GM's Christopher Barger: 'We're headed toward a social media version of the dotcom bubble burst'

Christopher Barger, General Motors' director of global social media, discusses how the auto industry is using social media to help in a rebirth, and his prediction that social "gurus" will be found out and create a leveling of the social media industry as a whole.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Christopher Barger knows first-hand the challenges the automotive industry has faced in recent years. As General Motors' director of global social media, Barger is in a unique position of determining social programs while also remaining active in the communities that his company has built. As he says, "Let's face it the auto industry, and GM in particular, have given people plenty to be unhappy about in the past few years." As the industry and GM have focused on rebuilding, however, social has become a significant part of that. Barger is passionate and adamant about the importance and influence of community. In the latest installment of 100 Brains, the former IBM blogger-in-chief talks about his own social transition, how GM and the auto industry are using social media to help in a rebirth, and his prediction that social "gurus" will be found out and create a leveling of the social media industry as a whole.

Q. How did you get started, and more important, how did you take what you learned and apply it to the automotive industry?

A. I got started completely by accident. I was a speechwriter at IBM and probably could have continued in that specialty for the rest of my career. But I was tired of always writing about business and technology, so when blogs came along it offered me a creative outlet and I started one in spring 2003. (It's long since been killed.) My bosses at IBM learned of it in late 2004/early 2005, called me to HQ and informed me that they'd been reading it (which led me to think I was being Dooced)... they said they knew there would be a business application for blogs at some point and since I obviously knew how to build a community, I should help them figure out what that business meaning would be for IBM. (So I went from thinking I was fired to getting a promotion in 60 seconds!) I was IBM's blogger-in-chief for two years before going to GM in spring 2007.

The most obvious way to apply to the auto industry what I learned from running my own blog was the importance of building a community and acting with the community's interests first. I think the natural first instinct of a lot of people in this industry would be to see Facebook as a captive audience of 500 million, to see a blog or Twitter as a chance to push our standard marketing content out to a broader group of people. That's not to say that you can't market using these tools -- you can -- but if you lead with it, you're going to fail. The importance and influence of community is the lesson I hope I've brought to the auto industry (or at least GM!).

It's a fact that the American-based companies have largely closed the quality gap of the previous generation; at this point in the industry, while the products aren't purely a "commodity," there's certainly less differentiation in terms of quality or performance than ever before. So for the automakers that do the best job of building up communities of its customers, enthusiasts, and people we'd like to sell to, that's where we differentiate from the competition. Who can make their customers feel most appreciated? Who makes their critics feel most listened to? In a business where people go four to six years between purchases, which company does the best job of keeping up contact and emotionally investing its customers in their brand during the years between purchases? That happens through community building, and I'd like to think we've done a much better job in the past couple of years of deepening our connections to existing customers, and reaching out to those we didn't win over last time but might the next time they buy.

Q. The auto industry has suffered a lot over the last few years. How has social media played a role in rebuilding, or better yet, scaling?

A. The biggest thing social media has done for us -- and I would venture for our competitors as well -- is provide human faces to the company. Not in the fluffy, foofy "social media guru/kumbaya" sense; rather, it's helped both open us up and make us more accessible, and I think helped moderate some of the conversation and make it more civil. Let's face it, the auto industry, and GM in particular, have given people plenty to be unhappy about in the past few years. Having recognized individuals engaging on the brand's behalf has given people someone to turn to with concerns, criticisms or anger... they know we're listening, we hear them -- and even when we respectfully disagree, it certainly helps to know that *someone* at the company is listening and taking the punches a little. That said, it is a LOT harder to go out making vicious or really mean comments about "Christopher at GM" than it is to hate on General Motors. I think our presence has helped mellow a little of the conversation that's taken place -- not that it's made people less angry, but it's drawn many conversations back to the more civil side.

We have a trust gap right now, have had one over the past couple of years at least. Being in social media and taking part in online communities is helping us win back some consumer trust a lot sooner than we might have without it. I also think that being so involved in social is going to make us a better and more responsive company in the future; we now have customer service agents permanently off the phones and on Twitter, Facebook and actively taking part in forums and enthusiast sites. The more people see us proactively using these networks and communities to take care of our customers, the more people will realize that we do care and do try to make things right when we get it wrong... just as importantly, in listening so actively to what people are saying, we're getting better feedback that we can proactively build into our business -- seeing potential problems before we used to know there were issues, getting ideas on how to better serve our customers, features people are looking for... all of that comes from being better plugged into social.

You mentioned scale... that's going to be the biggest challenge. There are so many potential conversations and communities to join -- and yet, HR and legal requirements create some legitimate concerns about just opening up and putting the entire employee base online. So scaling social involvement is the biggest challenge I see facing not only the auto industry, but business in general.

Q. What is your social media engagement philosophy? Connect to everyone but engage reactively, engage proactively and connect with everyone who requests it, or limit your connections so that you can be sure to maintain good relationships (the quality vs. quantity question)?

A. Personally, it's more of a quality vs. quantity; I don't think I can be particularly effective by trying to hold conversations with thousands of people at once. I'll proactively reach out to anyone -- A-list or Z-list -- who says something I think is thoughtful, worthy of a response, or that intrigues/informs me; in the "quality vs. quantity" debate, you always try to include those who are improving the quality of the conversations you're having. I will try to respond to anyone who reaches out to me or "calls me out," but whether I maintain the connection beyond that initial conversation is very dependent on the quality of our interaction that first time.

I don't believe the chase for followers for friends should be considered the best measure of effectiveness or influence online. I could strive for 50,000 followers or 3500 Facebook friends, sure... but a) it would be apparent to me anyway that doing so reflects placing myself over the brand I represent, and b) I'd be less valuable to those connected to me because I would never be able to follow along and have meaningful or intelligent conversations with that many people.  I'd rather do what we've tried to do: spread it out among individuals working for our brands. There are almost a dozen GM people with more than 1,500 followers on Twitter; 17 have more than 1000, and more than 35 with more than 500. Each of those individuals is having meaningful, more focused conversations with their following than I could if I were trying to concentrate them on myself. So my bias is always going to be toward quality of interaction versus volume.

From a brand perspective, I think we have an obligation to be more wide reaching. Connect with everyone we can, engage both reactively and proactively... when you're dealing with a brand's presence you have to be more conscious of being as inclusive as possible. (Hopefully that brand presence is not managed/maintained by only one person!)

Q. Do you believe that the social networks fully understand how their users leverage them for business? Do you believe they are appropriately modeling their businesses to support that as well as succeed themselves?

A. No, not really. I think they're more concerned with monetizing for themselves, and they're far less focused on how their users use them or how businesses are trying to find smart applications of their networks. One example: the whole concept of working with Facebook to develop Facebook ad campaigns that draw more "fans" (excuse me, "likers") to a brand's page. This benefits Facebook because brands are willing to pay lots of money to do this kind of attraction. But rarely do you see any focus on what happens once you've attracted 50,000 new fans. What incentive to people have to stay on the page or visit it often? What is the brand's engagement strategy once the initial campaign is over? To me, that's far more important than just attracting fans. If I were a network, I'd be working on strategies with brands and clients that helps steer them toward quality rather than quantity; right now I think most networks aim toward quantity. (I don't blame them; most brands and clients think in those terms too and tend to rationalize ROI in terms of pure numbers. I just think we'd all be better served, as would users, by strategies that tend toward quality.)

Q. Finally, what's one thing you want to make sure ZDNet readers know about the web, social, etc.?

A. In my opinion, we're headed toward a social media version of the dotcom bubble burst. Too much fluffy speak and ego from self-proclaimed gurus and experts, too much focus on the wrong things (i.e., numbers of likes or followers) rather than actual meaningful engagement, too much kumbaya about the beauty of "the conversation" and the importance of engaging... without more demonstrable tie-backs to business goals or results. I think there are a lot of folks who are at somewhere around 14:40 of their 15 minutes.

But what I hope readers understand is, just as with the dotcom bubble, the underlying principles remain intact and valid even when all the hype and puffery are deflated. Sure, pets.com and dozens of other dotcoms flopped as people figured out there wasn't really a business model behind them. But the principles of the dotcom era were solid, and remained -- every business pretty much now has a web site, does commerce online... eBay and Amazon have remained as titans of the new economy. The underlying idea behind dotcoms was strong, it just fell victim to greed, excess and get-rich-quick types.  Social media to me is the same way: the core principle that businesses and brands are accountable to their customers (or potential customers) and the need to converse rather than promote... that's a solid principle that will still be intact when the dust settles. So if you're frustrated by social media gurus and people worrying too much about Twitter followings and Klout scores and promising that social media will change everything... just wait. The excesses and get-rich-quick types will fall by the wayside soon enough; your job is to comprehend what's really behind all this, and to make sure you're focusing on the quality of the relationships you're building than getting caught up in all the hype. If you focus on that, then when the social bubble bursts, you'll still be standing.

Social Business "100 Brains" is a series of 100 interviews with some of social media's most compelling "thinkers" and "tinkerers." Each interview aims to showcase each subject's most unique perspectives and talents. Interviews will run through early 2011. Know a top "thinker" or "tinkerer"? Send an email using the form below.

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