Why Micro-Blogging Is What’s Good for General Motors

Like everyone else, General Motors is trying to make sense of social media. But after a government bailout and horrible 2009 sales, GM’s mission is not only to raise awareness but also to rebuild some good will with consumers via Twitter and Facebook, among other outlets. Last week, the company attempted to draw more attention to its Twitter presence by announcing a plan to send eight teams of drivers/bloggers to South By Southwest in early March to compete to see who can spur the most Twitter activity. Two of GM’s point people on social media—Chris Barger, director of global social media, and Mary Henige, director of social and digital communications—spoke with Brandweek about how the company is executing its social media strategy. Excerpts from the conversation appear below.

Brandweek: What’s the main goal of GM’s social media marketing? CRM? Acquisition of new customers?
Chris Barger:
The short answer is yes to all of the above. It’s a combination of building relationships with customers we do have and getting into the consideration set of people who wouldn’t necessarily consider us players or wouldn’t be looking for a GM vehicle. It’s an opportunity also to gain feedback from the audience to see what they’re looking for, what they expect from us, what their perceptions are about us and take that back to the organization. If we see a lot of people saying, “Why aren’t you putting a manual transmission in this vehicle?,” then we go back to the engineering team and say, “Next time out, we might want to think about this, ’cause we’re hearing a lot of it.” This company used to spend a lot of money on focus groups. Now we’ve got a lot of people out there who want to give that feedback and want to know that we’re listening to them.

BW: How do you get into the consideration set of customers via social media, which is primarily permission-based?
The best analogy I can give you is that in a traditional business sense very rarely is the sale made in one visit. Most salespeople don’t walk in, make a presentation and get a contract signed that day. You go in, make an initial presentation, maybe take the client out to dinner and make another presentation with other people in the room, then go to a ball game or a golf game. You keep building that relationship until the client is buying you as much as they’re buying the product. There’s not a sales manager out there that will look at one of her employees and ask, “What was the ROI on that dinner you just had?” You have to understand that relationships are part of the process. The same thing applies here.

Mary Henige:
We recently partnered with marketing, but I think traditionally we’ve been better at engagement. But marketing is still trying to learn it. [Last month], for instance, there were a bunch of tweeters out there—pretty influential ones in the automotive world—saying things like “VW doesn’t get it. You need to look at @Ford or @GMBlogs” and I thought that was kind of interesting, so I went to VW. They’re following one person. [Ed note: As of last week they were following 71 people.] They’ve got like 1,000 followers. That’s a one-way relationship. People are like what gives? We don’t want to just follow you; we want to talk to you.

BW: I would assume a lot of recent chatter you’ve been hearing on the Web has been about Toyota. How do you handle that?
You stay on the high road. It’s a small industry, and if you start gloating at someone’s misfortune, it’s going to come back to you. I don’t think the audience would react positively to any auto manufacturer that was jumping on anyone.

BW: What about in a crisis situation like that? Is social media a good way to go, or do the lawyers take over and say don’t say anything?
I can tell you that right before we went into Chapter 11 working with our bankruptcy consulting firm, we had a social media plan, and our consultant said they never worked with someone going into bankruptcy who had a social media team. So they said we were probably their biggest risk but also their biggest opportunity. To credit our company, they said go for it, do what you think is right. We certainly made sure that when we’re tweeting, if we had a question before we’d press send, we’d have it clarified. But the day we declared bankruptcy we sent 195 tweets, and we actually got kudos. Even the AP auto writer in Detroit said a company in a circumstance like this before would have hidden in a cave. Anything that was live, we tweeted. We had our leaders everywhere giving CNBC interviews or CNN or Fox, and we’d tweet them live. We’d really have a stream whether we used the Facebook outlet, posting links or information. We found that to be extremely effective.

BW: Some marketers are shifting away from Twitter and toward Facebook. Some marketers can’t seem to make heads or tails of Twitter.
I have a sense of why that is. It’s because Twitter is a conversation. It’s hard to actually market or sell to people on Twitter because it’s about talking to people, whereas on Facebook it’s about here’s my content, here’s my post. Some marketers don’t even have comments at all, so it’s more of a familiar route for some folks. The way we look at it is, Twitter is almost the beginning of the conversation. It’s a cocktail party. You walk in, and you’re pretty much talking to anyone who’s there. Facebook is the dinner party, where it’s people you know a little bit, who have opted in to become part of your brand. Twitter conversations are a lot more open and a free-for-all, but there’s value in both. If you’re focusing your efforts on Facebook and your fan pages  and even if you’re wildly successful and have 250,000 fans, what about the other 299,750,000 people in the U.S.?

BW: How do you find a mix between promoting GM and being a real person?
If you met people in real life and talked to them over the fence, and all they did was spout messages at you or try to market to you, you’d look at them cross-eyed and leave. It’s the same dynamic here. You behave on Twitter just like you’d behave anywhere else.