Sunday, April 17, 2011

Chris Barger Reflects On 4 Years of Social Media At GM

Chris Barger Sums Up His GM Experience
I had an incredible opportunity to hear Christopher Barger, GM's outgoing head of social media, tell the story of how he built GM's much admired social media program.

He spoke to the Ann Arbor Ad Club, and afterward I had the opportunity to join him for dinner, along with our hosts from re:group, the Ann Arbor agency who sponsored the talk, and re:group's David Murray (@DaveMurr), whose friendship with Chris was instrumental in persuading him to share his experiences with us.

Chris' Social Media Journey

Chris is a social media pioneer:  he started out at IBM where, as a PR guy with a personal blog, he was tapped to bring IBM into social media. This was way back in 2004. It's a great story, and better told by Jennifer Leggio on the ZDNet blog.

From IBM, Chris went to GM.

The giant automaker kept calling him, but Barger said he had zero interest in moving to Detroit. Finally, GM said come on out and visit, and if you still say no, we won't bother you any more. Read more...


He arrived in Detroit on a dirty gray December day. He was not impressed. Then something interesting happened: the more Detroiters he met and talked to, the more he liked Detroit. He started to think this might be a real opportunity.

One top exec, asked what he expected Barger to do, said "I expect you to scare the @#!! out of me every day". That's when Chris knew he wanted the job.

He knew that he would have license to push the company, and even though he knew not every suggestion would be implemented, he had the official sanction to move ahead at full speed.

Just barely two weeks before he spoke to us, he accepted a position with Voce Connect, a west coast social and content marketing firm with clients PlayStation, eBay and Yahoo. Voce in turn was recently acquired by global PR giant Porter Novelli. Barger's new duties will take him to PN offices around the world, integrating his and Voce's expertise in social into the agency's operations.

And one of his conditions for accepting the job was that he could still live in Detroit!

Here are some things Chris shared with us, both in the presentation and afterward over dinner...

The State of Corporate Social Media

Chris Barger: Rock Stars vs. Doers
When big companies do move into social, get out of the way. They have the resources and the firepower to ramp up fast and do it right.

Social media gurus are on the way out as actual corporate social media practitioners begin to push the field forward.

They days of gurus telling corporate practitioners what to do will soon be over.

The media-anointed gurus do not understand how to deal with real organizational challenges like: educating C-level executives who don't get it, HR and Legal raising alarms and roadblocks, and departmental turf wars.

How To Do Social Media While Addressing Corporate Realities

Barger had a 5 year plan to bring GM into social media and bring social media into the fabric of GM's communications. He accomplished what he set out to do in a little over 4 years. (As a casual watcher of automakers in the social space, I was impressed with the speed and power with which GM pulled into a leadership position!)

To succeed, you need a C-level champion who can flatten resistance.

You have to embrace HR and Legal and work with them to address their concerns. (I needed to hear this, since my instinct is, "Can we send Legal and HR on a two week cruise while we roll this out?")

Once an organization really embraces social media, it's inevitable that there will be turf wars among departments over ownership of social.

Part of Barger's internal strategy for GM was "Immerse and Disperse"... a program where key people from other departments were tapped to do a one year stint on the social media team. With the depth of understanding they gained, these people were able to disseminate social thinking throughout their home departments.

Social media goals must align with company sales goals. Instead of pushing the hybrid Volt in social, which might resonate well with the audience, they aligned with Chevy's goals to promote the subcompact Cruze.

A good ratio of promotional messaging to real, human conversation is 50/50.

Chris Shares Some Stories

Think small audiences as well as large... Barger's team equipped a group of Florida food bloggers with Chevys and sent them on a Pizza Crawl. This paid off well in positive publicity from this group of bloggers with relatively small, but devoted, followings. The Pizza Crawl has since been brought to other cities.

Which demonstrates that Social Media for business is really the equivalent of personal networking, like in a small town where all transactions are relationship based. It makes the world a small town, and makes personal relationships with the brand possible.

When Chris took his key people, and of course some cars, to SXSW, it was a big success in terms of making GM relevant to this highly influential audience. However, there was some reaction to this internally along the lines of "Oh, Chris is just taking his team to a party". But it made sense to bring the people who already "got it" and were connected at SXSW, adding credibility to GM's presence.

When things Go Wrong in Social

The recent Chrysler Twitter gaffe, while awful, created an opportunity:  for a moment, they had everyone's attention. When you have a chance to talk to your audience, use it. Chrysler could have asked, "What are your favorite and least favorite places to drive?"

The Chryslers mistweet could have been prevented with better training of the agency employees who were tweeting for Chrysler.

When representing a company in the social space, you always have to watch what you say... even in your own accounts. Chris was highly conscious of the fact that even when tweeting as @cbarger, he still represented GM.

Later, he elaborated. In this world of phone cameras, instant sharing, and a blogger behind every bush, Barger operates on the assumption that anything he says is public. He often refrains from expressing strong personal convictions, even when he's dying to. But if it's inappropriate for GM to say, it's inappropriate for him to say.

When people were trashing GM in social media about their loan repayment announcement last year (GM repaid their government bailout money ahead of schedule) Chris fought within the company to respond. The traditional PR approach, "Don't address it, and it will die down", prevailed. The result was a lost opportunity to send an alternative message... and stickiness of the anti-GM sentiment in the achived web.

Later, I asked Barger to tell me more. The prevailing thinking was that with a congressional hearing on Wall Street's TARP bailout on the near horizon, interest in the GM loan repayment would evaporate. This is classic PR. But the TARP hearings played into the negative sentiment, making it worse.

We talked about how responding isn't so much about convincing these particular individuals, but influencing people overhearing the conversation. And also giving Google something to serve up now... and in the future... alongside the criticism.

I asked Chris exactly how and to what extent he would have engaged with the loan criticism, given the inherent troll factor.

How would he have responded on behalf of GM? Something along the lines of, "Yes, we did repay the loan, and with interest, and as a taxpayer/shareholder, this is good news for you. You made money!" And then leave it at that... unless you find someone who is truly willing to have a reasonable discourse.

(Anyone else find it absolutely amazing that repaying a loan ahead of time, with interest, while predicting an IPO, can become a PR disaster for a company? There are definitely forces out there handing out rocks to trolls.)

The Trouble With ROI

It's entirely possible to make a sale via Twitter, and Chris has done this several times.

It's also possible to track which social platforms are driving web traffic and how much.

But a little harder to track footprints into the dealership, just as it was with traditional advertising. We can track a lot, but there are gaps where we must infer what happened.

Barger is convinced the ability to map the entire trail to the dealership is not far away. With the increasing sophistication of analytics, we will soon be able to nail down ROI.

GM's Next Steps

GM's next challenge is to drive adoption of social media among the dealers. (Which will be difficult given how cantankerous dealers can be -- this is my experience at Automotive News talking here.)

Barger says that for any company, getting franchisees, dealers, or store managers on board involves education by example. Corporate must show them examples of peers who are doing it right, and the results they are getting.

Some examples: Domino's' Ramon de Leon is doing a great job of promoting his Chicago franchises. Then there's that Ford dealer in Ohio who has abandoned traditional for digital.

Takeaways Galore

I can't stress enough how much I got from Chris's presentation and the wonderful opportunity to spend time with him afterward. He is a treasure trove of insight into the realities of operating effectively within a giant organization.

I totally get Chris' point that pontificating about what companies should do from the ivory tower of a blog or book is easy. Working within an organization to make it happen is hard. The gurus got us thinking and got us started, but the brands will take over from here, thanks.

Social media is entering maturity as a field, and practitioners are now charting the path.

Chris Barger left GM with an effective social media program well-integrated into the company's culture and operations. Which is what he was charged with doing: "I worked myself out of a job!", he says proudly.

He's working on a book about his experience at GM... if tonight's talk is any indication, it's going to be a great read!

Photo Credits: Many thanks to Carter Sherline at Frog Prince Studios in Ann Arbor, Michigan

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