General Motors' decision to stop buying advertising on Facebook and pass on running spots during next year's Super Bowl signals that the automaker will emphasize content creation and customer service on social media platforms.
GM's move to cut Facebook ad spending started a media debate about the reason for the poor performance of its Facebook ads. Some said Facebook is overhyped as an advertising tool, while others countered that GM wasn't using the social network correctly. Regardless, the automaker made it clear that it will focus on content development on its Facebook brand pages.
“When the marketing team made the decision not to advertise on Facebook, it was their decision, but it may have seemed like we weren't committed to social media,” says Mary Henige, director of social media and digital communications at GM. “We're still committed to Facebook, but the advertising team wants to try something different.”
Henige says GM will continue to invest 25% to 30% of its marketing budget on digital, including activity on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google+. GM has also invested in 17 representatives dedicated to looking for and addressing customer service issues on the automaker's social media channels, up from just four staffers in late 2009. This team is also keeping tabs on more than 60 third-party blogs and forums.
“We want to be very open and transparent, respond to criticism, and put people into contact with the right folks who can address the issues they might have,” she says. “By working with customer service assistants on common tools, we've been able to help them reduce their response time to consumers to about 90 minutes [from the time they post].”
Fleishman-Hillard, GM's primary agency for social media, will continue to provide strategic direction, says Henige.
Industry experts say GM, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009 but posted record profits two years later, could be a trailblazer for other major consumer-facing brands that are revaluating their Facebook marketing strategies. Sandra Fathi, president of Affect, says GM's decision could be a positive for corporate PR departments and agencies that assist brands with their Facebook content strategy.
“It could be a direction more companies might take in terms of dedicating human resources internally to these platforms, rather than just financial resources [for ad buys],” says Fathi. “I think a lot of brand directors and marketers perked their ears up when they heard about GM's decision.”
If companies shift from advertising-focused campaigns to conversation-based strategies, communications agencies can take a lead role in helping them make that transition, notes Adrianna Giuliani, SVP for creative and strategic planning at DeVries Public Relations.
“I am not shocked GM isn't seeing an increase in sales as a direct result of their ad presence on Facebook,” she says. “When navigating Facebook, it's important for brands to adhere to what attracts people to the site in the first place and create community-based programs that are naturally shareable.”
Other industry experts say brands should use a strategy combining earned and paid media because the advertising platforms on Facebook can help them extend the reach of their content beyond only the people who subscribe to their news feeds.
Still, Irfan Kamal, SVP and global head for analytics, products, and partners for Social@Ogilvy, says it is up to agencies and social media firms to help clients understand how earned and paid media can work synergistically to drive better ROI.
“To help with spend allocation in this new environment, agencies will need to implement new tools and approaches,” says Kamal. “Just as important, social companies will need to open up more data to enable these new tools…Until there's better clarity on this, we'll continue to see a lot of experimentation and budget adjustments.”
However, Blake Cahill, president of integrated social agency Banyan Branch, says it will be a challenge for GM to expand the reach of the content it posts on Facebook because of recent changes to the social network's “Timeline” feature. He adds that many brands have stopped advertising during the Super Bowl only to return later.
“Facebook's new timeline is intentionally designed in such a way that content decays much more rapidly than before,” says Cahill. “You need to be posting a lot of content to get in front of the consumer – as many as three to four posts per day to stay in consumers' feeds because so much content is coming at them.”
The downside of that tactic is that many consumers see the posts as nothing more than spam. “One way to triage that is to use paid advertising on Facebook,” he says.
Henige counters that there are other effective ways for GM to maximize its Facebook content.
“I'm not worried about getting our content out there, because if we have something interesting, we tweet it, put out on our blog, and share the content internally,” she says. “We have a lot of different ways to tell our story through social media and humanize our company.”