Pushing Social Media into Overdrive: How the Pandemic Led the Auto Industry to Explore New Territory

Converging trends over the past year have created what could be considered a perfect storm for the auto industry. The pandemic forced the cancellation of auto shows, which meant that car companies had to figure out a different way to reveal their new products to an eager audience. The reticence that millennials, in particular, had been famously expressing about car ownership began to fade as this same group turned away from mass transit and looked for alternative transportation options. Often this search was part of a quest for safe approaches to recreational travel; as they avoided airplanes, Americans of all ages increasingly turned to automotive road trips to help them escape the strictures of home-bound quarantine. And electric vehicles came into their own, with Tesla suddenly no longer the only game in town.

When it comes to finding a platform where consumers could discuss these trends among themselves, social media, and especially Twitter, has been a natural. “What people talk about on Twitter is often a really good indication of what society is thinking about,” says Guy Schueller, Automotive Industry Director at Twitter. Such industries as technology, telecommunications, media, and entertainment have long understood Twitter’s power as a continuous communications channel. However, notes Schueller, “automakers have traditionally used it primarily to highlight new product launches. As a result, they weren't necessarily following up their launches with sustained campaigns that could keep the conversation going.”

Breaking the Frame—and the Mold

However, over the past year, the automotive industry’s approach to Twitter has evolved significantly. Take General Motors, for example. With the new all-electric GMC HUMMER EV to launch and no live auto shows at which to launch it, the company turned to Twitter. There, as Jamie Barbour, GMC’s senior manager of media and advertising, puts it, they were able to create a “break-the-frame moment and show a video clip of the HUMMER EV dropping from space, landing on the ground, and breaking the concrete. This unit allowed us to almost create a 3D feel where the vehicle and the concrete are actually coming at you on the screen.”

“A lot more people tuned in to these reveals on social media than would have had they just been contained events at the auto show.”

The impact was immediate and dramatic. “Consumers definitely responded to it,” says Barbour. “We got lots of views, lots of engagements, and it’s inspired us to push the boundaries from a creative standpoint on what social is starting to become and what is entertaining on this platform.”

These results corresponded with what Barbour had been seeing in social media in general. “The continued increase of social media is undeniable,” she says. “We’re seeing more content than ever, more news. More brands are jumping in, which is causing us to have to compete a bit harder to gain the attention of consumers.” So HUMMER EV pushed forward. It accelerated its campaign to include not only the “visually captivating moments that would stop consumers and provide them with both entertainment and education,” but also to mine the conversation-driving opportunities that Twitter provides. And they jump-started that effort by bringing in influencers who could broaden the discussion—and the audience—beyond cars and car aficionados.

“The one-on-one dialogue with consumers” that’s found on Twitter, Barbour says, “is allowing us to take some more educated risks that we might not have done before.” This, she points out, is consistent with the HUMMER EV, which is “in and of itself a vehicle that asks for those risks. It’s a revolutionary product that should be celebrated and talked about in a revolutionary way.”

Influencers Expand the Reach

To facilitate that conversation, GMC recruited key influencers from the worlds of design, architecture, streetwear, and adventures—people who, Barbour says, “are truly revolutionizing their space. We didn’t want us as a brand to just start talking like we know everything. The more we can continue to partner and build trust with a lot of other communities the more impactful it will be for us.” GMC, says Barbour, “took the time to introduce these influencers to the vehicle. We got them to sit in it, walk around it, feel the fabrics we’ve used, understand its size, even appreciate the lighting.” This created an opportunity for culturally relevant conversations beyond, say, technology to include a range of design elements as well as such adventure-laden opportunities as off-roading. That brought in, she says, “not just the first adopters within the EV space, but first adopters in a variety of different categories that can help explain the vehicle and tell its story.” And it created, she adds, “a trickle effect” that attracted people who might not have been interested in reading about a HUMMER EV had it not been for the opinions expressed by influencers in areas they did follow. As Barbour puts it, “when you can turn these influencers into advocates for your product, the power is massive.”

“Being open to the 'shift in consumer behavior during the pandemic, we saw how we could leverage social media' to create mass appeal and excitement.”

The chance to reveal the HUMMER EV on Twitter has, Barbour notes, provided opportunities that would not have been available had they focused solely on the auto shows. “The scale this has brought us—and the new audience—has been unbelievable,” she says.

The Open Road

What’s evident to GMC—and, it seems, to other automakers as well—is that many of the changes in their use of social media that the events of the past year required are not going away. “Automakers embraced virtual reveals because they opened access to a world that is usually closed off to the general public,” says Schueller. “Hosting them live on Twitter democratized access. A lot more people tuned in to these reveals on social media than would have had they just been contained events at the auto show.”

Barbour agrees. Back in January 2020, she recalls, GMC produced an in-person reveal for its next-gen Yukon. They then “leveraged the thread,” she says, by simultaneously highlighting “snackable content” on Twitter. But the pandemic, she says, took that “blended approach and pushed it into overdrive.” Being open to the “shift in consumer behavior during the pandemic,” she says, “we saw how we could create compelling content and leverage social media in a way that created mass appeal and excitement.” And there’s no going back. “There will always be market conditions and nuances that will make any reveal unique,” Barbour concludes, “and we’ll continue to try and stay ahead of it and explore new avenues.”

In the next installment of this series, we’ll look more closely at how auto companies have used Twitter to educate consumers about the emerging category of electric vehicles.

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