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Will Ford & Auto Industry Be The Web 2.0 Turnaround Story Of 2009?

Roxanne Darling beat me to the punch line with this post, "How Ford Can Ramp Up It’s Social Media Turnaround Story of 2009."

In February 2007 I wrote the blog post, "Is Dell The Biggest Blogging Story of 2007?" The post discussed the potential of Dell through its use of social media and strategy to become the biggest corporate story about a company using social media to effectively engage its community and customers. I think Dell was the story for 2007, and 2008. even gave Dell honors by naming Dell brand of the year.

I really was thinking ahead to 2009, and while I cannot honestly say that Ford, General Motors or Chrysler are at this point conducting themselves in social media to the extent that Dell was in late 2006 and 2007. I like Roxanne Darling hope Ford and its American competitors will be able to claim awards and the mantel of the biggest social media turnaround story of 2009.

Dell had it easy compared to the American car industry. While Dell struggled with poor customer service perception, the big three have an ingrained poor reputation in the American market. Not just individual car companies, or brands, but American car companies in general. Dell never had to fight against Americans perceiving American computers were worse in quality than every other country's machines. Yet, that perception is the biggest problem Ford, GM and Chrysler face today.

Roxanne Darling shares my passion for social media, and my hopefulness that an American car manufacturer will use social media to tell its turnaround story to the community. What’s personally interesting about Roxanne's post is that she reveals that her Father is an ex-Vice President of Marketing for Ford, and her whole family worked in the industry.

I don't claim a similar heritage. My Mother's family is British. However, my maternal Grandfather, and Great Uncles worked for Crossley Motors in the 1920's and 30's, working on the construction of buses, locomotives and possibly aeroplanes. I have been a long time car industry watcher on social media for General Motors, Ford and a whole chapter in my book on corporate blogging about the auto industry.

In her article, Roxanne Darling suggests that social media can be used to address some of the obstacles Ford Motor company faces.

1) Financials.
2) Cultural insensitivity.
3) Time.

Will there be enough time to change community perceptions about Ford and American car manufacturers in general. Though I also think it is about the car companies developing a different line of vehicles to compete.

Roxanne suggests social media can address these issues in the following ways:

1) Give Scott Monty more money.
2) Inform the public of what Ford is doing.
3) Get control of the brand back from the agency.

And in detail:

1. Production: Get rid of the high-priced video production team and inject some humanity into the production.
2. Message: It’s off the mark. Here is how I would change it.
3. Conversation: it still barely exists. Here is how I would change it.
4. Distribution: Ford, you are not using video anywhere near to its advantage. Here is how to ramp it up.
5. Speed: Use live-streaming as much as possible, as people don’t like to wait.

The Dell turnaround story with social media worked because Dell focused on changing structural issues as well as using social media to communicate directly with customers. Dell improved customer service and updated its product line. At the same time through micro interactions on blogs and other social media technologies Dell changed people's minds one by one. Structural issues are critical for success whether you are Dell, Ford, GM or Chrysler. But just as social media rapidly brought down Dell in the Dell Hell storm, once the structural issue had started to be addressed; social media helped Dell to turnaround quickly.

Here's my take on what Ford and other American car manufacturers can do with social media to help make selves the social media turnaround story of 2009:

1) Listen: Use social media for listening.
2) Engagement: Engage customers when they have problems. Acknowledge their issues and demonstrate that you are going to either do something about their issues, or why you cannot.
3) Triage Infrastructure: Develop a company infrastructure for triaging social media conversations about Ford and other American car manufacturers. If the dealer network is a problem where customer service issues are not dealt with by Ford directly. Either help dealers build the infrastructure, or build that infrastructure and pass on the customer support issues to dealers. Make sure any customer issues are resolved.
4) Measurement: Measure sentiment about Ford, the American car industry, and brands. Report on the current of sentiment in social media in the same way you report on sales and profits by quarter. Like Dell your goal should be to move the negative rating lower. Once you start changing perceptions in social media there should be a knock on effect with traditional media, as my article on intermedia issues indicates, “Making Sense Of Intermedia Agenda-Setting For Social Media Marketing.”

A number of people don't agree with the Government’s auto bailout and think that it would be better for the American car manufacturers to go into bankruptcy. I don't personally agree with them. But I was thinking that there may be something that everyone who is a user and advocate for social media can agree upon, bailout aside. The plan and path for Ford and other car manufacturers need to take to succeed.

1) Structural reform (Ford looks well on the way here)
2) Use social media to communicate with customers for listening, and resolving issues and in so doing telling the new story through action.

Dell succeeded because the company understood the power of public relations and connecting with people in their customer community. The company also understood it was important to connect with social media influential people on the web and in person. Ford and the other car manufacturers have to get social media enthusiasts on their side; you can do that by structural reform, but also by enabling your social media managers to build the same sort of infrastructure Dell built and connect with your customers directly. Then reach out to the community and don’t be afraid about revealing all the facts about where you failed and succeeded. That transparency will help you to become the social media turnaround story of 2009.