Part One - Ford Focus Rally: America - A Social Failure?

I will start by saying that I look for the good in most things and rarely do I give constructive criticism without request. This being said, I've been involved in more than a cursory way with the advertising campaign the "Focus Rally: America" and this campaign really stumbled out of the gate. The following post is not simply a constructive criticism of the current campaign, but a tale of a large brand lead by representation that doesn't [really] understand the "social" in social media.


Is this for real?

A great many weeks ago I was approached by a casting producer to try out for a "Social Media" based reality program.  The program was solely designed for updating their approach to, and expanding the audience of, the Ford Motor Company's Focus brand and release of the 2012 model. Ford Motor Company and the producers from "The Amazing Race" have conceived a road rally contest called the "Focus Rally: America"  - In a nutshell the "Focus Rally: America is a five-week program beginning on February 1, 2011. It follows six two-person teams as they drive cross-country and complete a series of challenges partially designed by Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri, the creators of The Amazing Race. It will air long-form episodes and short-form videos five times a week on Hulu."

I asked a myriad of questions before even going to the initial casting to see if it was truly legit and every response told me, in no uncertain terms, that they were "looking for people that had large followings on their social media channels" to participate in the program. That they wanted people that live day-to-day within these technologies and could use them to communicate with a broad base audience. Those are my words and I'm probably already giving them more credit than they are due but I digress.

Now before you skip the remainder of this article and write it off as sour grapes, please give the devil (in this case me) his due. Not to mention this is a scenario (as I mentioned prior) that I fear might also plague large brands in the future that try to pull off similar programs of its kind. With that seed firmly planted in your skull allow me to elucidate the issues as I see them.

From this point everything seemed to me as though it had the potential to be the largest social media advertisement to date. As a social media professional who also has an insatiable infatuation with automobiles, why wouldn't I want to be involved? So I did what anyone would do in my position, I strove hell-bent, to "own the conversation" and the public personality of the campaign from the get go.

I was told to select "two or three friends" as potential teammates to come to a closed casting session. Shortly thereafter, the primary website listed an extensive list of dates to hold live casting sessions in highly visible areas of major metropolitan areas. This made total sense to me as I watched the "pre-tease" campaign unfold and I said "that's how I would have done it!" This creates more than just localized interest into the show and starts buzz, it also allows press sources locally to report on something that they feel they have the inside scoop on. That being said, my teammates and I went down to the live event to do our due diligence and get a little user-generated content for a newly created Facebook group page at the same time. The event was as I had thought, mildly populated within the context of the show and the local 'to be seen' restaurant whores right before any Orlando Magic game. So foot traffic was at its peak for the area; this means the media group either did their research or got lucky.  As you will see, I think the latter may be the case based upon decisions made following the live open casting event in Orlando, Florida.

My initial concern over the management of this campaign was born from the understanding that since I'd been cast by phone and given a closed casting date, what was the point of the open casting call other than to generate buzz? Was actual casting going to be had at these events? These "live casting" participants were not told to bring teammates for a potential team. Additionally, I made several attempts to reach out to the casting contact but to no avail regarding the impact of this session. Though the event did not seemingly affect my partners and myself. Days later, I took my two friends Neil Klaproth and Millo Aldea to the casting session. It was regrettably to be the last call of the day and was told after being briefly video taped with Millo (whom I'd chosen to go first with me) that they no longer needed anyone else, sorry. A major strike against you. I get that it's Friday and you want to go party with your girlfriends, but now you're just wasting my time and not acting very professionally. You need to follow through with the requests that you beset prior to the casting.

Pushing on -

Frustration firmly in play, Millo and I reached out to the casting company and asked 'should we' stir up the social pot or just stay put. Can you hear the crickets? That being said, Millo and I pushed on to increase our chances guided by the question ‚ÄúWhat would be the best way to fulfill the desired goal from  the perspective of a social media professional’s? The first step would be to create and deploy influence, buzz and conversation among our desired demographic, and what is that demographic?‚  For the new Ford Focus, this is not an easy question to answer.  Based upon the price point, fuel economy and fun factor, this vehicle is not only for younger folks, but there are many people who have been rethinking their approach to automobile purchasing.  Socially conscious 30 and 40 something’s  are looking to buy American cars with gadgets and great mileage.  The same approach that was taken in launching the Fiesta Movement — expressing the needs of more value to reach this savvier and broader demographic. It made sense to be the center of the attention.

Covering your bases -

Much to my surprise Ford had none of their bases covered. I managed to create @fordfocusrally on Twitter, the Focus Rally Community and the "Group" page at will, with nothing covering the landscape. This would have been social media 101 given that I would have created a campaign of any size. But to think that Ford would leave them socially unprotected was shocking. Fortunately for me it was a Godsend to "own the conversation" and see what could really be done preemptively. With this I created a real home for people that were hungry for information, wanted to talk about the excitement of the cast and what they thought of the potential program. Here was a place where all the teams could talk about who they were, why this was important to them and share in one another's enthusiasm. To think Ford didn't want to be in the center of this as a brand evangelist was mind bending.

Muscle Memory -

Having worked as the creative director for the interactive portion of Audi's "Art Of The Heist" campaign (very pre-social-media) I knew for a fact had we not already put all the elements (pre-seeding, URL's, back-history, etc.) in place to be part of the conversation the campaign would have been a miserable failure. Did I mention that it was a virtual reality game played out in real time? With the car as the hero? Audience participation was so crucial that they literally changed the outcome of the game from what we had planned Sound familiar? So when I saw that the door was open I did a double-take and thought "is this what they want? It makes sense that they [might] be waiting for the audience to create their own world. Or is this a terrible oversight?" Either way as my high school JROTC drill instructor once told me "do you go into battle without your rifle ready son?" - and indeed I would not. The lesson here is planning is everything and you cannot convince me that Ford‚ plan was NOT to do something. I personally feel that this was Ford's ego coming off the success of the "Fiesta Movement" and simply not planning anything, thinking that because they'll put it on TV it will simply create its own buzz.

With our fledgling community in place, the next few weeks contained nothing more than rumor and innuendo. This is standard in the industry, people talk about what they heard, how they interpreted what they heard or simply about what they wish they heard. I felt it was my responsibility, due to my interest in the project, to expand my conversational ownership to provide a forum for myself and others to talk, debate, console and engage people through the process. New teams come online and start meeting other teams. Fans come in and want basic information, and then you even have teams seeding data to be spread. Whether they were smart enough to have planned it or not it typically festers in this fertile conversational Petri dish.

Rumors that where spread during that time were (but not limited to):

  • That casting had been determined long before all the live events were complete.
  • The casting company is pulling in their friends to the show.
  • The producers and casting company are helping select teams with information (such as telling teams to buy followers) to increase the chances with approval from Ford.
  • Casting was done from professional casting calls from acting and modeling studios.
  • Direct contradictions from requests for information about program content, casting selections and scheduling.
  • Telling contestants to add, edit and delete posts and communications.
  • This is solely based on social media clout.
  • That some selected teams are being reprimanded for telling items above.^

The result of this is rumor and innuendo, which  can act in one of two things for a campaign‚ cancer or viral. In the social spectrum a 'cancer' is simply uncontrollable negative viral messaging. Of course a viral message is often the same but if done correctly you can manage the expectation of it. The problem is one of transparency. Ford Focus Rally America failed before it began because it is still thinking that it needs to play the contest card of twenty years ago. Everything's a secret, pay not attention to those men behind the curtain.  This foolish sensibility runs contrary to the goal of running a successful social media campaign. What they don't understand is that social media, the conversation, updates, chatter and authentic engagement is the fuel by which these people, socially connected influencers, are driven. Given them unreliable information is simply pulling the plug on interest and results on the community moving on to the next innovation.  This is not how to run a highly successful ad campaign, by alienating your greatest asset.

...stay tuned this show's not over yet...