By Mike Turner
Scott Monty never imagined he’d be in this position - in charge of social media for Ford Motor Co. as the Dearborn-based automaker’s global digital communications manager.
Monty, 41, was a lifelong East Coast resident before being recruited to Ford in 2008, and he had embarked on a career in the medical industry after graduating from Boston University.
“If you asked me even five years ago if I thought I’d be at Ford Motor Co. of all places doing what I’m doing now, I couldn’t have imagined it,” Monty said. “And now it’s probably the best job I ever had. And I think it’s one of the best jobs at Ford Motor Co.”
The job Monty and Ford have done building a social media presence has garnered widespread praise within marketing and trade press circles. The company is widely acknowledged as a social media power, especially in comparison with other automakers (as one measurement, Ford’s Facebook page has roughly 900,000 “likes” by Facebook users, compared with around 300,000 for General Motors Corp. and 235,000 for Chrysler Group LLC). It has rolled out a string of measurably successful online campaigns that have helped it connect with customers and given Ford’s persona a lift.
For his part, Monty says that Ford’s revamped product line is the foundation of the company’s digital successes.
“You make products that people want and value,” he said. “When (company president and CEO) Alan Mullaly came to Ford in 2006, as he said, we took out our major home improvement loan. We went to our banks and got our plan financed, and then he plowed that money back into R&D. We used it to improve the product first. Once we knew we had superior products, then we started doing some interesting things with marketing, which is where something like the Fiesta Movement comes into play.”
The Fiesta Movement was staged in 2010 as part of Ford’s reintroduction of the subcompact model into the U.S. Ford provided Fiestas to 100 drivers who blogged, tweeted and posted about their experiences with the car for six months.
“That’s the ultimate putting your brand in the hands of your consumers, with very positive results,” Monty said. “We brought these vehicles over from Europe before they were available here in the U.S. This is a global car, and we knew for the most part this was going to be the same car coming to the U.S. And we said, ‘You guys are the first. Have at it. All we need from you every month is a video. We’ll give you the theme, but the rest of the time do what you normally do. Talk online. Tweet. Post videos and photos. Write blog posts.’ They were more than happy to share the story with the world that they were among the first to have this new vehicle.”
Although the program carried risks because the company wasn’t in control of what drivers had to say, Ford ultimately had faith that the digital influencers would like the Fiesta and post good reviews, Monty said.
“We were confident that we weren’t going to get a lot of negative blowback because of the superior quality of the product,” he said. “What was even better was that we posted everything that they were saying in real time on one of our websites. We pulled through their content unfiltered, unedited and uncensored, so people could see what real people were saying about our product.”
“Not only were the product comments incredibly valuable for us, but the halo of respect and almost coolness Ford got as a company that gets it,” he said. “People were giving us credit for being hip to what consumers needed at that time, and particularly consumers in the demographic that we were trying to reach with the Fiesta, which was 20- and 30-somethings. Ultimately we saw 130,000 people register on that site to say, ‘Yep, tell me about this when it comes to the dealerships.’ I think 83 percent of those had never owned Ford before. That was a brand-new set of customers to us. And 30 percent of them were under the age of 25, so we’re reaching an entirely new generation. We ended up with a 60 percent level of awareness for the vehicle before we even started any traditional advertising.”
Not that the program was completely free of glitches.
“One video did sneak through, which actually made it past YouTube’s guidelines,” Monty said. “There was a brief bit of nudity in one of the videos. We caught it before YouTube did. We asked the creator of that video to take it down and edit it as appropriate, because this is a family channel and they were violating YouTube’s terms of service. So that was fine. But you know what, if somebody had made a video and berated the product for some reason, we would have had to have kept it up there because of our pledge to be transparent. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case because we had the great product.”
Fresh off its successful rollout of the Fiesta, Ford embarked on a similar, although scaled-down strategy for introducing its redesigned 2011 Explorer sport utility vehicle. The campaign was centered on a Facebook page on which the company posted teaser images of the vehicle and also included a countdown clock to when the entire vehicle would be unveiled. The company also bought ads on such high-traffic websites as CNN.com and MSNBC.com.
“Fiesta was kind of a catchall approach,” Monty said. “With Explorer, we kind of dedicated ourselves to Facebook and to paid media.”
The different approach was designed to capture a broader audience, because the Explorer’s potential customer base was less segmented than that of the Fiesta’s, Monty said.
“We knew by going on Facebook that we had the best shot at getting fans and doing so in a way that supported the kind of content and story that we had to tell about the Explorer,” he said. “It allowed us to lay out the whole schedule of events for the day. People could come to the page and engage with any portion of it they wanted. We had started the process probably four or five months before the actual reveal, kind of getting people ready for it, ramping them up, giving them teaser images of it - setting the stage for something big that was coming, rather than just showing up one day, turning on the lights and going home. It worked really well. In social space alone, we saw 99 million impressions that day. Online overall, we saw 400 million impressions. We actually had results that were better than if we had run a Super Bowl commercial.”
Despite its online successes, Ford is not about to abandon more traditional advertising and marketing venues, Monty said.
“There’s no doubt we’re seeing a shifting of concentrated budget, but we’re not giving up on any one of the segments,” he said. “Television advertising still reaches a huge number of people and helps with a certain process within the sales funnel. Just as direct marketing works and billboards and whatnot works. I think what we’re seeing is more of a balanced approach between the paid, earned and owned media. Getting the three of those to work in harmony and to leverage each other as appropriate is extremely important.”
Not all companies have the wherewithal, or the need, to undertake complex digitally centered marketing campaigns, Monty said. But there is some universal advice that applies to all businesses, no matter their size or product line, he said.
“I think the first principle in all of this is to listen, to know where your customers are and what they’re saying about you,” Monty said. “Know what they want. If you’re going gung-ho with a plan that involves, pick a channel - Facebook or Twitter or whatever - and your customers aren’t there or are not likely to use it, then why are you bothering? Just because it’s a buzzword? And it has to be fully integrated with everything else that you’re doing. It can’t be just, ‘We have a Facebook strategy.’ No you don’t. You have a marketing strategy or a business strategy your marketing efforts support. And Facebook is simply a tool or a channel within that wider strategy. So understanding how all of this fits together and I think understanding the marketing mix and the communications mix is really important.
“The other thing that I think people really need to look to is not only where people are going, but what do they want from you when you’re there? Do they want more information? Do they want different information than you’re giving them on a brochure or a corporate website? Do they want deals or first-to-know information about your next product or your next sale? We’ve seen lots of statistics that consumers online are basically looking for primarily coupons and deals from retailers, mostly.”
An online presence also involves more than straightforward business considerations, Monty said.
“The third element is a really important one that gets glossed over a lot,” he said. “They want shared experiences. They want to be able to share their experience back with the brand. They want a brand to give them an opportunity to collectively compare notes and to experience things together. It kind of gets to the central notion that we subscribe to, and that is that people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. We not only have an opportunity to engage people and help them be part of something bigger, but as a brand, we almost have that responsibility. Ford talks about having great products and having a strong business plan and making the world a better place. That’s something that comes again from Henry Ford’s time. He believed in giving back to the communities in which we did business. We do so many things at the philanthropic level that if we can get more people aware of and get involved in, then collectively we can all move forward together.”
‘A 24/7 Job’
Because of the vast and fast-moving nature of the online community, Ford’s social media team must remain vigilant, Monty said.
“There is no typical day,” he said. “My day starts when I get up and I turn to the Blackberry not only for corporate news but for tweets that are coming in and updates to our Facebook page. People can come at us from almost any angle. It’s not just the 800 number and the email account now. So really it is a 24/7 job. We’re lucky that we have a team that extends globally, so we have all the hours of the clock covered. But largely they’re looking at things that are going on in their own region.
“The other thing is that we have a significant fan base that I have a personal relationship with that know us through our presence on Twitter and Facebook and whatnot. They will take the time to reach out to us and help us out, to flag things for us and be our eyes and ears, maybe off the clock or they may see something that we may not see. I want to say it’s a finely tuned machine, but it is a machine and we’re fine-tuning it more and more through our own methods and through building relationships.”
The company also strives to be proactive, rather than reactive, by planning as much as possible the content it distributes through its various social media platforms, Monty said.
“As far as Facebook goes, we have a pretty strict cadence as far as what we’ll publish on any given day or week,” he said. “We actually look at that the week before and we align it with the news-making opportunities, the events, etc., that will be happening throughout the week. We try to keep a healthy mixture of content - videos, third-party articles, polls, open-ended questions -¦ really keep it fresh and get people engaged. We’ve found that the visual posts get a lot more engagement, as well as the open-ended questions because people want to be heard. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves, but they also want to have a voice. We give them the platform to have that voice, but we try to do it with an editorial approach in mind. When it comes to something like Twitter, for example, we’re less structured about that because Twitter is much more conversational. We’ll reply to people, we’ll pick stuff that we see that’s interesting and share it with our followers. We’ll refer people to sites to find more information, etc. It’s a much more fluid type of conversation. We have a team of people who work on all those together to execute.”
Even with all the advanced planning, the unexpected can crop up, Monty said. For instance, Ford’s social media team must stand ready to address criticism leveled at the company.
Monty cites an example stemming from a recent multimedia campaign, which included television advertisements in which actual customers were filmed answering questions about their Ford vehicle at “press conferences.” (The customers had arrived thinking they were going to participate in market research but were instead greeted by a “press corps.”)
“One of the customers was a guy by the name of Chris who bought an F-150,” Monty said. “He stated in his own words why he bought Ford. He stated he wanted to go with a company that could stand on its own two feet, and he referenced the bailout.” Unlike General Motors and Chrysler, Ford did not receive federal bailout money.
After the ad ran its natural course on TV, Ford was waiting to receive digital rights to post it online when it popped up on an employee’s YouTube channel.
“We said you can’t air that until we get the rights, so we took it off his YouTube channel and we placed it on ours after we got the rights,” Monty said. “Some politically minded people online got the idea that the Obama administration pressured us to remove the ad because of the political overtones, and this gaping hole online where this video was and had been yanked down was evidence that we had obliterated all reference to it. We had to go forward and say, look, we ran the ad as planned, it’s still on our YouTube channel if you want to look at it. This is what the consumer said. It was our decision to air it, but these were real words from a real customer, and we were kind of stuck with that, for better or worse. There were clearly two divisive sides on whether we should have aired it or not. The bottom line was that this is what happens when you put the brand in the hands of a consumer. They’re going to say what comes to mind.”
Part Art, Part Science
Despite the freewheeling nature of the online world, Ford’s social media team must maintain a sense of corporate decorum when engaging with the public, Monty said.
“As a somewhat public persona who represents Ford, I always have to be careful about what I say. Any member of the team here does,” he said. “If people recognize that we are associated with Ford, then we owe it to the company to speak in a way that is consistent with how the company would expect us to speak. You wouldn’t see us running down the hall here at world headquarters with our tie around our forehead and twirling a towel, you know? We wouldn’t act similarly online. It’s just a matter of knowing how to conduct yourself as a professional.”
At the same time, it’s important to avoid canned PR as much as possible, he said.
“It’s one thing to get the corporate message from the corporate account. People know they can always get that,” Monty said. “But the difference with social media is that they want a personal perspective on what it is. I think that’s the value that our team brings. We have a unique perception from working behind the scenes and giving people kind of a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on.
“People don’t want a press release tweeted at them or legalese quoted at them on Facebook. They want to be talked to like a human being. So I think that’s a first step. The other is to recognize when something goes beyond just something that’s controversial and it’s a crisis mode. And we have to be ready for that, even if it’s just to tell people that we’re aware of the situation and we’re looking into it. That at least lets them know that we’re listening to them. Nine times out 10, acknowledging that someone has said something to us is a major step in the right direction. There are always going to be certain things that we can’t comment on, whether it’s lawsuits or union negotiations or things like that that are very sensitive or that have implications beyond what the social media team does.
“But because the social media team is moving at such a high rate of speed, we have to know how to react almost at the gut level. That’s why this job is part art and it’s part science. You just have to have a sense for some of this stuff.”
Monty, who grew up in Connecticut, holds medical science and MBA degrees from Boston University. He had worked in Boston his entire career before coming to Ford, first as a deal maker between small, promising technology startups and big pharmaceutical companies.
“After Sept. 11, that kind of dried up, so I moved into advertising and marketing in the high-tech and life science space,” said Monty, the married father of two boys, ages 8 and 5. “That’s where I finally got the bug for more things digital and eventually social media. I didn’t know then that it was going to be as significant as it is now, although I
He was part of a social media consultancy in Boston when Ford called about taking the position he holds now.
Accustomed to working virtually (he and his partners, one who lived in Connecticut and the other from New Jersey, connected daily via Skype video calls), “my first question to the team at Ford here was do I have to relocate to Detroit? They said, yeah, you do, it’s kind of a leadership role and we need your presence here. I really wasn’t too gung-ho about it at that point. But they convinced me to come out here. And this was one of those instances when I met the team and was just blown away by their passion and their talent and their level of commitment to Ford. When I took the time to investigate where Ford was going - because I wasn’t an American car guy; I wasn’t a car guy to begin with, but I hadn’t been an American car guy - I looked at the leadership team and I looked at the business plan and I looked at the product cadence. I thought there’s something going on here that is different. I looked at the marketing leadership. (Ford marketing chief) Jim Farley had come over from Toyota. That itself was a sign. I said there’s something special going on here. Being where I thought the social media industry was in its evolution, I thought it was a very unique opportunity.”