Social Media at Alfa Romeo – Part 2 – the hub

This is a long one and not many people are going to read it. That’s OK. It’s mostly a mental exercise for me and if the people at Alfa Romeo are doing their job properly, it’ll come up on their feed and they might be interested, too.

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This question about Alfa Romeo and social media is more relevant than you might think.

Alfa Romeo is in a period of transition. Its parent company, Fiat, recently acquired a majority stake in Chrysler and the consequences of this acquisition are significant. There are platform sharing consequences to start with, but even more urgent is the fact that Alfa Romeo is scheduled to re-enter the US market in the near term after an absence lasting several decades.

Source: Carscoop

Sure, they’ve been scheduled to re-enter the US market a number of times, but with Fiat now having a US dealer network at its disposal, only a sale of Alfa Romeo (which has been rumoured, and denied) would stand in the way of Alfa finally making a US comeback in the near term.

Providing they get their product mix right – product is always king in the car business – they’re going to need to reach out to customers in a meaningful way. The Alfa Romeo name is still known in the US. You can even say it’s still respected there. They have a foundation. They just have to build the right structure on it.

We’ve taken a broad look at Alfa Romeo’s primary social media assets and picked out what might be right and wrong there.

So what should they do about it?

A centrepiece of interaction

This is going to sound predictable coming from me, I know….. but I believe Alfa Romeo could benefit from a blog-type website to act as the hub for its social interaction.

Blogs have come a long way from the basic words-on-a-page format (the type you’re reading now). The programs that used to be referred to as simple blogging software are better referred to in 2012 as sophisticated content management systems that can host so much more than just discussions. There’s very little you can’t do nowadays with a blog-based CMS.

The primary goal of this type of hub is to truly interact with your audience and I’m a big believer in medium-long form content being the best vehicle to achieve this, especially in a long-cycle business such as the car industry. You have a long time between vehicle developments and a long time between customer purchases. The question that needs answering here is whether or not you need to act in order to keep a customer interested in your product. Most marketers will say “yes”.

Alfablogger vs Inside Saab

My first Saab blog gained traction pretty quickly so in 2006, I was interested in replicating that success with a site about my next favourite brand – Alfa Romeo. I started a site called Alfablogger and it, too, gained a reasonable audience in a short period of time.

I soon realised that I couldn’t do justice to a second blog. It was going to be too hard to provide high quality content for both Alfa Romeo fans and Saab fans. Given that I had a better background with Saab and had already established my Saab website, I stopped writing Alfablogger and somewhat stupidly allowed the URL to lapse (it’s now owned by some dork who probably wants $$$$ for it – and isn’t going to get $$$$ from me. I still like the name, though).

When I worked for Saab, we developed the blog along the lines of it allowing a view inside the company. Thus, it was called Inside Saab (it’s still live as I write this in July 2012, but if that link no longer works, try my backup copy, here).

The Inside Saab theme was a good one. It was borne from a series of videos we had produced that gave an insight into various areas within the company. We only got to show a couple of them before we pulled the series due to Saab’s financial problems.

I’m not sure that I’d advocate the Inside Saab theme for Alfa Romeo, however. Not as the main platform, at least. I think a series like that is a wonderful way to engage fans and give them a greater appreciation for what happens inside a car company, the multitude of processes that go into designing and building an automobile. It not only engages fans, it also has the potential to give them a greater appreciation for the product they might buy.

My tendency would be to go for the Alfablogger model, a more generalised Alfa Romeo website that has room for the inside perspective, but also has scope for more fan interaction, news, events and all sorts of other stuff.

Content is king when it comes to websites. There are valid arguments for restricting your scope, but one shouldn’t apply limitations that needlessly restrict what content you can provide.

The DOs and DON’Ts

The word ‘blog’ seems so 2005 nowadays, but it shouldn’t. We’ve moved beyond blogging terminology but the foundations of blogging still offer a wonderful opportunity. It allows interaction, discussion, social integration and the ability to serve rich media in an accessible way across a variety of hardware.

Look at the automotive landscape on the web and the sites that are growing all retain the fundamentals of the blogs that we first saw just under 10 years ago – good content and the ability for readers to provide feedback and discuss that content amongst themselves.

Websites live or die by the design of their content plans and the execution of same. Good writing, good photography/film and good governance of the website will deliver a rich experience that readers will value, return to, and recommend to their friends.

It’s here that most of my DOs and DON’Ts from a few days ago come into play:

  • DO build real, personal relationships with your customers but DON’T build those relationships with the primary aim of selling cars to them.

The primary aim of your social presence should never be to sell cars to people. Readers will see through that in a New York minute.

Your primary goal is to build relationships with readers. You provide valuable, worthwhile content and they get to consider it and discuss it. They get to appreciate it. At first glance, it’s a one-way contract where you provide everything and the reader is not obliged to provide anything at all. Of course, if the content is engaging enough, it will produce results and those results will be extremely valuable for the company in terms of relationship building, loyalty and trust.

Be engaging, be passionate, be interested, be genuine and be truthful.

As an aside, this brings up the importance of hiring the right people to execute this strategy. You can’t hire an agency to do this. The people who do this have to have a stake in its outcome beyond the extension of a contract. They have to be Alfa Romeo people, car people, passionate people. You can’t fake this.

  • DO allow people to have their say, but take measures to ensure that people frame their views in the right context. DON’T allow misinformation to overwhelm your discussions.

Providing an information hub like this allows you to control your message at the source. One of the things that pisses me off beyond belief is the control media organisations have over the tone of news concerning some companies/people, etc. Whilst at Saab, I quite literally lost count of the number of stories that were published in the press, especially within Sweden, that were either misinformed or just outright fabrications published in order to fill that day’s column inches.

Those opinions will drift into your comments sections and discussions. Moderating those discussions and ensuring the right information gets presented is an important facet of this task. Be respectful, but maintain authority. Reason with people where you can, exclude the trolls where you can’t.

It’s just another part of being genuine as you go about this exercise. If you ban people for no reason, you lose respect. If you’re transparent in your attempts to provide the truth, no-one has a reason to complain. Except the trolls, of course.

  • DO make efforts to turn your customers/readers/friends into stars!

This is one of my favourite parts of this type of social effort. It’s one of the most fun aspects of this undertaking and it provides wonderful outcomes for all concerned.

All automotive companies – especially companies with an emotional aspect like Alfa Romeo – they all amount to nothing if they don’t have customers. Your fans are one of the biggest assets you’ve got and interacting with them, highlighting their stories, their cars and their passion is one of the greatest things you can do.

Share their photos, tell their stories, allow them to converse with people in the company. Go to their events and then show them off to the world. It’s a heap of fun and car people enjoy getting some love from their favourite car company.

Interacting with your customers in a meaningful way, turning them into stars by sharing their stories – these are probably the simplest and best value ways of turning your brand’s ownership group into real, active brand ambassadors.

It almost feels a little icky saying that because the process is so natural, genuine and organic that it’s awkward identifying an outcome. But it’s true.

  • DO make sure you leverage your history.

Another no-brainer. You can’t buy history. You can’t make it up. You can’t get it any other way than by living it, doing great things over a prolonged period of time.

Alfa Romeo has over 100 years under its belt. It’s one of the few car companies in the world that has so much history behind it. You have to leverage that. I know the Alfa Romeo Museum is currently closed. I don’t know if it will be re-opened. But even if it isn’t, even if the cars are just warehoused somewhere, get them out periodically and shoot some video with them. Tell the stories. Hyundai-Kia would kill to have such a storied past.

  • DO control your message – it’s content and timing but DON’T simply re-post company press releases

It’s pretty self-explanatory, really. This social media hub should be a site with a personality. The authors should be real people, capable of not only presenting news, but presenting it in context.

When I was writing Inside Saab, I was physically located with the marketing team in Sweden. That meant I had to climb the stairs up to the PR section several times a day to see what was going on there. In a perfect world, this social media hub would sit between marketing and PR, getting input and attending strategy meetings with both.

This social hub should be part of the planning for all marketing and PR events – motor shows, vehicle launches, social events and sporting sponsorships. If you want to reach dedicated Alfisti during these campaigns, get your social team in from Day 1 of planning.

You can plant some roots in aftersales and customer service, too, despite what I’m about to write below…..

  • DON’T allow your social space to turn into a customer services complaints desk, but DO make efforts to help people where you can.

People like to leverage a company’s social presence in order to shame them into taking action on a contentious issue. “My service guy can’t fix my radiator” or any other complaint you’d care to mention.

Whilst I would recommend that you do what you can on this type of site to solve people’s problems or answer their questions, the site is not a service desk and care should be taken to ensure that it doesn’t turn into one.

That might sound a little cold, but from years of experience I can tell you a few things. Firstly, people will dramatise for effect if they’ve got an audience in an attempt to get their way. And secondly, there are proper warranty and customer care procedures in place that are set up to take into account the full facts of a situation.

I lost count of the number of time people came on to my old Saab sites to blast a dealership for one reason or another. I would refer the complaint to the dealership where possible but it’s not fair on them that a complaint is left published in the public domain with only one side of the story being told. Believe me, whilst the customer is always the customer, the customer isn’t always right.

In short, do what you can to help. Get to know the various departments you can refer complaints to so that they’re dealt with effectively. But take them off site. A blogger isn’t there to do customer complaints.

The Blog vs Facebook

Some people will say that customer interaction is what Facebook is for. To a certain extent, that’s true. People can interact via Facebook and they also get the social currency of associating themselves with what might (or might not) be a cool brand within their peer group.

Social Media professionals can provide much better statistics about their Facebook pages than I can. They will mention ‘views’ and ‘Likes’ and marvel at the penetration they can achieve with even the simplest message on a company Facebook page. My inclination is to question the depth of that interaction, however.

Here’s what I know. If I see a Facebook posting with 1,000 “Likes” on it, I’ve got very little faith in the fact that those people have fully read or absorbed the posting they’ve clicked on. It’s easy to click the “Like” button on a page. But it’s also quite temporary.

If I wrote a blog post that attracted 200 comments from readers, I would feel quite confident in saying that that blog post actually reached more people in a meaningful way than the Facebook post with 1,000 Likes.

It all boils down to the differing platforms and content styles.

Facebook is built to be quick-form communication and there are times when that’s appropriate.

A blog is built to have longer form articles that bring more information, richer information and a greater invitation to considered discussion.

This sort of communication is the type of communication that builds relationship and that’s the key to this whole phenomenon of online social interaction. It’s not simply a case of getting your logo in front of their eyes a certain number of times per day. It’s a platform for meaningful interaction that creates an attachment between you, the company, and your customers/fans.

This whole section, especially when combined with my critique of Facebook in the previous post, has sounded more divisive than it should. I’m not advocating the use of a blog over the use of Facebook as if they are mutually exclusive. I’m simply proposing a blogging platform as the hub of a company’s – in this case Alfa Romeo’s – social media communications strategy.

Result?

Back in 2009, when General Motors were going to close down Saab instead of selling it, Saab fans around the world decided to gather in different places in support of the company.

Those gatherings were called Saab Support Convoys and my old website, Saabs United, was a central repository of information and co-ordination when it came to their planning and execution.

It’s estimated that over 10,000 people attended these events in 60 locations around the world, all in support of an ailing Saab Automobile. More recently, similar gatherings under the banner of ‘We Are Many, We Are Saab’ – again organised through similar means – saw 100 events in 42 countries around the world.

When Saab was saved, and sold, the company published an advertisement thanking it’s global supporters for their action in support of the company. Of course, it didn’t help prevent Saab’s demise 2 years later, but never before has such a show of support been exhibited for a car company.

That’s the power of a well organised, engaged blog that has real relationships with its community.

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15 Comments

  1. In essence, it’s about using information/communication technology to achieve what a company sponsored brand-magazine set out to do 30 years ago…. and so much more: a world wide owners club / community. If I’m reading you correctly?

    1. Ian, you’re correct.

      Years ago, you had a group of people out there who all shared a common interest but didn’t know it. Today, you can gather those people together and provide a shared experience. Some of them are doing that anyway via local clubs, etc, but if you’re the company at the core of the shared interest, then why not provide a venue for people coming together and engage them in a meaningful way?

      Everybody wins (as long as it’s well organised and with good content).

      1. It’s hard to see it working for anything other than the boutique brands though.
        I know Aussies get passionate about their Holdens and Fords (*scratches head) but I couldn’t see ‘white goods’ brands like Toyota really getting a very broad response, except for some of their more iconic models like the early land cruisers and so on..but then again, they sell so many cars they dont need to foster a community and the market is a different demographic as we’ve mentioned before.

        1. Ian, that’s mostly correct. I’d go a bit bigger than ’boutique’ brands, though. Any brand with some personality involved, with some reason for people to be passionate about their product, could use this approach. Toyota would struggle, but Lexus might work now that they’ve got the LFA and might be injecting some personality. BMW could do it, though they’re much bigger then boutique nowadays.

          Basically, if there’s the potential for an engaged community, this approach could work.

      1. ….and that’s the beauty of the blog, Maanders. The social web started with blogs. Back then they called it Web 2.0 and today, people don’t even recognise it as social, but here we are talking to one another.

        With the type of setup I describe here (described in basic form) you’re doing social but you also have a chance to capture people like Saabdude, and many others like him, for whom Facebook and Twitter are a waste of time.

        Facebook like to spout that they have 900 million users, which is great. It also means there are 4 billion or so people who don’t use it. But I bet many of them (those with computer access, at least) use search engines.

  2. Seth’s blog entry for today has very strong parallels with what you wrote:
    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2012/07/the-circles-of-marketing.html

    I think that all major automotive brands could do better with support. The standard story is to tell customers to contact their dealer. The only escalation step is a call center.

    The dealer wants to sell you a new car. They handle many brands under multiple dealerships, so they don’t care what you buy. Dissatisfied Brand A customers go across the street to Brand B’s showroom, and walk past dissatisfied Brand B customers at the crosswalk. Little do they know that they are buying from the same organization.

    Call centers are designed to prevent real escalation (the reps may not even be able to escalate at all). It’s outsourced stonewalling.

    Brands (especially smaller brands) would do well to offer online support. It’s the type of thing that seems like a net loss to accountants, but it makes money in the long term. Your example is typical of this; we all know web sites that are sidetracked by the one customer who can’t get his radiator (or his laptop) fixed. It’s a distraction, but it’s also a predictable consequence of giving customers the runaround. Spamming discontent all over the internet is their only resort.

  3. I have been reading this series of posts with great interest to give me ideas on my strategies for social media in my new position. I was going through this post studiously, really trying to glean the lessons therein, and not even stopping to savor the prose, of which I am a big fan.

    Then, I got to the end and there was “To all of you who never stopped believing.” Wow, did that cause a huge wave of emotion. Had to go back and read this again today, because yesterday’s read was all forgotten after I saw the ad.

  4. Interesting musings.

    I follow Jaguar and they have a real push on in social media, across Google+, Twitter and Facebook. In my case I will be unlikely to buy one of their cars in the near future (something to do with the horrendous price gouge here in Australia), but it is a longer term aspiration and I feel their social media keeps me in touch with my aspiration.

    1. I would love to do that, but I’ve had absolutely no contact with Alfa Romeo or any other company.

      I would say the chances are very close to zero.

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