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General Motors Brands Use “Immerse & Disperse” To Adopt Social Media

Since joining General Motors in March 2007, Christopher Barger, GM’s Director, Global Communications Technology, has struggled to spread the idea of engagement with customers using social media across the American auto giant. He has been stymied by a small budget, the economic recession and cultural barriers to using dialogue for marketing, Christopher Barger met these challenges within General Motors by instigating a process for social media training and adoption called “immerse and disperse”.
Immerse and disperse
is the how employees join GM’s corporate social media engagement team, are immersed in social media before employees are sent to work within a General Motors division or brand. Employees stay on the social media team from one to one and half years, and during their residence employees pick up the basics of corporate social media tactics and social media communication strategies, including; building relationships with influencers, picking up best practices, gaining social media ideas to implement and contacts with GM’s social media agency resources.

Once employees are finished with their social media apprenticeship, employees move to another part of General Motors to spread the concept of engaging customers directly using social media.  

The sheer size of General Motors, its variety of brands and the economic instability were challenges to adopting social media practices at the company. Yet General Motors was not a laggard when it came to using social media, they were a leader. GM started its first blog in January of 2005. For a non-high technology company, that’s very early for social media adoption in the last decade. 

General Motors does not sell cars directly to consumers; instead buyers purchase vehicles from a network of dealers, this distribution channel is another deterrent to social media adoption at GM. The dealer network means that any marketing efforts on the part of GM have to be indirect, and conducted in conjunction with the dealers. Otherwise dealers may raise concerns about being cut out of the marketing channel.

Markets Are Conversations

Barger became active in social media shortly after the publication of the Cluetrain Manifesto. The manifesto, written by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger, is a seminal book because it simply describes how the web is changing the relationship between companies and their customers. Customers are on the web, creating content and communicating with other customers about brands, products and ideas.

The authors of the manifesto wrote the book by brainstorming ideas about the future of the web, and what the web meant for people. As a consequence of the new reality for ordinary people on the web, companies will have to change their online communications strategies. Instead of corporate communications people managing all conversations with customers, employees will talk directly to customers using the web.

The Cluetrain Manifesto hugely influenced business people in the early part of the 21st century, and its ideas about where the web was going were considered a road map for how companies will interact with consumers using the web. While the future was painted clearly by the book, the details of how the concepts about companies communicating with consumers we not very well described, mainly because it was not entirely possible to estimate how the web would evolve. Business executives like Christopher Barger have worked to follow some of the big concepts of the cluetrain manifesto in the companies where they work, but the process of social media adoption has sometimes been slow because the cluetrain manifesto did not anticipate all of the cultural barriers to using the web to talk directly with consumers.

Before GM, Christopher Barger worked at IBM, where as IBM’s blogger-in-chief he played an important role as a leader in helping to craft the guidelines for social media use by employees. IBM employees started blogging early at the turn of the century. Technology companies have been at the forefront of using social media to communicate with their customers. Christopher Barger’s hire at GM meant General Motors was hiring one of the early corporate pioneers in enterprise social media adoption, someone who had been at the beginning of how to use social media for companies. In Barger’s time at IBM he facilitated social media adoption early on.

Focusing on the 80%

In any given year 20% of the automobile market is thinking of purchasing a car, 80% of customers are not in the market to buy. Most marketing dollars are focused in any year on the 20% who are buying. Christopher Barger’s goal at General Motors is to aim his social media efforts at the 80% of customers who are not in the market to purchase. The strategy is to engage with those 80% of non buyers, understand what they want from the automobile manufacturer and drive innovation with products by listening to customers and taking action on what is learned. Christopher believes that if he can get brand managers, engineers and ordinary GM workers engaging with customers through social media he will be able to reach the 80% of customers who are not in the market.

General Motors suffers from the perception that the company does not listen to its customers. If GM is going to change perceptions, it needs a catalyst, social media can be an effective channel for listening to customers, but in reality it’s the change in strategy to listening, learning from what is discovered and having a process to take action that will bring the most benefits to GM. Instead of putting up barriers with corporate spin on issues surrounding the company’s activities; Christopher Barger wants to do what he can to break down the barriers between the employee and the customer. Ordinary employees, the engineers, the designers will be in better touch with the customer and their needs and wants. The company will be in better touch with the customers and market place, and as a result the car company will make fewer mistakes and more winners.

An example of listening, and taking action at GM happened in August 2009. In response to the press coverage about General Motor’s chapter 11 filing instead of the products, General Motors communications was tasked with thinking of a campaign to get the community and press talking about their products again. Christopher Barger organized a select group of consumers, friends of the Fastlane Blog, and gave them a sneak preview of a new Buick crossover car. The consumers saw the car. They were not able to take pictures, but they were able to talk and write about the Buick. Everyone who saw the vehicle thought the new Buick crossover was ugly and GM’s CEO make a quick decision to cancel that design as a Buick. There was some discussion at the executive level that canceling the product would cause GM to look un-decisive, but the team decided it was more important to listen to customers, the industry and cancel.

Christopher Barger has bigger ambitions than the Buick Crossover, he believes it is not enough for GM to build expertise in social media within one or two departments, but that social media and the process of engaging customers using social media needs to be conducted by as many employees as possible, if General Motors is going to be able to reach as many non auto buyers who represent 80% of the auto buying public. The communications problem is that GM is big, with 73,500 employees (October 2009) in the United States, the effort to spread the idea of using social media to connect with customers is tough.

Barger does not have budget to employ a big staff. The solution is to get more of the 73,500 employees embracing social media and reaching out to customers. But it even there it takes time to reach so many employees. And when Barger has all of his resources aligned it takes time to reach 73,500 people, and there’s much resistance to social media adoption. Part of the resistance comes from turf wars, whenever you have a large company, trying to get a company to make changes is tough. Instead of Christopher trying to make changes from the outside in, he wanted to make changes from the inside out.

Barger believes that if he can get two hundred people immersed in the use of social media, who spread throughout corporate and different brands within GM he believes will go a long way to the adoption of using social media to converse directly with customers.

When Christopher came on board he decided to set up a central engagement center, where his team would monitor social media, and triage events in social media and respond. Building a central engagement center was important for Barger but only so far as the center helps to educate and spread the use of engagement within social media across the enterprise. Solely having social media expertise in the corporate communications center would be just creating a silo, instead Christopher wanted to spread the adoption of using social media to engage customers for marketing and product innovation beyond corporate communications, to reach across GM brands and departments.

Barger’s imperative to get as many people as possible using social media is a strategy that means thousands of GM employees will eventually be talking with consumers to support the goal of reaching customers who are not making a purchase in a given year. This is why Barger believes it’s critical to spread the use of social media by training employees and sending out into the organization through employee immerse and disperse process.

Depression And Bankruptcy, A Recipe For True Grit

Resistance to change, small budgets, and the sheer scale of what needed to be done, tested Christopher Barger and his team to the limits, especially in the last year. If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you’ll know General Motors has been the second news story about the recession in the United States after the financial industry’s meltdown.

GM unlike Dell in 2007 does not have the large budget to develop a large central monitoring and engagement team to monitor, triage and respond to customers on the web. In a way GM’s story is more reminiscent of the spread of social media at Microsoft, there Channel9 was set up by Lenn Pryor with Robert Scoble as the front man for engagement adoption across Microsoft. Scoble video taped product managers for hour long informal shows, demonstrating that Microsoft employees were ordinary people too, and Scoble was allowed to critique Microsoft on his personal blog. Scoble’s work on Channel9 and his Scobilizer blog and many other Microsoft bloggers helped inspire other Microsoft departments to adopt social media as a way to converse with customers.

Given the choice between a rock star and 200 people using social media Barger chose the crowd. To achieve the goal of wider social media coverage Christopher Barger developed the concept of immerse and disperse, and in the process has given the industry a concept that meets any budget, overcomes cultural inertia, political concerns and is a model for companies with multiple brands. The immerse and disperse process at GM was developed from necessity, a bit of luck and a sense of what is practical and works,

Christopher Barger works as GM’s Director, Global Communications Technology, in that role he works in corporate, not directly for a brand, and General Motors has a series of brands, and each brand has its own marketing and communications staff.

Developing a social media staff in Global Communications “Corporate” did not automatically mean each brand would build a social media team. And if a brand intended to embrace social media, Christopher wanted to make sure the tactics used were in line with Barger’s ideas about how to implement an effective social media engagement strategy. Christopher could not manage every social media practitioner directly, but through immerse and disperse he is influencing how social media is being adopted across GM brands than existing models of enterprise social media implementation.

General Motors has an internal blog for employees, here Barger’s team has used the tool as a platform to spread experiences and ideas, and employees who start using social media share their experiences. Training everyone, especially marketing and communications teams on using social strategy is vitally important; there should be an interactive piece in everything they do.

Immerse And Disperse Alumni

Twelve people have gone through Christopher Barger’s immerse and disperse model. Employees join Christopher’s Global Communications Technology team, learn the ropes and then are re-assigned out into the company.

Two of Barger’s alumni are Adam Denison and Robyn Henderson. Adam is the PR guy for Chevrolet Camaro, Corvette, HHR and Impala. He was the first employee to go through the immersion and assignment process. Robyn does PR for GM Design and has worked at GM for seven years, before moving to social media, after which she moved to design where she instigated the GM Labs project, where design engineers connect with the customers using social media.

The Insider

Robyn’s existing experience with GM has helped both her and the company tremendously. She had to get up to speed with social media, but she was already part of the GM culture. Her first assignment working with the social media team was to attend the Johnson & Johnson baby camp, but that event was appropriate because she was also a new Mom. Robyn updated GM social media training materials taking the 3rd version to the 4th, and in the process educating herself on social media marketing. She also spent time on social media monitoring, triaging and responding to incidents as they appeared in social media. Chris gave Robyn her initial training. And when Adam left the social media group to move to Chevy, Robyn took over the @GMblogs Twitter account.  

Christopher Barger hired Robyn into his social media communications team to ensure he had someone with experience in the existing GM culture on the team. Robyn had worked at GM for seven years in communities, writing executive speeches, and conducting communications.

When Robyn moved over to the design organization to work in communications. Robyn had never worked in public relations before, but the work she does is more related to PR 2.0, working in social media.

Henderson works with the advanced design team, who build concept cars for ten years in the future. She immediately began to work on developing a plan to have the engineers talk directly with customers.  Robyn already had all of the knowledge of how to put together the project, how to recruit bloggers, put the design specs together, find the vendors, and the launch the project successfully.

She connected with Chris for some ideas and insights but she was self sufficient in social media marketing by that time. Robyn had graduated from being immersed in social media to being dispersed out to another corporate function to deploy the strategies and tactics of social media within another function. And a function that has the budget to pay for the project, this was a project that needed the right person to execute, Robyn, but it would not have been possible without design’s budget to succeed.

The Pioneer

Adam Denison is GM’s pioneer for the immerse and disperse model. He was the first employee to join Barger’s team, and be deployed to the Chevy brand. He started as an intern in May 2007, and went full time with the social media team in September 2007. Adam moved over to Chevy after one year and half with Barger’s team. He moved because the team determined it would be better to have someone concentrate their attention just on Chevy and grow their domain expertise in the brand. Adam talks about his experience moving from social media to Chevy, “Being able to combine the knowledge I gained on the social media team with the expanded role I now have at Chevrolet has really enhanced my ability to most effectively engage consumers on the vehicles I manage.”

Evaluating Immerse & Disperse

Other methods of social media deployment within the enterprise may be more successful in terms of rapid deployment of a central social media infrastructure, but for the long term, as Christopher Barger describes, if your goal is to get 10’s of thousands of employees and many, many different brands to adopt social media within the enterprise companies have to develop a mechanism for effectively reaching every department and brand.

I think Chris is onto a winning model, it makes sense because it works within corporate leadership hierarchies and budgets. Managers for brands and corporate functions have budget, and if given trained employees with social media expertise they will not only deploy social media successfully, but because those employees are trained within one single social media framework the deployment of social media will be less likely to result in communications crisis due to poor execution from a misunderstanding of how to execute social media communications strategies.

Immerse & Disperse Model Takeaways

1. Social Media’s best ROI for large companies with many brands is only possible when deployed across the company.
2. Social media adoption requires trained employees, familiar in how social media dialogue and engagement works, and what tools and strategies can be deployed by the enterprise.
3. Create a central social media engagement center, train people there on what to do, and how to work effectively within social media.
4. Spread expertise and knowledge by deploying trained employees out into brands and departments.
5. Its better to have control and budget for social media at the department and brand level. Managers who control their own resources are much more likely to adopt social media, and employees who have been mentored by a center social media group will know how to keep their new brand within overall corporate social media strategies.