Two Wednesdays ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at Supernova 2006 in San Francisco. I led a discussion group on how large companies could improve their brand image/trust in today's hyperlinked, "always on", "the user is in control" (their words) world. This was part of the "Engaged Markets: Conversations" track and Robert Scoble of Microsoft blogging fame was a co-presenter. We talked a lot about how companies could really listen to customer conversations (i.e. word of mouth) in the world's first archived word-of-mouth format (i.e. the Web). By listening, they could determine the real source of disstrust and implement specific tactics to improve their image, and then listen again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Or, rather, listen, implement, repeat.
However, the highlight of this conference was the panel discussion immediately following mine, named "Engaged Markets: Social Media" facilitated by Pete Blackshaw and Max Kalehoff of Neilsen BuzzMetrics. Their panelists included Michael Wiley from General Motors and Curt Hecht from GM Planworks. Michael is the Director of New Media at GM Communications and is responsible for launching the GM FastLane Blog, where Bob Lutz, GM's Vice Chairman, regularly blogs and gives GM a "more human feel". Curt Hecht is Executive Vice President at GM Planworks, which handles all buying and planning for GM's more than $3 billion annual spend in advertising.
This blog post by Dan Farber at ZDNet does a great job of summarizing the highlights of the panel discussion. I blogged about GM in April, hypothesizing that a revolutionary in their approach to advertising may be underway. After hearing Michael and Curt talk, I am now confident that my hypothesis is more concrete. These guys really get it. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the panel (from the blog by Dan Farber):
- In the context of the social media explosion, Michael Wiley, GM director of new media, didn't hold back. "The existing ad paradigm sucks, it's woefully inefficient. It takes huge dollars to create ads on TV that run for 30 or 60 seconds and give the consumer virtually no information," Wiley said. "The opportunity is to create relatively grassroots ads, six to eight minutes long that give an in-depth brand experience and are released online."
- "Instead of GM producing ads online, we could use testimonials in existing online content as our advertising vehicles moving forward," [Michael Wiley] added. "Why not serve those up instead of a contrived advertisement."
- Wiley also said a secret to GM's success is listening to conversations, including the negative comments. GM has blogs and comments on posts [that] frequently bash and criticize the company's products. "You need to be open to criticism and willing to [engage] detractors," Wiley said. "Businesses like GM need to fundamentally change the way they operate. Customer engagement and every customer's opinion counts is just beginning. For years and years you could keep the squeaky wheel happy…now they can talk to a millions of people. The process to change the way business is done is slow process…and still mostly old way of doing business that has been around for 40 years."
- …the voice could be larger than the Wall Street Journal [in influencing purchase decisions]. We just need to find the brand advocates," [Curt Hecht said].
- "We will continue to see the existing power structure subverted," Wiley said. "It's a period of upheaval, and I am confident it will just get better over the next few years," Wiley concluded.
Michael also talked about the effectiveness of their "Google Pontaic" campaign as well as their campaign to point shoppers to Edmunds to compare Chevrolet's features versus competitive models. The goal here is to say to potential customers, "we know you don't trust us and consider us a stodgy old-world company – so here is some third party credibility that is easy for you to find and mostly consumer-generated" (that's my not so great paraphase, not his actual words).
It was also very interesting to see Ed Keller's groundbreaking research on the word of mouth "all-stars" (the most talked about brands in America in a net positive context). Chevrolet was #5 on the list. No other domestic car company was on the top-ten list. GM is doing something right.
If this doesn't make the authors of "The Cluetrain Manifesto" smile, I'm not sure what would. Actually, one of them was in the audience and I publicly thanked him for inadvertently helping me come up with the name for our company. Unfortunately, I didn't see him smile back at me. Maybe it was my comment about most domain names being taken!
Happy 4th of July and God bless America!