What Entrepreneurs Can Learn About Social Media From Ford Motor Company

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Disclosure: I was invited, as their guest, to Ford’s Digital Summit held in Detroit .  The summit coincided with the North American International Auto Show.  They paid for my flights, accommodation and provided both transportation and hospitality for my two-day trip.  They also provided media accreditation for one day of the show.  

In return, they have asked for nothing, nor have they asked that I write favourably about the company or their products.

If I’m honest I was probably one of the worst people to invite to a digital summit hosted by a large corporation, but as I write about digital strategy Ford kindly extended an invitation to this year’s event.  I’ve written extensively about my frustration with traditional PR and marketing [including social media] strategies and how they fail to deliver the results most companies are looking for.  I’ve also organized a press tour or ten in my 15 year agency career.  But, I was interested to get a look at how a large Fortune 50 company [Ford Motor Company ranked #9 in the most recent survey of American businesses] is using social media as part of its communications strategy.

I’m not a Ford owner, nor do I know much about their current line up of vehicles.  I’d seen the launch of the Fusion in the press, I drove a Ford Explorer for a couple of years about 10 years ago, and if I was in the market for a pick-up truck then I’d choose an F150 because I fell in love with a candy red Harley Davidson [edition] as a child.  I also knew little more than the basics about Henry Ford and how he effectively invented mass production.  From a communications perspective, I knew even less about their activities – they’re not really relevant to the work I do with technology startups and entrepreneurs because they have large budgets and deep benches of PR and marketing professionals.  Or, that’s what I thought.

I was worried that I’d spend the whole trip nit-picking – as an insider I was sure that I’d see things that weren’t done as well as they could have been, or that their PR people would irritate me.  Those that know me and my views on many in my industry know I don’t make the next statement lightly – or out of a sense of gratitude to Ford for their hospitality: with the exception of a couple of really small things which are too trivial to detail, the whole two-day experience was flawless.  Flawless from a logistics perspective AND from an experience one  as well. Ford also didn’t leave anything wanting on the hospitality either!  Pulling it off when you’re hosting 20 people is hard enough… when there are 150+ attendees from all corners of the globe, speaking multiple languages… it’s impressive.

But, logistics, hospitality and experience weren’t what I was interested in.  What I wanted to know was how Ford was using social media as part of its overall marketing strategy.  Was it a bolt-on because the company has a large consumer audience and, well, it had to do social?  I was also interested to see how the Ford communications team handled 150 bloggers, journalists and writers when it came to access to senior executives. Looking at the itinerary, there wasn’t much time for traditional interviews so I wanted to know how that would work.  I was also suspecting that the event might be one big branding exercise – a corporate brainwashing – to ensure that everybody came away with the message the company wanted us all to repeat.  Would those of us who were granted interviews with senior executives from the comms, product and senior management team have a PR person perched – waiting to ensure that interviewees stayed on message?

It wasn’t quite like that.  In fact, it wasn’t anything like that.  I don’t think I actually consciously saw a PR person during the whole trip – at least, not in the way that most people would expect them to be ‘managing’ the event.  We had complete access to senior members of Ford’s communications and social media, product and mobile teams and interviews weren’t an often uncomfortable threesome of interviewer, interviewee and PR – when I asked if I could get some time with Scott Monty, Ford’s Global Head of Social Media, I was simply told, ‘we’ve told him you’d like to speak with him so just grab him when there’s a convenient moment.  He’s very approachable’.

You can listen to my interview with Scott here.  I’ve edited a couple of my questions to shorten them, but other than that the audio is ‘as live’.

I did, and he was – very approachable.  Very candid, open and happy to answer any questions.  But, that could be said for everybody we met during the summit – including the CEO Alan Mulally.  We’d been told that we would have a chance to talk with him on our last day in Detroit, and rather than a managed interview where each question was carefully responded to with a corporate pitch, the interview started with Mr. Mulally sitting at a table on the Ford booth in front of about 75 bloggers and online writers and asking, ‘what would you like to talk about?’.  Questions ranged from did he tweet, to what he drove – I think somebody even asked him what he ate for breakfast.  How many CEOs would take 45 minutes to talk with bloggers and online ‘influencers’?  Not many.  Few would be so candid.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally meets a group of bloggers and online influencers at #NAIAS

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking back to my original interest in attending the digital summit – to see what, if anything, I could learn from Ford that would help my customers.  Is there anything that entrepreneurs could learn from studying the social media marketing activities of a large Fortune 50 company like Ford?  In short – yes.  It’s clear that Ford gets how the new marketing communications landscape works.  It gets brand experience.  It gets openness [a lot is written about being authentic in the context of social media, but authentic is often hard to do].  It’s hard when you’re a small business, and even harder when you’re a corporate leviathan.

What I experienced in Detroit is the best example I’ve seen of a company integrating a social element in everything it does – and I don’t mean that in a ‘on every platform’ way.  It’s clear that Ford understands the value of word-of-mouth AND how to create it digitally. It gets how it be used to help them sell cars, and keep customers loyal.  It understands that social media marketing IS NOT something that is defined by platforms, but that it’s an ethos that has to live and breathe from top to bottom [and vice versa].  Ford isn’t the first to use it – it’s the same strategy used by US Senator Barack Obama to win the 2008 Presidential election [detailed in this article by Ellen McGirt – but, surprisingly, very few companies have adopted it.

If you’re an entrepreneur looking at how best to use social media I’d recommend taking a look at what Ford is doing – rather than listening to any of the, often self-titled, experts.  To be honest, a lot of the PR people and social media ‘ninjas’ could learn a lot from it too – and I didn’t expect I’d be saying that before the summit.