Along the very top of Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Social
website, observers may notice something unusual for a corporate news website.
"Your Stories" and "Your Ideas" are afforded the same prominence as "Our Articles." And the "Images" and "Videos" tabs aren't even split into corporate or user content. Everything mixes together.
Site visitors "are interested in that content equally, so we try to weight it equally," says Karen Untereker, Ford's U.S. manager of social media.
The site didn't start out that way. Over a few years, it went from a site geared toward telling Ford's story from a corporate perspective to one that makes the voices of Ford's fans just as important. The shift has paid off. Users have earned more than 1 million badges in the 18 months or so the site has existed. It's created thousands and thousands of advocates.
A gradual change
Before it was Ford Social, the website was TheFordStory.com (that URL now redirects to Ford Social). The site launched about four years ago, just as Ford's competitors were accepting huge loans from the federal government. The U.S. automotive industry as a whole was in a serious bind, financially and in terms of reputation.
Ford developed and launched the site over a Thanksgiving weekend, says Brian McClary, a social and emerging media analyst at the company, as well as a member of its digital marketing team.
"We would go off of press releases that would come from our communications team, and repurpose them to make a consumer-friendly story," he says.
Over time, the marketing and communications staffs noticed Ford owners wanting to share their stories as Ford shared its own.
"As social media evolved and as the site evolved, we started seeing more comments," Untereker says.
"We were getting submissions."
In 2010, Ford added a "your ideas" section to The Ford Story. As The Ford Story became populated with more social features throughout 2011, marketers and communicators decided it was time to change the overall thrust of the site. In October 2011, Ford Social was born.
It wasn't just about Ford products anymore, Untereker says. It was about telling "a comprehensive story about what it means to be a Ford owner, a Ford enthusiast."
Ford employees don't write the corporate content at The Ford Social, but communicators work closely with the company's agency, Team Detroit, to ensure it's relevant and timely. Another agency, Blue State Digital, works with Team Detroit and a team of four Ford marketers and communicators to craft emails targeted to Ford Social members.
Those emails aren't the promos that people who sign up for mailing lists at Ford.com see. They're tailored to users depending on what they've expressed interest in, either when they sign up for Ford Social accounts or by earning badges in certain categories.
For example, someone who expresses an interest in hybrid or electric cars won't be getting emails about trucks, unless he or she likes those, too. McClary compares the approach to the Flipboard news app.
Ford sent an email to technology-loving Ford Social users in Las Vegas asking them whether they'd like to cover the company at the Consumer Electronics Show. People with racing badges have gone to the Daytona 500.
"We let them be our citizen journalists," he says. "We're giving these people an opportunity to experience something really cool."
Other emails point users to articles or videos they might like, based on their interests. None of them is "salesy," McClary says.
For user content, Ford Social has some basic guidelines for general decency, and topics such as fuel economy have to be checked through legal to make sure nothing misleading is asserted. Otherwise, it's "a collaborative and open space," Untereker says.
That's fairly evident when the featured article on Ford Social's homepage has as much space dedicated to comments as it does the story itself.
Users have submitted nearly 2,600 articles to the site. Ford's number of articles? 608.
The goal of Ford Social is to give everyone-employees, contractors, customers, fans-a better picture of the Ford community.
"We think there's an opportunity for this to be a bigger community," Untereker says.
It seems to be growing. Untereker estimates that Ford Social has recruited 108,000 brand advocates who create content that can be funneled onto Facebook and other social media.
Ford has awarded 1.3 million badges in Ford Social's year-and-a-half of existence, McClary says. Users have shared about 900,000 of those with their friends and families. He says a badge is a better measure of engagement than a "like," too. It's a participatory element.
"You can have 5 billion fans, but if none of them are engaged, it doesn't mean anything."
McClary says it's tough to guess how many car sales could actually be drawn back to Ford Social—the ecosystem of social media, advertising, and other media is too broad—but there are ways to tell whether the site is effective. Monitoring traffic and keeping tabs on signups are effective, he says. Occasionally the marketing department spot-checks users to see if they've bought a Ford vehicle in the past few months.
More important, though, the social site has become part of a vital infrastructure.
"Ford Social has provided plumbing for a lot of other projects we're working on," he says. For example, Ford.com challenge, which invited users to send in pictures of their trucks decorated for the holidays, was powered by Ford Social, McClary says.
There's more of that to come.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.