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As social media evolves, it increasingly means companies do not start conversations about themselves — individual consumers do, and they may not take kindly to the companies getting involved in those conversations. That dynamic is forcing change upon corporate marketing arms, even at companies that are used to being talked about.
One such company is BMW. The high-profile luxury car company has 14 million followers on Facebook, posting more than a quarter million times a day. Someone tweets about BMW every seven seconds. More than 2 million pictures of BMWs have been posted on Instagram.
“Those are very impressive figures, and give us the feeling that, wow, we’re very successful at this and do everything right!” jokes Wolfgang Breyer, BMW’s head of international advertising, online communication and social media. The catch? Clicks and figures aren’t what social media is about — and Breyer knows it.
The burning question for a company, Breyer says, has to be, “What is their worth? What impact do clicks and figures have on people’s behavior and attitude towards the brand?” And, of course — does it help sell products? Car buyers generally do intensive research before purchasing a car, and the opinions of other consumers matter a great deal.
The challenge for a company like BMW is that it does not shape these conversations and posts. When consumers talk about what they like or dislike about a product, it’s usually a direct, word-of-mouth discussion — and even online, it happens away from corporate sites or fan pages. Such conversations may have little to do with, or even contradict, a company’s official messaging.
Many companies try to monitor these conversations and engage where they can, but it’s a process fraught with potential for missteps, especially if the company appears intrusive. When consumers communicate, Breyer says, “they are not just telling marketing blah blah; there is substance with it.” He also notes that BMW aims to make sure its communications feel genuine.
But when it comes to communicating with customers, new technologies like microvideo and mobile sharing present entirely new use cases.
BMW wants to learn more about them, so it is planning an experiment in consumer-to-consumer marketing to see what happens when it tries to shape some conversations about it in the mobile environment. For several years, the company has produced “The Hire,” a video series in which famous directors like John Woo, John Frankenheimer and Ang Lee create short films starring the likes of Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen performing feats of derring-do with BMW cars (see, for example, Owen in Woo’s “The Hostage”). Now, BMW will test whether its aficionados want to make high-caliber movies about its cars using their iPhones.
BMW is using Directr, a Web-based software company that builds Hollywood-caliber storyboards — the visual outlines used for video — around ordinary events, like going to get ice cream, taking a day hike or reading a book. Directr worked with BMW and Renee Richardson Gosline, an MIT assistant professor of marketing, to develop a special driving-themed storyboard for BMW, with the template video featuring BMW cars. The company will make the storyboard available to 160 students at the MIT Sloan School of Management. If it likes how that experiment goes, it will expand it to a 1,500-person test of non-BMW owners with iPads or iPhones and an interest in luxury cars.
Breyer said that in social media, companies gain a whole new level of reach — but that’s not necessarily positive. It wants to use this experiment for three purposes: to get data about the brand impact of consumer to consumer marketing; to test microvideo, which is an emergent technology; and to learn about how consumers share things on mobile, as opposed to in social media.
“People are talking about BMW anyway,” he said. “We want to be part of the conversation.”
Mobile social media is an emergent platform for BMW’s marketing. Using a controlled experiment like the Directr pilot is a model way for a company to try something new and see what happens.
For BMW, the hope is to see real engagement that ultimately will lead to higher sales. But if not, “It would be okay for us to see it’s not the best channel or best approach to communicate with customers and fans,” said Sebastian Schwiening, Web marketing manager at BMW.
There’s an old maxim that half of all money spent on advertising is wasted. BMW wants to know whether whether that half includes consumer-to-consumer marketing, and the only way to find out is to put a campaign in gear.