DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- The 2011 Ford Explorer was redesigned to get up to 27 miles-per-gallon on the highway, a far cry from the 19 mpg of its predecessor. And sales were up 73% in January vs. a year ago. But what really has Explorer communications manager Eric Peterson geeked is the nearly 140,000 Facebook fans the SUV has, a level that competitors can't even come close to.
That Facebook crowd is likely to go up in the coming weeks as Ford today kicks off a social-media effort for the Explorer that asks followers and would-be followers to submit essays, videos and photos that spotlight Explorer product features, as well as unique American locations and sights. Responses can be channeled to the SUV's Facebook page, YouTube channel and Ford Explorer website. Those with the best responses will be selected to be able to live out a "dream adventure" with Ford. The top content will eventually be combined into online videos produced by Ford, as well as a one-hour TV documentary.
As social-media campaigns go these days, this one is not that unique for the engagement it offers fans and followers. What is unique is that Ford is doing it at all for a car aimed primarily at Gen X families and boomers. An extension of the "Go.Do" advertising campaign launched by Ford and Team Detroit this past summer, the effort is a sign that the automaker sees greater potential in engaging buyers over the age of 35 with social media, and not only millennials, who were the primary target of Ford's "Fiesta Movement" for its new sub-compact Fiesta model.
"We're trying to build awareness that this is a very different vehicle, really a re-imagined Explorer, compared with the old one, and that takes the depth of engagement that only comes in social-media spaces," Mr. Peterson said.
Despite scant social-media efforts in the family-car/SUV segment, trends back up Ford's investment. Forrester Research recently reported that Americans are spending as much time online as they are watching TV. And boomers and the over 65 set are the fastest-growing social-network user groups, with 47% of people over 50 and 26% of those over 65 using social media.
Mr. Peterson said there is a high and growing level of online video watching among Explorer's target , hence the campaign. Consumers spent more than 5.5 hours on social-networking sites in December 2009, according to Nielsen. In December 2008, users were only spending about three hours on the same sites. And according to a study by Babycenter.com, the number of moms who use social media regularly has jumped 462% since 2006. Forty-four percent of moms say they use social media for word-of-mouth recommendations on brands and 73% feel they find trustworthy information about products and services through niche online communities. Women, and specifically mothers, influence more than 90% of purchases in the segment the Explorer is competing in.
Ford is sold on social media for most of its product lineup. In the year it ran the Fiesta Movement, awareness of the vehicle among millennials was around 50% before the first TV ad ran or the first car was delivered to a dealership. That was higher than the Ford Fusion, which has had hundreds of millions in ad money behind it since 2007. "I just don't think consumers are that interested any more in communication that isn't give and take on some level, as well as engaging," said Ford Chief Marketing Officer James Farley.
In contrast with Explorer, its primary competitors -- Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Chevy Equinox -- have no real organized presence on Facebook. "Facebook should not be looked up on as a goal unto itself," said Dennis Keene, a Los Angeles-based marketing consultant. "But it is an indicator that all of your messaging as a whole is breaking through when people follow and engage ... and it gives you an invaluable communications platform and mechanism," Mr. Keene added.
Marketers have been finding it is also a good tool to cope with bad news, as well as boosting fan-dom. Toyota specifically grew its Facebook followers in the past year to help communicate with owners over its numerous product recalls, driving traffic and attention to a micro-site it built to get its message across to balance what was being told in the traditional media.
Ford Explorer is no stranger to bad news and communications problems. In 2000, the vehicle, which had been the best-selling SUV for a decade, was part of what was then the biggest auto recall ever -- 13.5 million tires by Ford and 6.5 million by Firestone -- because its tires were blamed for a high incidence of Explorer rollovers. Explorer's image was hurt, going from 445,000 sales in 2000 to just 61,000 last year. Ford Explorers were also the No. 1 traded-in vehicle during the federal government's 2009 "Cash for Clunkers" program.
The image of the Explorer had become so poor that many Ford executives recommended killing it off, relying on the Ford Edge to carry the Ford brand in the segment. Mr. Farley tasked his team and ad agency to try and come up with some possible new model names, but he said nobody could top Explorer for awareness and value. "So, the task is to change people's minds about how they think of the Explorer," he said. "And there is a far greater efficiency to doing that digitally and in compelling social media than trying to do it with sheer media weight."