The reasons are manifold: Potential customers of the Detroit Three may not buy from them simply because they doubt the bailouts will work; they fear marrying brands that they hear are in a make-or-break situation; the public may not feel as bitter about the auto bailouts as they do about bailing out the banks, but they don't like it; prospective buyers may not believe that companies like GM and Ford make vehicles that get good mileage and have build quality and fit and finish that match imports.
We spoke with Sylvia Marino, executive director of community operations for automotive research and marketing site Edmunds.com, who was part of a Webinar last week with Scott Monty and Christopher Barger, Ford and GM's social marketing directors, respectively.
Q: So, Sylvia, this seems like a hot topic--particularly now. How many people attended the Webinar?
A: The final count was something like 300. We had expected about 100. The first question wasn't about social media at all, but the state of the auto industry. There were a lot of people hungry for news about that, and when we got into social media, a lot of questions were around how you deal with the bad news out there. One question I got asked was: "Are the auto companies doing enough to listen?"
Q: That's a good starting point. Are they?
A: Automakers have been listening for over a decade. But the change has been toward more transparency and toward the public becoming more comfortable with companies engaging with them online, not just listening. Ten years ago people felt it was so "Big Brother"; now people feel they have a relationship with the brand.
When we talk about Detroit, it really is that perception lacks reality: "The Detroit Three don't have vehicles with good fuel efficiency." What GM and Ford are doing is engaging not just with their consumers, but with any consumers trying to set the record straight using Twitter, their own blogs--for example, saying: "We have more vehicles that get 32 mpg and better than Toyota does."
Q: Generally speaking, what is the right approach for automakers to engage someone on a social-media platform like Facebook or Twitter?
A: It's not about screaming. There are companies that aren't there for dialogue; they are there for a one-way message because they feel it's cheap and easy. I could go on Twitter and find those [companies] who look to follow as many people as possible to put their message out and use it as one-way push, and that's just not brand-building. And those companies over time will learn.
When you look at companies who have built relationships with consumers, across blogs, across different social media, there is question-and-answer, give-and-take--not one-way. There is an acceptance of negative views, not that everyone has to be right. I think what you are finding is people go back to basics. Having a one-on-one conversation, you are much more likely to have a higher level of satisfaction with that person than if you get a nameless, faceless memo.
Q: When Ford, say, wants to speak to the public on social media platforms, should it do so as the company, or as a person--[CEO] Alan Mulally, the engineer, the marketer him or herself?
A: Yes--I think one of the interesting questions [during the Webinar] was, does it have to be the CEO? Who should be involved? No, it doesn't require the CEO or chairman. In fact, you want the person who has the access and voice and support. You have to have someone like [Ford's] Monty with the right voice, the right "personality" to engage users in dialogue--someone with the resources to go out and find the correct information, or the ability to go to an expert.
Q: What have the automakers been doing that works?
A: I know Toyota has someone on Twitter, and different manufacturers have a presence on Facebook. You will find they are supporting enthusiast groups. Toyota has a blog now--GM really began it with Fast Lane--and now you see other extensions, with GM doing a lot of outreach to lifestyle sites around mothering and parenting, for instance.
Q: What are they doing within Edmunds.com social media platforms?
A: Auto manufacturers have been engaged in our community for about 10 years. We have different brands that participate in our forums--which can mean a brand manager for different vehicle lines, for instance, commenting in our blogs when our editors publish road tests. And we see them when they engage with [Edmunds' blog, news, commentary, and editorial sites] "Inside Line" and "Auto Observer;" we see them engaging with us in public dialogue.
It's become more organized, authorized and supported because we are starting to see the mandate to listen and engage coming from the top down. During Congressional hearings there were heated discussions going on, and I thought that all parties involved--whether consumer to someone who was at one of the Detroit automakers--were engaged and listening.
Q: Yes, but how efficient is a one-to-one conversation?
A: On Twitter there may be some six or seven thousand people reading any given post, and many of those 7,000 people are retelling the story. And you have to look at the other programs that the manufacturers are running that are more social. When we did a consumer test drive, rather than just having our editors test drive three sedans we brought in consumers to do it--we had them do the test drive.
Ford is doing a similar program for the Fiesta, which is again more social. Ford is giving the car to 100 enthusiasts--people have to submit why they should be chosen--for six months, and they have to share their experience with everyone [via video blogs] so the outreach and following becomes much larger. And that's what we are really talking about. Yes, there is a big investment in one-to-one--but the fact is, in these environments when I'm answering one person's question, it's available to millions for viewing. It's very powerful.