government. The Federal Trade Commission issued new guidelines for bloggers last year in regards to revealing compensation they receive for product reviews, among other ethical concerns. As a result, both car companies and the social media influencers they work with seem to be acting with extra care. 

For example, Brian Solis notes that "I am not contractually obligated to tweet positively." He said Lexus only asked of him that he “disclose that I was paid to be part of the program." Solis’s words highlight the risk the auto makers are taking with their campaigns; influence works both ways, and there’s nothing preventing these social media superstars from saying something critical of the product. On the other hand, of course, if followers know that the person they’re following is allowed to tell it like it is, praise gains a greater luster.

These social media campaigns can be effective both in their reach and their cost. Ford’s social media campaign last year, focused on the Fiesta, brought in seven million views on YouTube, four million mentions on Twitter, and 130,000 unique visitors to a website – and of the latter, more than 80 percent were previously not Ford owners. As to the cost, Lexus paid basic Screen Actors Guild fees to participants (less than $600 for an eight-hour day for principal performers, with possible residual payments for some). For the auto makers, that’s hardly a fortune for a campaign that could be as good as gold.

For more, check out the Wall Street Journal story.

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