How Toyota Helped Digg Itself Out of Trouble

In late January, Toyota watched the hundreds of stories about its recall situation flow through Digg and saw the passionate comments and conversations triggered by those stories. Toyota was already an advertiser on the user-voted news aggregator, but execs at the company concluded that ads weren’t going to be enough. In a fast-changing crisis, the carmaker needed a PR platform where it could listen and interact with consumers.

So Toyota did something unusual: It offered up Toyota Motor Sales USA president Jim Lentz for its Digg Dialogg interview series, the first time a corporate executive has been featured in a grab-bag of newsmakers ranging from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to Sacha Baron Cohen in the guise of movie alter-ego Bruno.

Turns out the Feb. 8 live-stream interview with Lentz was more popular than any of the Dialogg interviews to date, generating more than 1 million views in the first five days alone.

Toyota executed a big ad buy around the effort and a Digg microsite that aggregates Toyota stories on Digg in one place. The Lentz interview was a separate, unpaid Digg “editorial” project. “The recall situation we faced in this new landscape was one brands had not really seen before. We were in unchartered territory,” said Doug Frisbie, national social media and marketing integration manager at Toyota Motor Sales, who describes Digg as an ongoing strategic partner. “This allowed us to take a much more conversational approach, which for a big brand is difficult to do. Social media allows brands to become more humanized.”

Did it work? As proof of sorts, Frisbie pointed to the carmaker’s stunning March sales results. To be sure, unprecedented incentives and discounted leasing boosted Toyota in March when sales rose 41 percent over the year-earlier month.

But for J.D. Power and Associates, the link between the social media outreach and the sales boost is far from proven. Lentz’s Digg interview was not a major topic on the Web in the days before and after the event with “little to no online buzz after the event took place,” said J.D. Power rep Syvetril Perryman, citing the company’s Web Intelligence data.

Even though that data shows negative sentiment climbed again last week, Perryman noted that the spike in chatter around Toyota that hit a fever pitch in late January has subsided, a phenomenon she attributed more to fatigue than social media-based crisis PR efforts. “In more recent weeks, the volume has reduced significantly, suggesting that the consumer is beginning to move on to other, more current topics and focusing less on Toyota’s situation,” she said.

Complicating the matter, Lentz had also been featured on mainstream media outlets like NBC’s Today, ABC and NPR, and Toyota was, of course, running a national advertising campaign attempting to win back consumers’ trust. With Digg, however, Lentz was asked the unedited top 10 questions voted by Diggers from the more than 1,400 submitted over a three-day period.

“Toyota wanted to be very transparent and talk to a wide audience about what they were doing about the recall,” said Chas Edwards, chief revenue officer at Digg. “Digg’s 40 million subscribers provided enough outreach but not in a canned situation where Toyota’s PR and marketing teams shaped the conversation.”

Surprisingly enough, the citizen journalists showed a preference for softball questions. (A Digg rep said there was no intervention on Digg’s or Toyota’s part.) Only four of the top 10 queries actually dealt with the recall or safety issues; the others addressed things like gas-free cars or design aesthetics. (With 289 diggs, the No. 1 question to Lentz was “What do you drive?”)

Brendan Hodgson, svp, digital, public and corporate affairs at Hill & Knowlton, who was not involved with the Toyota Digg initiative, said the questions show a disconnect between the media’s goals and the public’s curiosity. “I’m a former journalist, and we used to say, ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ to sell newspapers and attract eyeballs,” Hodgson said. “Now we have witness to voices that are unfiltered by traditional media, and the context in which they see these things is not according to the business objectives of media.”

That unfiltered access is a two-way street, though. Edwards said other advertisers also want to do Dialoggs, but they’re not necessarily newsworthy. “It would be a situation where the product is actually a news event in and of itself,” Edwards explained. “But we have to be very careful. Some brands are trying to force the news cycle in a way we can’t because the Digg Dialogg can’t be shaped by advertiser spending.”

Conversely, what happens as Digg continues to feature stories, negative or positive, about a marketing partner like Toyota? “The church and state separation is much easier for us than The New York Times,” Edwards said. “We’ve built a curation algorithm piece of computer code that goes through the 25,000 stories submitted to Digg every day. We allow any content, commercial or editorial, good or bad. The Digg community grades content whether it’s relevant.”

See also:

“Are Toyota Owners Staying Loyal?”

“Brand Loyalty Rises Among Non-Toyota Owners”

“Mazda Confirms That Review Has Begun”