Is Ford ‘Fiesta Movement’ a social media experiment or just a sponsored buzz machine?

(Update: A social-media initiative from Land Rover drew some spirited discussion in the comments section over at Ad Age. Is this a prelude to “Car Wars” in the SM space? 4/22/09)

…and why is no one asking the tough questions?

fiestaBrilliant!

That was my first reaction to “Fiesta Movement,” a campaign launched last week by Ford. A marketing masterpiece, it was. Writers who cover the car biz are calling it a “gamble” on Ford’s part. I see a “sure bet,” but I’m getting ahead of the story. Way ahead.

In case you missed it, Ford has recruited 100 “socially vibrant” 20-somethings as part of a social-media campaign to promote the Fiesta well ahead of its U.S. introduction. In exchange for free use of the car + fuel + insurance for 6 months, Ford’s Fiesta “agents” have agreed to talk about the car every chance they get.

So these 100 agents will be chatting, blogging, tweeting, YouTubing, Facebooking and Flickring about their new toys. The buzz that results should create a pile of grassroots interest in the Fiesta. But will it also create a pile of controversy online?

Brilliant? I talked about this campaign with a longtime friend in the ad business. He liked the strategy a lot, and applauded Ford for its understanding of the core market and of social media. But he had the same concern as I about this “risk” Ford is said to be undertaking, along with the authenticity of communication from the Fiesta agents.

Ford won’t get to review content, but the reviewers are basically co-opted by the free car/free attention offer. (Not that anyone really notices that these days.) These reviewers will probably pull some of their worst punches because they don’t have $12k tied up in a car — it’s a freebie and a free forum for their work. Negative stuff will probably be much milder than the sort of negative stuff you’ll see in SM once the Fiesta is actually sold in the U.S.

He later added:

I think this campaign will be key in destroying the “neutral” notion of social media vs. “advocacy” paid media.

In the end we agreed it was a brilliant campaign, but not one that will resonate with the “true believers” of Web 2.0.

Since I was enjoying a blog “vacation” last week, I opted to post comments to 3 other blogs vs. writing my own.  I thought others might share my skepticism. But all I attracted was opposition, and plenty of it, including some from Scott Monty, director of social media at Ford and a leader of the Fiesta campaign.

Long discussions ensued on those blogs — discussions I won’t try to replicate here. If you’re interested, you’ll find links at the bottom of this post. BTW, I shared the experience with my class as an example of how professionals (Scott Monty) monitor and respond to the online conversation. Scott did a fine job of defending the campaign, and doing it almost in real time.

Two paragraphs to summarize my take on the campaign:

Fiesta Movement is, at its worst, payola. Or if you prefer, blogola. And it’s the same sort of blogola that’s created huge dust-ups back in ’07. For some background, try  here, here and here. Simply put, by offering a free car, free fuel and free insurance to the agents, Ford has co-opted its agents’ messages. The moment these “socially vibrant” influencers took Ford’s booty, they became paid shills. Maybe “shills” is too strong a word. But maybe it’s not. Do we bite the hand that feeds? Do we criticize our benefactors? Acceptance of such a significant gift calls into question the authenticity of each agent’s message.

Fiesta Movement is at best “sponsored conversation.” Because Ford is spending cash and resources to create the chatter, the campaign becomes a series of sponsored messages, and maybe even some dialogue.  The agents’ messages are a product of the marketing effort and produced by people who’ve been paid to post them. But since Ford has disclosed what the agents received, the campaign doesn’t cross ethical boundaries.The company was careful to say it won’t try to influence or censor what the agents say. From where I sit, that influence happened when the agents accepted the significant gift. Caveat emptor.

It’s still brilliant. While Ford’s Fiesta Movement is hardly what the Cluetrain crowd calls “conversation,” it remains damned good marketing — an innovative approach to persuasion. The buzz machine is cranked up and it’s rollin’ down the road.

It’s also a cost-effective campaign. Do the math: A hundred low-priced loaner cars plus insurance and fuel, a few hi-profile events, some staff time, agency time and — bingo. A potential mini-explosion of social media buzz for under a million bucks (my estimate, not Ford’s).

If you’ve hung out in the PR and marketing blogs at all, you aren’t surprised by Ford’s innovative approach. After all, Scott Monty is a social media veteran and a highly competent online marketing pro. Ditto for Rohit Bahrgava, who is working on the campaign for Ogilvy. He blogged about the campaign here.

There’s nothing wrong with advocacy, as it’s what fuels the marketing machine. But the notion that Fiesta Movement is some sort of open air focus group or some risky social media experiment — I don’t think so.  It feels more like a pep rally.

So let me leave you with a question: As corporate marketing dollars come to dominate social media, how do we tell the difference between the real conversation and the sponsored buzz machine?

Links to the posts referenced above:

eyecube: Ford creates a social media movement with Fiesta

Inquisitr: Ford tries the ultimate social media experiment

Just for fun, I include this item from Web 2.0 cartoonist Guhmshoo. Full disclosure: I tipped him off to the Fiesta thread, which makes me the guy in the baseball cap. Hey! I never said that!🙂

guhmshooford1


37 Responses to Is Ford ‘Fiesta Movement’ a social media experiment or just a sponsored buzz machine?

  1. Dino Baskovic says:

    I have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t the “old” POS Fiesta circa ’80s, and that the Fiesta sold quite well overseas for many years.

    Anyway, I give Ford credit for conducting what amounts to legalized payola on a grand scale. This isn’t some stealth SM ploy. No, no, make no mistake, these are paid Ford agents whether or not they receive 1099s at the end of the year. That said, heck, why NOT experiment? There are no FTC regs in the traditional payola sense, and the digirati are forever cynical, and let them be. If it blows up in Ford’s face, so be it. They tried. If it succeeds, then good for Ford and expect other OEMs to follow suit faster than Mark Cuban can tweet himself another NBA fine.

  2. Scott Monty says:

    Bill, thanks for continuing to look at the program. I appreciate your willingness to hold our feet to the fire on this and for your compliments on what we’re doing.

    I’m not sure where the notion of social media as neutral ever came from – nor that it’s true. Bias exists everywhere, from individuals to mainstream media, and if you think that social media is/was pure or neutral, I’d suggest otherwise.

    And to be perfectly clear: this is not just a marketing campaign. How can it be, since it ends a full 6 months before the car ever goes on sale? This is part of Ford’s commitment to co-creating the cars that people want and value, and demonstrating that Ford is different.

    So dismiss it as “an open-air focus group” if you will, but the bottom line is we’ll have engineers and designers asking questions, sending surveys, conducting polls and getting feedback from the agents. And they’re going to put the suggestions to use. We’re creating the Fiesta that the U.S. will see in conjunction with some early test drivers.

    Scott Monty
    Global Digital Communications
    Ford Motor Company
    http://thefordstory.com

  3. Dino Baskovic says:

    Scott: When you say “this is not just a marketing campaign,” do you mean it’s a marketing campaign and more or something else entirely?

    Bill: As soon as I posted my earlier comment, one of the Fiesta agents immediately began to follow me on Twitter (@followthefiesta to be exact). Payola and marketing arguments aside, these guys are doing their homework. And then, the comment from Scott to you. Bravo.

  4. Rick says:

    Bill,

    You certainly have every right to question the ability of the ‘agents’ to speak the truth, but can’t we at least wait a couple of weeks to see what sort of content they produce?

    You’re putting Ford in a no-win situation: If the ‘agents’ slam the car it will be a “marketing disaster equivalent to New Coke.” If they speak well of the car then they are “corporate shills and it doesn’t really count.”

    Let’s evaluate this program at the end of May, then again in July and finally at the end. Then we can all make judgements based on what actually was said and done.

  5. guhmshoo says:

    Scott,

    How are the execs at Ford viewing the social media campaign thus far? I thought I read somewhere that they were skeptics.

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    Dino: To your last point, the Ford crew is on top of social media and Scott’s quick responses show that. I’ll disclose that I sent Scott a “heads-up” tweet about the post today, but he probably didn’t need it. He found my comments over at Eyecube almost instantly, and responded almost instantly.

    Scott: I applaud Ford for involving customers in the campaign. And I appreciate your practical view of the social media space. The conversation, as it was envisioned by Cluetrain, isn’t how it’s gonna shake out. I may have some questions about authenticity, but when this chapter of online marketing is written, the Fiesta campaign will be one of the cases referenced.

  7. Bill Sledzik says:

    And Rick…I look forward to seeing how the campaign shakes out, and I hope to write a post about it. But I don’t buy the “risk” scenario, as it assumes the well-compensated agents will bite the hand that feeds. Not likely.

  8. april says:

    As a 22, soon to be 23 year old considering trading up from my beat-up 2001 chevy lumina, I think I fall into the taregt audience for this program. The post left me wondering if Ford is taking care of the gas costs, and, I’m presuming here, the maintenance, is the fiesta crew really getting the full ownership experience?

    Part of owning a car is getting the oil changes, car washes, first dents, wondering what exactly you’re supposed to do when you pop a tire, and the thrill of streching out those last couple of miles when your gas actually says empty. Just reading about someone driving around a car isn’t really that interesting to me, and by leaving all of that out, they are leaving out the real car experience.

  9. Blair Boone says:

    I promised Bill I’d come clean if he posted on the Fiesta Movement/marketing campaign, so here goes.

    I’m the “two-Ford owner” ad writer he’s quoted a few times. (Full disclosure: 2000 Ranger 4×4 and 2001 Mustang GT convertible.) The quotes Bill’s used are from our email exchanges on the Fiesta campaign. For the record, I think it’s a brilliant use of social media, in part because it subverts the social media conventions about a “conversation” that doesn’t promote products in exchange for money or other considerations, and also because it’s subverting the business model for both paid media and ad agencies.

    Don’t take my word on that last point. Here’s a quote from Ad Age (4/13/09) “Ford is, in effect, using YouTube as the core of its marketing plan but not paying Google a penny for the privilege.”

    That said, my cavils are minor. First, transparency. Yes, Ford’s laid out in broad terms its relationship with the “agents.” And that’s fine. But I haven’t seen the actual contracts posted anywhere. Can agents pimp their rides? Slap on some 20s and add a moonroof? Set the car on fire and drive it off a cliff? I’d imagine not, though all that would make for some crazy YouTube footage. Ford has perfectly legitimate interests in prohibiting certain activities, and the “agents” have equally legitimate interests in agreeing to certain limits in return for a six-month trial and a ready-made “buzz” forum to post their reactions. Both sides stand to derive significant economic benefit from the arrangement, Ford by generating huge buzz for the Fiesta, and the “agents” by generating buzz for their budding careers. I’d like to see the contracts before we call it “transparent.”

    That mutually beneficial relationship leads to my second point. Do I think the agents will pull all their punches and go completely “in the tank” for the Fiesta? Of course not. The benefit for both sides is to create reasonably objective reactions, as no viewer or reader would believe endlessly gushing reviews. I’ll also grant Scott’s product feedback argument – Ford should get some good insight into “Americanizing” what’s already a very successful car. And because it’s already a proven car in other markets, the risk is quite low for any serious Fiesta-bashing. But because the relationship is mutually beneficial to both sides, there’s built-in bias. Nothing sinister there, but it’s there. In an earlier exchange with Bill, Scott cites car magazine reviewers as a counterexample to this inherent conflict of interest. Hey, those mags derive big ad revenue from the car companies. You can’t keep your job at any trade or special interest rag if you relentlessly slam the products of big advertisers – even if those products suck.

    Those are the kinds of points I raised with Bill privately. I add them here so he won’t have to take all the blame — I was egging him on. I wouldn’t have used the terms “shills” and “payola” if for no other reason than I think most people, or at least most advertising types, never have viewed social media as some sort of completely neutral, self-regulating wonderland. I think we’ve always been looking for ways to turn social media into another marcom channel that complements or even replaces, as in this case, traditional paid media. And that’s why I think the Fiesta Movement is brilliant, because that’s what it does.

    More disclosure: I’ve been a full-time freelance advertising writer for the last 22 years, so even though I often work for ad agencies (and sometimes for various parts of the auto industry), I don’t have nearly as much financial interest in the “old media” business model as agency types do. I can afford to be media agnostic because I can make money on any medium that needs someone to write for it.

    Finally, it’s not just the idea of the campaign that’s brilliant. Scott Monty’s been brilliant at executing the campaign.

    Here’s the final proof for me that Scott’s a genius. Every time anyone writes or posts or comments about the Fiesta Movement, Scott’s strategy and campaign are working. I just wrote this comment, generating even more buzz for Ford, and I can’t send him a bill for it.

  10. Rick says:

    April,

    Those are really interesting points, to me they are more valid than the ‘are the agents bought’ questions. How accurately will their experiences match those of real car owners?

    It might be interesting for Ford to work with 100 people who actually buy the cars next year, sort of a Ford Fiesta Movement, Year 2: The Real World

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Blair: The campaign is a tailor-made SEO machine for Ford Fiesta, but neither the campaign nor the car is as much fun as your Mustang GT convertible.

    I, too, have seen this coming — the end of the innocence in social media, as it were (with apologies to Don Henley). Open systems are that way. They have the potential to foster community and sharing, but they also provide forums for the most capable and the most cunning of communicators.

    Over time we may learn how to separate the genuine from the commercial messages in this space. But it’s not getting any easier. I believe “Amanda Chapel” (of Strumpette fame) used to call it “surreptitious selling.” And social media provide a great environment for it.

    Smart marketers and PR types are paid to select the medium that best fits the audience and the message. Ford has done so masterfully with the Fiesta campaign — to the point where my admiration is beginning to overshadow my concerns.

    But I have to wonder, six months or a year down the road, if readers/viewers of the Fiesta buzz will have any idea where it originated.

  12. Blair Boone says:

    Bill, I don’t take such a dim view of the outcome six months or a year away. Many consumers, especially older ones, aren’t especially savvy about where “buzz” originates anyway. Let’s face it — we both know people our age (Boomers) who for years have actually believed Consumer Reports has valuable information on automobiles. They’ve gone out and bought cars on the basis of feedback from a group of self-selecting snobs who subscribe to a publication that exists largely to reinforce their view of themselves as highly educated and discerning. The target audience for the Fiesta is very sophisticated about social media, and also about the kinds of messages they’ll allow when they’re being pitched. They won’t just know where the buzz came from — they’re involved in generating it. If the Fiesta reintroduction in the U.S. is successful, it will be in part because it succeeds first with those younger consumers and gains enough critical mass/market share that other consumers outside that buzz feedback loop get to see the car on the street or at the dealer, like it and buy it. The Fiesta Movement is just the first marcom step in Ford’s long-term strategy of making money on smaller cars in the U.S. They’re targeting a market niche to get a foothold in the larger market. Again, most likely a smart move. If some kid’s grandmother buys one two years from now, she doesn’t need to know where the buzz came from. She just needs to like the car — and keep liking it after she buys it.

  13. Blair Boone says:

    April, I think your “full ownership experience” is dead on, and I hope Ford’s contract with the “agents” encourages them do stuff like change their own oil or run out of gas — just like real people who are stretching limited resources. Which is one of the reasons to own a subcompact anyway.

  14. guhmshoo says:

    I give you exhibit A:

    And Agents haven’t even received their cars yet.

  15. Bill Sledzik says:

    Ah, youthful enthusiasm. I wonder if this “rogue agent” read Blair’s comments about Consumer Reports.

  16. Blair Boone says:

    Wow, Guhmshoo. Good catch.

    Puts Ford in an awkward position, actually. They’ve agreed not to censor any Agent comments, but you’ve gotta believe Monty really, really wants to send Mr. Kleis an email that says, “Dude, you might want to wait till you get the car.”

    Hey, I’m a Ford fan. But I do like to drive ’em before I buy ’em.

  17. Scott Monty says:

    Sorry to be late to replying here. Lots going on today. What a great discussion you’ve got going on here, Bill!

    I’ll keep my comments brief, out of respect for the tired eyeballs that have made it this far down.

    @guhmshoo: Initially Jim Farley (our Group VP of Marketing) was skeptical; as soon as he saw the response to the recruitment effort, he knew it was going to be different.

    @Blair: A very well-reasoned and masterfully written position. You raise some excellent points. The only think I’ll say regarding damaging the vehicle is that they don’t own it. The vehicles must be returned to Ford at the end of the program. And thank you for the “genius” comment, but I’ll defer that assignation to the entire team involved in this.

    @April: We’re not performing any of the fillups for them; we’re just paying. They may have to take their vehicles in to be serviced from time to time; and if there’s significant enough damage, they’ll need to visit a service center to have it taken care of, just like any of us. The only difference is they’re not paying.

    Thanks everyone, for this great discussion. Glad to provide the fodder.

  18. Blair Boone says:

    Dino, here’s an update on the FTC, blogging and paid product reviews. http://adage.com/article?article_id=135938

  19. Bill Sledzik says:

    Blair: If the FTC follows thru on the regs, it’ll sure put the SM marketing folks on a shorter leash, and maybe dampen creativity a bit. But I have no problem with SM marketers being held accountable when it comes to “truth in advertising,” as these campaigns have become a form of advertising.

    Going back to a point Dino made early on, it would seem the Ford agents are contractors, thus whatever Ford offers them that isn’t a legit “expense” item would be subject to income tax. I’m certain Ford’s legal/finance folks have that base covered, but what of the smaller marketers and creative shops who hand bloggers cell phones, cameras and laptops like they’re Easter candy?

    Are those companies issuing 1099s?

  20. Blair Boone says:

    Dammit Bill, I’m a writer, not a tax attorney!

    Seriously, I’ve not given that tax issue any thought, though what you and Dino are saying seems reasonable. Aren’t you married to a hot-shot tax accountant? She’s had a full day to recover from tax season, so go ask her.

    I’ve no problem whatsoever with the FTC applying established regs and legal precedents to new forms of paid commercial speech. As you know from our many offline discussions on that subject, I think everyone should have to play by the same rules I do when I’m writing advertising copy.

  21. Ed Lee says:

    Bill – wanted to share a similar campaign from north of the border:

    http://www.hypercube.ca/en/media.html

    Wondering what your thoughts on this would be?

  22. Blair Boone says:

    Ed, I’ll jump in. On first look, the cube program is an old-fashioned giveaway conducted through SM. The contestants are the stars, not the cars. And the car itself is just the endpoint of the promotion. No consumer feedback or driver experience required.

    The Fiesta program keeps the car front and center for six months (minimum). It’s about the car owner/driver experience. Along with tons of free attention, it may even generate some useful consumer feedback for Ford.

    Hands down, the Fiesta campaign is far more tightly integrated into the SM experience — as the target audience of Milliennials defines that experience.

  23. Judy Gombita says:

    Blair, I suggested to Bill several days ago that he ask (awesome CPA) Sharon about the (potential) tax implications. Not sure about the IRS, but the Canada Revenue Agency certainly is very specific about what “benefits” and “gifts” are considered taxable (both from your company and from other organizations). And if the use and maintenance/fuelling of a car for six months isn’t a “gift” or “benefit,” I don’t know what is.

    But as far as I’m aware, this campaign is limited to American “agent” bloggers, so your Internal Reveue Service would be the authority calling the taxable shots.

  24. Bill Sledzik says:

    My “hot-shot” tax advisor, who hasn’t worked a second since the 15th, tells me the car package would appear to qualify as income and is, therefore, taxable. But she adds, if this were a “real” client, she’s take time to check the IRS code just to be sure. Since I know her billing rate, I’m not going to ask her to do that on her day off! We’re going kayaking.

  25. Judy Gombita says:

    For those interested, the Globe and Mail (a.k.a. old-fashioned, mainstream media) covered the Nissan “Cube” experiment (in its ADVERTISING column) back on March 20th (“An out-of-box campaign for a square-boned newcomer”): http://tr.im/j3Ml

  26. guhmshoo says:

    Exhibit B: http://twitter.com/WHITEMENACE/status/1561009359

    …and C:

  27. Bill Sledzik says:

    Hmm. It would appear a tire manufacturer (and Ford supplier) has gotten into the act. What’s next — a free blimp ride?

  28. Blair Boone says:

    First reviews will highlight how much swag you can fit in a Fiesta. The Fiesta Movement as cargo cult.

    For the latest contrarian view on SM and Twitter: http://adage.com/mediaworks/article?article_id=136049

  29. Sorry I missed this discussion last week. I can’t add much other than this reminds me of topics tackled when I worked for a State Senator back in Missouri every time we’d have an ethics bill come up. No one in their right mind thinks a legislator’s vote could hinge on giving them a coffee cup. The water gets murkier when you look at paid dinners, murkier still when you are talking about paid trips.

    It’s a matter of degree, and it will be interesting to watch how the FTC views this. Great post.

    Jen

  30. Scott Monty says:

    I was a little tied up last week – let me weigh in on the tax issue here, because we have the definitive answer. These are officially “test vehicles” and are not subject to any kind of gift or income tax, as they’re being used for feedback and input for the final build of the North American version.

  31. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thank you, Scott. As I said earlier, I was pretty certain you would have that covered. You did not disappoint.

  32. sjshannon says:

    Bill:

    I think we all need to applaud Ford here. First and foremost, they are in the business of making and selling cars, not trying to find the best possible way to do media relations.

    And there’s my point. Blogger relations is NOT media relations. Ford is trying to find evangelists, but in a very daring maneuver, ponying up BEFORE they know whether they have an evangelist or not.

    It’s a new product development/client development/comms model. And Ford, who are literally fighting for their lives, are trying something new. Note where comms comes in the progression.

    Transparency is here. Authenticity is too. Ford hasn’t hidden their efforts. Savvy blog readers know what’s going on and can balance their take vs. what is being presented. That’s the new world.

  33. Bill Sledzik says:

    I do applaud the effort, Steve — but only as brilliant marketing. And while agree it’s transparent, I’m not so sure the outcome can ever be viewed as authentic.

    This “new world” offers a lot of options for marketers to reach out and to connect, and it draws in many who never had access before. But the Web, regardless of what number follows it (1.0, 2.0, 3.0) doesn’t change human nature. And it’s human nature to be nice to strangers bearing gifts. But I’m willing to wait this one out.

  34. […] like Ford’s Fiesta Movement, is ingenius (though Ford, IMO, crosses the line into blogola). The campaign puts products in the hands of influencers within its target […]

  35. april says:

    From Twitter: all from @ScottMonty
    @Military_Mom Technically, the police can’t get involved because it’s a “ghost” car – not registered with DMV
    less than 20 seconds ago from web in reply to Military_Mom
    Can you help? The stolen @FordFiesta (GPS tracked) is on I-95 near Port Chester, CT. Let us know if you see it.
    7 minutes ago from web
    You knew it had to happen. Our first @FordFiesta from #fiestamovement has been stolen. http://bit.ly/11mgL6

    Well, this answers my question about it mimicking real world experience. I wonder why they didn’t register it with the DMV?

  36. […] idea to revive this campaign came after the success; the company got from their previous year’s movement. According to Ford, […]

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