GM Drives with Social Media
A podcast interview with Christopher Barger, Dir, Global Social Media Communications, GM.
GM’s social media strategy began with the Fastlane Blog in January 2005. It was followed by the FYI blog in July 2006, which launched as a rebuttal to a N.Y. Times article. The N.Y. Times didn’t permit enough space, so GM went straight to the consumer with their rebuttal. Chris joined GM in March 2007 to head up global social media focused exclusively on using emerging social media and community based tools including blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc.
GM’s content strategy is not about messaging. Their content strategy puts community first. Chris’ team asks what is the audience interested in? He asks his team “would you watch this video if you didn’t work at GM?” As an example, they recently launched a new video series called Department 180 which tells the quality story at GM. Rather than shooting a conventional video about quality control in GM products, the social media team took a fun approach by showing some of the tests with a twist of humor. When showing wind tunnel and climate tests they show the impact on a crash test dummy. When reviewing steps to cut down on road noise they put dry ice smoke into the car and shut all the doors to show how the car is air tight because no smoke gets out. All the cubic feet of smoke raised a question. How many ping pong balls can they fit into the car? So, they ran a contest among engineers to guess. By talking about vehicle quality from these humorous angles it is far more interesting and enjoyable. While most GM videos averaged 1500 views over months, the Dept 180 video got over 11,000 views in the first week!
In the summer of 2009 GM faced a huge branding challenge. People had not been talking about GM products because of all the attention to their bankruptcy. They decided to invite 100 journalists to show them what’s coming in the product pipe over the next three years. But, wait….Why not give consumers first crack at this tour? So, they reached out to people who have interacted with GM on Facebook, Twitter and blogs including people that had provided constructive criticism. Several were brought in and were shown product plans over the next 3 years. There was one product in particular they didn’t like. This product was going to combine small SUV technology with a Buick. Everyone hated it. They said it didn’t look anything like a Buick. The old GM probably wouldn’t have listened to that feedback. But, the leadership team watched the reaction from consumers on the web as they tweeted and blogged about it. Three days later GM announced on the Fastlane blog their plans to kill this product. The consumer reaction to GM’s decision was very positive because they listened.
Transparent Chapter 11 Communication
GM management discussed internally how to handle the communication of the bankruptcy details in 2009. They were advised by consultants against discussing chapter 11 bankruptcy on social media. But, they realized they were about to have 330 million new shareholders. As Chris says, “we owe them a conversation.” Chris got the approval to move ahead with a transparent social media communication strategy during the breaking news of the bankruptcy. They conducted live Twitter chats each time the CEO or any executive was interviewed by traditional media so those not watching television could follow along on Facebook and Twitter. The GM social media team expected to get beat up by the public. But, everyone was pleasantly shocked by the public’s reaction. GM wasn’t bashed. People appreciated GM’s effort to communicate and be transparent through social media. People truly admired GM’s sincerity.
2010 Social Media Strategy
Very little has changed in GM’s social media strategy in 2010 except increased budget over 2009. While the current CEO doesn’t participate himself on social media like his predecessor did, he is very supportive of GM’s social media strategy. GM’s social media focus is mostly centered around having a physical presence at social events where communities gather. They focus on providing people an experience with cars and allowing them to talk about their experience online. Chris and his team go wherever people are already gathering so people can talk about their products in their own words. If people write about their experience, they are only asked to disclose that GM loaned them a car to drive. That’s the only requirement. All commentary is authentic.
Advice to Brands
When I asked Chris for his closing words of advice to brands on social media, he offered this. “Keep your consumers first!” If you’re going through a difficult period demonstrate change. Show your consumer that you’ve changed and how you’ve changed, and talk with them, not at them. Don’t message them. Have conversations. Don’t use talking points. Be human. …Good advice from a brand that is providing a terrific example.
I think I can safely say that we all want GM to survive and thrive. The company is an American icon. I’m thrilled to see how GM has changed. I’m thrilled to know that Chris Barger is leading the charge in their social media strategy and that the consumer is responding.
I encourage you to listen to the full podcast interview to hear more about GM’s social media strategy which is not captured in this blog post. Click the play button above, or subscribe to my podcasts in iTunes.