General Motors Social Chief Christopher Barger Jumps to Porter Novelli Digital Shop Voce

Q&A: On Social Media's Maturation, Overemphasis on Fan Counts and Chrysler's Instantly Infamous F-Bomb Tweet

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Christopher Barger
Christopher Barger Credit: Becky Johns

Porter Novelli's recently acquired PR firm Voce Communications has hired Christopher Barger, director of global social media at General Motors, as senior VP for global programs at Voce, effective April 11.

In his four years at GM, Mr. Barger focused on social-media content development and community management for online properties such as the marketer's "FastLane Blog." He also helped provide internal training in an effort to integrate social media across GM's marketing initiatives. Before GM, Mr. Barger helped spearhead IBM's social-media efforts by developing blogs and podcasts.

Porter Novelli acquired Voce (pronounced "vo-che") in February in an effort to strengthen its digital and social reach.

Mr. Barger will remain in Detroit (a perk, he says) and focus on helping to build relationships with existing clients, acquiring new ones and developing new social media strategies.

Ad Age spoke with Mr. Barger today about his plans at Voce, how big marketers can best use social media -- and yes, Chrysler's infamous f-bomb tweet.

Ad Age: What exactly will you be doing at Voce, and how will your experience at GM inform what you do going forward?

Mr. Barger: A lot of it, as with any position, is going to evolve over time. We'll see what the needs of the clients are before we start really defining it. Social is maturing at this point. It's stopped being a standalone practice, where there are three or four people who get this stuff, and started becoming an accepted practice within a lot of big organizations. That means they have to be more integrated with their PR, marketing and advertising. That can come with some growing pains.

I kind of know how to engineer an organizational change, how to overcome some of the internal landmines or the political hurdles you have to go through.

One of things we are doing with new clients is change planning. When social first gets started at most organizations, it usually resides with a couple of people who understand the space, who are trying to engineer changes in small ways, or one step at a time. As social media matures as a business function, you need to move away from that model and become far more integrated with the rest of the activity in the organization. You want social integrated with all those things if you want an effective campaign. I think the days having a "social only" program are, if not over, ending quickly. You have to build those relationships inside the company, make sure social is part of any bigger campaign that goes on, identify what the social opportunities are at the beginning of any campaign so we can resource for them and flesh the program out.

A lot of what makes social successful at this point isn't necessarily having the big idea, but being able to involve the whole organization and get everybody thinking about social from the get-go. That's part of what I did a General Motors, and what I did at IBM four years ago.

What comes along with that is changing expectations in metrics and measurement. What constitutes success? You could get away with measuring numbers for a lot of years, just looking at fans and followers. That was all fine, and those are valid metrics for some things, but as the function matures, and as organizations take it in and make it part of what they do, you have to start to tie it back to real business goals. Resources are finite in any organization. If you are spending on social, you're not spending somewhere else. In any big company, somebody is looking at a balance sheet.

Ad Age: So, how do marketers measure success if not by follower or fans?

Mr. Barger: Well, size isn't the only thing that matters. It's not necessarily about achieving huge Twitter followships or lots of fans. We build programs around the idea of drawing people into our Facebook pages, but very rarely do we plan for what we'll do with them once we get there. How do we make sure they stay? How do we make sure it's still relevant to them? That kind of thinking doesn't really happen. People are so focused on those numbers.

Not that those numbers aren't important, but you have to think about those numbers as a means to an end, not the end themselves. In case of GM, it comes back to questions like, did we increase consideration? Did traffic go up? Did it sell a vehicle? Do we know that based on interaction with us on social media, they bought a car?

The art rather than the science to this is, the audience still tends to react a little negatively if you go in leading with the business goal. The audience wants to feel like you are there for the conversation. We have to find a way to fit in to what they're doing. You still have to be leading with their interests and needs up front. "I don't want to make a hard sell. I really do want to have a conversation with you."

So on front end, to the audience, you are still leading with the relationship, but on the back end, you're looking at whether this is contributing to a business goal. And the onus is on us as social-media professionals to start building in those goals from the very beginning.

Ad Age: You are going from working on a big brand, GM, to working at a firm that works with multiple brands and multiple goals at once. How do you think that transition will look?

Mr. Barger: It won't be as big of an adjustment as it appears to be. At GM there were a number of brands. Just working there alone I had to put on multiple hats, think in different parameters, go to a Chevy meeting in the morning and a Buick meeting in afternoon, and see what makes sense to both. But at this stage, having already moved from the technology industry to the automotive industry, I have under my belt the ability shift industries.

I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all social-media template that you can use. Everything is a matter of doing some good old business research. What are the goals? What are the needs? What are the challenges the business has, and the opportunities? That's independent of social media. That's what people have been doing in marketing since our careers began.

I don't want to sound overconfident, but I'm not daunted by it. I don't feel like I am jumping into the deep end of pool. Porter Novelli just acquired Voce, specifically for its digital and social skills. There was a whole lot of integration that had to happen whether I came on or not.

Ad Age: What about the relationship between social media and traditional media? How important is the former versus the latter?

Mr. Barger: Social is a tool in the arsenal, an arrow in the quiver. It's not a panacea and not a replacement for anything.

I don't believe that traditional media is less important because of emergence of social. I think social can enhance what happens on the traditional side, but the thing to remember is, increasingly, it's all blending. Odds are, if you pick up phone as a PR guy, talking to a traditional reporter, they probably have a blog somewhere, probably a Twitter account and are at least lurking and watching for stories. I think the idea of a wall between the two media is a bit of an anachronism. Increasingly, they are the same thing.

Ad Age: You mentioned the bean counters determining whether the resources devoted to social media are worth the return. Do you think, in the case of most big marketers, that they are finding the investment into social is paying off?

Mr. Barger: I think they are, when it is done properly. I think a lot of people still say, "Let's create a viral video," as if we have the ability to tell audience what they want to share. "Let's tell a good story, let's make good content" is a better idea. It's like in high school -- the more you try to be popular the less you are going to be.

I think they are finding value. I think the challenge for social-media managers, marketers, PR people and whoever else is advising social media is the scale. I can give anecdote after anecdote where the people I interacted with have sold cars [through the use of social media tools]. I know it happens. That's the tipping point we're seeing. We're really seeing those small centers of expertise -- that handful of rock stars -- really starting to fade, and as a replacement you are seeing a systematic organizational commitment to social. That integration is key to making those bean counters happy.

Ad Age: But that integration comes with its own dangers, too, right? Let's talk about Chrysler's f-bomb debacle. What do you think that says about the potential dangers and challenges facing big marketers who choose to have a presence on social media platforms?

Mr. Barger: Without speaking to Chrysler's situation specifically, I think it's a real fear. But that's the onus on the organization to offer better training, and to make sure that if you are going to hand keys over to somebody, you better have taught them how to drive. You have to go through the teaching process. "Here is the policy we have instituted as a company. Granted, technology changes, but in general, there are things that will get you fired, so don't do them."

That said, people make mistakes -- it just so happens that in social media, it's much more public, and it gets magnified. The trick is how adroitly you deal with the mistakes when they happen.

What I might have done [in Chrysler's situation] to try and reengage people is say, "Well first of all, sorry about that. It shouldn't have happened. But while we have your attention, what is your worst Michigan driving story?" The key is to keep people talking. There are ways they could have handled that that could have turned a bad situation into an opportunity. You can't undo the f-bomb when it's out there, but the question is how you can turn a lemon into lemonade. It's part of those growing pains. Chrysler is not unique. As social media starts being a real business function, lots of companies are going to experience this.

Ad Age: What should marketers do to make sure their feed is valuable, something followers want to see?

Mr. Barger: There are two sides of the coin on this, and both are valid.

First, you always have a ratio of listening at least as often as you talk. Fifty percent or more of what you do shouldn't be "This is our latest promo," or "This is what you should know about this product," it should be reacting to what other people are doing, responding to their conversations, and letting the audience dictate what the conversation is about. If all you are doing is shouting at them, you will turn them off.

The other side of coin is to ask the audience what they want to know about. What can we do to make this more valuable to you? At GM, when we asked online, we found there was a lot of interest in classic cars. We would never have thought about that. As a brand, you can't do a whole lot better than having someone on your Facebook page getting nostalgic, and expressing positive and warm feelings on a personal level about your brand. If you give the audience an opportunity to tell you what will make them more connected to you, they will tell you, and you'll be better off for it.

None of this is saying you shouldn't be doing push. There are business reasons why you do this, and you do have messages to get out. It just means you be a little more artful in how you do it, and you show some more understanding.

As different things happen in this space, the job is going to evolve. But that is part of what makes it fun. You can't get into a rut with this stuff. You constantly have to be challenging yourself, challenging your client and learning new things.

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