Ford Case Study: Control is an illusion in the social media age

freeI recently attended a brilliant presentation on “Setting Content Free at Ford” by Scott Monty, Digital Communications Manager at Ford and Maggie Fox, CEO of Social Media Group. The presenters led a packed house at the Web 2.0 Expo through an insightful case study on how Ford and Social Media Group partnered to turn traditional PR on its head to create a highly impactful social media content strategy.

Like many other large global firms in traditional industries, Ford retained tight control on its digital and other marketing/ communication assets including images and videos, by allowing access to only a select few accredited automotive journalists and typically distributed those assets by request only, both out of habit or fear of unflattering mashups. Monty said, “Ford recognized that “control” of digital assets was an illusion. So they stopped pretending.”

In 2007, Ford Motor company recognized and accepted the changing dynamics of an environment where everyone was a publisher  and this model no longer made sense because the bloggers were not interested in traversing the walled garden to get to the restricted content and on the flip side, there were dozens of organic digital content projects were popping up within Ford – from “semi official”  YouTube channels to small-scale, one-off sharing of images and other content with enthusiast groups. Monty described it as, “A thousand points of light, not focused enough to truly illuminate or accomplish anything.”

Ford adopted an open and pragmatic approach to their content strategy where they started by helping online content producers to start conversations and tell richer, better informed stories by providing them with great content that even the “Citizen Journalists” could access easily and use to tell their own stories.

Here are the key learnings from Ford’s experience:

#1 Create rich content that’s ready to share: Ford established its first Social Media Press Release (SMPR) filled with rich content ready for sharing. Ford also aggregated its digital content and made Creative-Commons licensed assets available for use by anyone who was interested in talking about the company or their brands – good or bad. Moreover, all Ford content is hosted with third-party plaforms, like Flickr and YouTube, to leverage their native sharing properties and popularity.

#2 Eliminate the need to pitch: Ford provides individual and global RSS feeds for their SMPRs, meaning subscribers are automatically notified of updates – and only get what they’re interested in. They found many anticipated and unanticipated benefits, including an unsolicited placement in Wired magazine shortly after Chris Anderson’s infamous “Blacklist” post. Giving traditional media and bloggers access to what they’re most interested in, made pitching content irrelevant. Wired and other news media are subscribed to Ford’s SMPR feeds and they regularly pick up stories without having to be pitched.

#3 Reduce fear of the unknown: Monty rightly pointed out that social media is scary mostly because people don’t understand it. So  they helped people understand it, epecially legal people. By sitting down with the legal folks and demonstrating value to the folks who are most interested in controlling the content, they were able to change the way content was treated at Ford. Another big issue, they ran into was digital rights management (DRM). For images it was simple – in most cases digital rights were already being obtained for the online editions of print publications.

Video is another issue, and Monty pointed out, “We’re not the only ones wrestling with that challenge… if we put them online, it’s usually only for a set period of time until the rights expire.” Like many companies, however, Ford is working with its agencies are working together to get digital rights in place to manage their digital content.”

#4 Take a long-term approach to social media:  Ford’s approach was so successful because they didn’t use this as a trendy one-time campaign but rather as a  revolution in the way Ford, traditionally treated its digital assets and controlled access to them. Starting with Focus, Ford began making all of their content digitally available to everyone under a license that would permit publication under almost any circumstances.  All of the images, video and text on Ford’s first and subsequent SMPRs are licensed under Creative Commons non-commercial.

When asked what’s next for Ford, Monty said, “We are weaving digital influencers into every program we run for mainstream media. We’re also establishing digital-only events and programs for online influencers. Integrating with MSM programs – digital should not exist in a vacuum, it goes farther when amplified and paired with traditional efforts, which it can assist and compliment.”

So, how successful has this new strategy been for Ford?

When asked about the ROI on social media, Monty quipped, “What’s the ROI for putting on your pants every morning? But it’s still important to your business.” That was was probably the most profound quote of the event and highlights how doing social media is no longer optional for large companies, but rather a necessity for every business.

Overall, Ford has seen its content come back to them in thousands of unsolicited posts and stories. Here are the concrete  success metrics that Monty and Fox shared on their content:
 – Their content has been used in over 5,000 posts since Sept 2007.
– SMPRs are regularly used as a source of news and assets by (Technorati Top 50), Wired, NYTimes, ABC News & many others, both traditional & “new” media.
– Approximately 1.2 million video views on YouTube, 499 channel subscribers, 120,000 views on Flickr images.

Photo Credit:

You can access the presentation on the Web 2.0 Expo website.


11 responses to “Ford Case Study: Control is an illusion in the social media age

  1. Pingback: Posts about social media as of April 6, 2009

  2. Pingback: Articles about Web 2.0 as of April 6, 2009 | The Lessnau Lounge

  3. Great post, thank you for this recap. We hoped you enjoyed the rest of your time at the conference!!

    ~ Janetti aka @janerri
    Web 2.0 Expo Community Manager.

    • Hi Janetti! Thanks for the comment. I had a great time at the conference, met many interesting people including folks that I only knew through Twitter or Friendfeed. The sessions were very informative and I especially loved the emphasis on enterprise this year.

  4. Hey – so glad you enjoyed the presentation, it was great to be able to share our work!

  5. I’ve a feeling that ROI quote would at best be for people who see the promise of a working social media. Cynics are mostly leads and conversions numbers guys.

    Great story!


    • Hi Alain,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that by using traditional metrics, we’re vastly underestimating the true promise and potential of social media.



  6. Pingback: Purpose-Driven Social Media is Key to Elusive ROI « Marketing Mystic

  7. Setting content free especially on social media is a really great idea.

  8. Pingback: Is Social Media Only About Influence? « Marketing Mystic

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