(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?
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! 🙂