The FastLane blog is an example of how General Motors has embraced new comms platforms
A challenge of being an extremely large corporation is that sometimes sheer size can obscure almost everything else.
That was the challenge General Motors faced a few years ago as it looked to reconnect with core consumers and rebuild its image. Both the company and the entire US auto industry had seen their market share eroded by international rivals, including Honda and Toyota.
"A lot of people see a company like GM and it looks monolithic," explains Michael Wiley, new media director. He says he often reads articles with "GM said yesterday" type quotes, which overshadow the "interesting people that make up the place."
Wiley felt one way to way to change public perception about GM was through corporate blogging. But that wasn't an easy sell when the topic first came up in 2003.
"Back then, there really wasn't an appetite for it because it wasn't considered mainstream," he notes. "More to the point, there wasn't really an understanding of what the possibilities were and what the risks were."
But by 2004, the success of blogs in shaping much of the debate around the Presidential election had opened a lot of eyes in executive suites about the potential of this new format, and GM was no exception. After some internal deliberation, the company opted to test blogs' potential by first appealing to the narrow but passionate segment fascinated by GM's muscle cars equipped with small block engines.
"The Small Block blog was aimed at an enthusiast audience, and it gave us a feel for what we were doing right and what the challenges would be," recalls Wiley. "There were only a few automotive blogs and most aspired to journalism, so when we launched [it], we got some criticism, but also great feedback from the mainstream media."
Emboldened, Wiley worked with the corporate communications team and Hass MS&L on the idea for a broader blog that would focus on all of GM's offerings, particularly launch products. They took the idea to vice chairman Bob Lutz, who quickly gave it the green light. The FastLane blog was launched in the fall of 2004.
Now up and running for 18 months, FastLane has proven to be a huge success for GM. It gets up to 10,000 daily visitors from around the world and it's now linked to 400 other blogs.
"I'd say the biggest surprise is the passion with which people respond and comment on the blogs," says Lutz, via e-mail. "You're getting the real deal there. There is so much passion that even the negative comments are palatable, and indeed, often helpful."
Part of the reason for FastLane's popularity is the participation of Lutz, who's arguably about as close to a rock star as the auto industry has. But Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li says one of the things that make FastLane so effective is that Lutz is not the only GM voice being heard.
"Lutz deserves credit for getting everyone else in the company involved, so it wasn't just a platform just for him," says Li.
GM also deserves credit for not turning FastLane into just one more PR platform for polished messages aimed at the press and public. "Most of what you read on the blog is kind of the unvarnished writing of the executive who wrote it," says Wiley. "But I do review most of the blog posts just for typos. Every once in a while, I may even send a note back to an executive saying, 'You sure you want to say that?'"
Even though FastLane is run with only modest input from the corporate communications team, the blog has already had an impact on GM's day-to-day messaging.
"We've learned that conversational style is much more appealing, so that sort of ethos is finding its way back into how we write other material," says Wiley. "We've also learned about what people are passionate about, as well as the benefits of a more grassroots approach to communicating."
In some ways, the popular acclaim for FastLane couldn't have come at a better time for the company, which has been beset by pension woes and fierce competition.
"GM has some market share to make up and it's in a tough position now," says Laurie Mayers, Hass MS&L SVP and deputy MD. "But I'd say that this has definitely opened a lot of eyes, especially within GM, to consumer-generated media."
Lutz suggests that FastLane may just be the start of a new era of customer engagement and relationships. "I think we'll continue to surprise people with what we do and in the way we reach people, especially those who think of GM as just this plodding relic of the industrial age," Lutz says.
AT A GLANCE
Revenues and latest earnings:
$192.6 billion for fiscal year 2005, down from $193.5 billion for 2004, with a full-year loss of $8.6 billion. Unit sales in US down 3%
Toyota, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Honda
Key trade publications:
Automotive News, Automotive Week
North America VP of marketing and advertising, Mike Jackson
Director of new media, Michael Wiley
VP of global comms, Steve Harris
Ad/marcomms manager, Ryndee Carney
Marketing services agencies:
Hass MS&L, Latin Vox Communications, Weber Shandwick, Mullen
Leo Burnett, Campbell-Ewald, J Walter Thompson, McCann Erickson, Modernista, Deutsch