What hope for automotive social media?

Sometimes someone says something so wrong with such conviction, that the only option you’re left with is to just pretend-agree, because to argue would simply see you expending huge amounts of unimpeachable logic at an impenetrable force field and leave you utterly Larry-David-exasperated.

Recently someone threw the ‘beg-to-disagree’ motion at me and persisted with a belief that social media could and should be planned in advance. This wasn’t somebody who’d just discovered Twitter, nor a fuddy-duddy corporate type grappling with this new-fangled social-web thing. This was a young professional actually working in the field of digital media.

He’s fundamentally wrong of course, and it’s not really his fault I guess, but more the corporate environment that he operates in. Been there, done that. Actually kinda beat the system, or rather just left it somewhat befuddled and disbelieving.

Back when I was working on CAR Middle East magazine, we started a Facebook page, and because it was our own initiative, and because nobody understood CAR ME as well as we did, we were left to get on with it ourselves, with only some occasional monitoring by the high-ups. We managed to accrue over 16,000 Likes in less than two years. I guess that doesn’t sound like much, but this was a few years ago now.

What made us stand out at the time though, was that in the world of ITP (the then publishers of the now defunct CAR ME magazine) our small niche specialist-interest title was outperforming – by a long shot – the big (and needless to say, far better funded) flagship brands within the company when it came to Facebook.

On several occasions senior directors stopped by my desk to enquire about our page and ask for documentation detailing our social media strategy and execution, ostensibly because they wanted to hand over our secret recipe to the other teams. I duly provided the same, in full detail and holding nothing back, but at the same time I knew it would not be of any use to them whatsoever.

CAR ME closed. We set up on our own and we did it all again from scratch on Motoring Middle East. Perhaps because we were somewhat freer, shorn of the corporate shackles, and despite frankly having less than a fraction of the already miniscule budget we had for the CAR FB page, just under two years on, we’re closing in on 50,000 Likes – http://www.Facebook.com/MotoringMiddleEast.

So I’d like think, and humbly suggest, at this point, that I do know a thing or two about this social media stuff. Which brings us back to where we came in and the fundamentals I mentioned. In my opinion, there are, in fact, two. The first is one of those ‘it’s so obvious it’s staring you in the face and you can’t see it’ scenarios. Social media is, above all, ‘social’.

It’s a simple basic truth of the species and one that Corporate entities so often, if not always, fail to comprehend. Your social media is not just some kind of new-style public relations outlet meant for customers/clients to leave their likes, dislikes, complaints, acknowledgements etc for you to huff and puff over. That is not ‘engagement,’ that is not ‘interaction’ – despite what your fancy stats tell you.

Nor is ‘engagement’ a case of just machine-gunning your followers with inane questions, surveys, competitions or advertising. That all may help with your page, but interaction is about just that: ‘interacting’. Actually communicating with your audience as equals. Done right, it’s a sensationally powerful tool for building brand loyalty.

The second fundamental, and the one on which I vehemently beg to disagree back (though not at the time), is that it cannot be planned. This is not traditional media. There is no features list or flat plan that will help you.

Some planning is useful, sure, but it’s a bit like planning a baby. You can have a child, but you can’t dictate what sex it will be (not yet anyway). You can raise your children and try to lead them this way or that, but you can’t foresee what career path they may eventually take in life.

That’s the thing about social media, you can give it birth, but then it is a living, breathing thing that has its own personality and character. It acts and reacts, it goes in directions you never expected. Once in a while it can throw tantrum or surprise and delight you.

Social media is of the now, not of the past. It’s a hungry beast that is constantly in need of feeding and thrives on topicality and the mood of its users. You have to be an understanding and wise parent to it, one that is able to react accordingly to any eventuality.

I can, however, understand why my unreasonable foe was short-sighted when it came to these two truths of social media – that’s because he couldn’t afford to embrace them, it was literally more than his job’s worth.

You see, a corporate environment is controlled, dictated, brand-booked, house-styled, and with very little independent decision-making enabled amongst its staff – and even where people are empowered, they’re usually too afraid to trust themselves alone to make a call, particularly in these job-chastened times.

Hence they need to ‘plan’ what they post and will never be able to react or respond in a truly interactive and engaging manner with their audience, because it takes too long for memos and emails to go up and down command-chains, so to speak, and the message would be diluted by then anyhow. The person actually in charge is not brand-literate enough to be brave enough to respond directly.

On that note, I want to move to Automotive Facebook pages and essentially how universally rubbish they mostly are. Sure, some of these guys can throw the humongous ‘Like’ numbers at me and claim to have mastered the media, but as they know and I know, and most of the social media agencies running their pages most certainly know, ‘Likes’ can literally be bought from so-called ‘Like Farms’!

The issue is that most of these pages are contracted out to the aforementioned agencies who love to have a big car maker brand sitting in their portfolio, alongside other clients that could be from such diverse industries as Food, Cosmetics, Real Estate or Airport tarmac materials.

The thing is that cars and motoring are not like those other areas or indeed anything else (yes I’m sure someone would argue that there is an extremely passionate and knowledgeable audience following runway tar), but as a car-guy, I’m going to be utterly blinkered on this one and say that nothing is as sexy as cars, apart from maybe sex itself (and you can always mix the two!).

Regardless, even my detractors at this point will have to concede my argument that in order to be truly engaging, to really have a good instinct about what will work in your social media channels or not, you need to be able to live, breath, sleep, eat, dream, contemplate and even shit the subject you’re trying to engage a very savvy audience over.

This is why I believe that we do, what we do, well, when it comes to MME. This is why, I believe that a Facebook page like Honda UAE, as just one example taken at random, in 16 months of existence has only 4630 Likes and barely a couple of hundred Talking Abouts.

This is for a brand that engenders incredible loyalty, sentiment and affection in this part of the world. A brand that has an illustrious, spectacular and colourful history. A brand that evokes fierce passion and discussion. A brand that lends itself to collectability, tinkering and customisation. A brand, in effect, that should be absolutely ripe for a thriving and burgeoning social media channel. That is if it were run by people with an inherent instinct for such things.

Which brings me to why I was having the aforementioned discussion in the first place. Having, I think fairly, placed ourselves (ie MME) in the category of those aforementioned people boasting the ‘inherent instincts’, we were in discussions to take on the Facebook page for a very cool brand about to enter the market.

It’s a brand saturated with potential, and one that we know and understand extremely well. It’s a brand that we could get extremely excited about and generate a lot of excitement with, because we could easily relate to the profile of audience it will be targeted at.

To this end we prepared and updated proposals, we created a full initial roadmap (yes I know that constitutes ‘a plan’ but as already mentioned, I deliberately lost that argument) and outlined some ideas for the page’s execution – whilst also keeping some to ourselves.

We even matched their regular supplier on price, which we believed was way too low, but we figured this was a golden opportunity to demonstrate how to do automotive brand social media right.

To anyone on the receiving end of our proposal the value we brought not only in terms of our skills, knowledge, experience and proven track record in automotive media (social or otherwise) but also by inference the commercial value of an inevitable overlap with MME should have been unfailingly obvious. Frankly this should have been a no-brainer and a done deal.

They took all our documentation, mulled it over for a couple of weeks, and then handed the contract to their existing supplier anyway, which I personally don’t believe has been able to demonstrate any automotive understanding or imagination whatsoever – but that is just my opinion.

You may think I’m just bitter at losing potential business, and you may be right to some extent, but that’s just business, isn’t it? Some you win, some you lose. And frankly speaking the money on the table wasn’t going to change our lives, and for some people would be barely worth picking up an iPad for. But that wasn’t the point.

I’m annoyed because I knew how it could have been done very well indeed, and because it would have been a truly sensational, spectacular and satisfying opportunity to demonstrate what we’re capable of. I’m annoyed because I can already imagine how it will now be done, and I’m left deeply saddened because we’re talking about one heck of an inspiring marque. What a waste.

Tragically it also proves that despite all their posturing and claims, most automotive brands here still haven’t truly understood and embraced social media, and therefore are failing to really exploit this incredibly potent brand marketing device.

Hey ho.

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