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Auto manufacturers have long paid celebrities to be spokespeople for their lines of vehicles. But maybe customers really want to hear from people like themselves, rather than a celebrity paid millions of dollars to promote a car.

Although car companies can save a lot of money by paying normal people less than they pay celebrities, they do not want just anyone to promote their products. They want social media gurus or popular Twitter and blog figures with legions of followers.

Marketing campaigns by Lexus, Ford, and LandRover all promote their products socially on the Web. Ford has recruited 100 people with strong online followings to test drive the Ford Focus and then talk about their experiences online. Ford previously has been successful with its Ford Fiesta campaign, in which anyone who test drove the newly introduced car posted YouTube videos, Flickr photos, and Twitter tweets—adding up to more than 7 million views on YouTube and 4 million mentions on Twitter. As a result, 130,000 people visited the Ford Fiesta Web site, 83 percent of whom had never owned a Ford before. The campaign certainly got a lot of attention, though the actual sales conversion was not disclosed.

In the meantime, the Federal Trade Commission has created guidelines for blogging and tweeting, saying that consumer posters must disclose any compensation they may have received for talking about the product. Influential online informants come in all kinds. Thus, social marketing creates a real risk for companies. They might pay testers, but those “employees” are not obligated to spread positive reviews of the company or product. They must talk about the brand—even if their opinions are negative.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your opinion of online influencers who promote products?
Suzanne Vranica, “Tweeting to Sell Cars,” The Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2010.
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