Ford Embraces 'Social Media Geeks'

Ford Embraces 'Social Media Geeks'

Automaker courts mommy bloggers, eco-friendly dads at its first-ever 'Forward With Ford' conference.

Dearborn, Mich., home to Ford Motor Co., the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, is steeped in automotive history. Murals of Henry Ford cast their stoic gaze on guests of the Dearborn Inn, a stately colonial-style hotel built in 1931 that sits in the shadow of Ford's world headquarters.

This was the backdrop for the first "Forward With Ford" conference, a three-day media event that explored the social and demographic trends -- such as the aging population and the green movement -- that are shaping consumer behavior.

After three days of behind-the-scenes access to Ford's engineering labs, opportunities to test-drive Ford's latest vehicles -- decked out with high-tech options such as Ford's self-parking system -- and keynote speeches by thought leaders Malcolm Gladwell and Joel Garreau, the nearly 200 media representatives in attendance left with plenty of fodder for stories.

But in a sense, the conference itself was the story.

For three days, Ford executives, engineers and communications staffers rubbed elbows with a ragtag group of self-proclaimed "social media geeks" from all walks of life.

Armed with iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, BlackBerrys, Droids and electronic gadgets that I've probably never heard of, Ford's invited guests came hawking social media sites with handles like connectwithyourteens.net, seejanefly.com (custom travel guides and tips for women), earth911.com (an environmental-services site for consumers and businesses) and sugarjonesblog.com ("short and sweet, sometimes bitter").

This was not your grandfather's gathering of the "automotive press."

For every "traditional" automotive journalist in attendance, there was at least one "Enviro Dad" (a Toronto-based media consultant, blogger and former protg of Al Gore) or "New York Mom" (a New York City-based mother, dance choreographer and "social media creative").

Oh, and actor and longtime environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. was on hand as well.

The brainchild behind this first-of-its-kind media event was Marisa Bradley, Ford's consumer media communications manager. Bradley was kind enough to take a break from coordinating the busy three-day conference -- which went off without a hitch -- to talk with IndustryWeek about "Forward With Ford" and the rising influence of social media.

IW: What was the impetus for "Forward With Ford"?

MB: It really started when we looked at our consumer audience, and knowing who we need to reach and who we need to continue to tell the Ford story to. We wanted to reach beyond the traditional media audience that we work with.

Marisa Bradley, Ford's consumer media communications manager: "Forward With Ford" was an effort to reach a whole new audience.
Obviously we work daily with the auto and business press. But we took a step back and said there's a large audience out there that we don't have contact with on a day-to-day basis, or a weekly basis, and so how do we start bringing them in and understanding Ford.

... And so we thought it would be an interesting group if we pulled together about half bloggers and half traditional media, and then let's not just talk about cars, but let's also take a look at the biggest issues facing consumers today.

IW: Has Ford ever done anything like this before?

MB: No, this is our first big event in terms of really pulling together an all-new audience.

IW: How is social media influencing the way people shop for cars and the way automakers communicate with consumers?

MB: If you look at this event alone, and the mix of people, it shows that we're targeting that audience. Our goal was to have around 200 media members here. But we wanted to split it half and half -- so we wanted 100 bloggers here.

But if you take a look at what we're doing in various car launches, when we launched the Fiesta, for instance, we brought in 100 "agents" [as part of the "Fiesta Movement"] who told us why they wanted to be part of this group to drive this brand new car.

Bradley: When Ford launched its new Explorer last year, it revealed the SUV on Facebook first.
They weren't necessarily Ford lovers -- maybe they had never owned a Ford but they wanted a cool, small car -- and we let them have a car for six months, and videotape and post pictures, and be out there on as many social media channels as possible. And we had no control over what they were saying, so if they hated the car they were going to hate it. Now luckily for us they had fun with it, and it was a great tool to get a brand new audience to look at a small car.

... When we launched the new [Ford] Explorer last year, we launched it on Facebook. That was the first full reveal of it. We didn't bring it to an auto show, we didn't roll it out in a big event like this. We followed that with a nine-city reveal, but it started with a Facebook reveal for all of the fans out there and people who wanted to get the first glimpse.

So that's a good indication of how much we value [this audience] and how we know that social media is resonating with consumers.

IW: How do you measure success with a media event like this?

MB: With this one, the initial feedback alone is what we're looking for.

This wasn't about coverage necessarily. It would be great if we're getting [media] coverage on vehicles, or if we're getting coverage on the experts that we brought in -- someone like Malcolm Gladwell for sure is going to pique people's interest -- but this is really about building a relationship and starting a relationship.

IW: Judging by the Twitter buzz (the conference's hash tag, #FordTrends, was bustling with media chatter throughout the event), Ford really has made an impression on these non-traditional media outlets. What kind of feedback have you been getting?

MB: In one word, it's been amazing. The energy and the passion and the excitement everyone has brought to this -- it has far exceeded my expectations.

... It's been tremendous feedback, and it really brings home that this is about the bigger picture -- at the end of the day this is all about the consumer.

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