When it comes to social media, Nissan is miles ahead of other brands.
The Japanese carmaker has 9 million Facebook friends, 3.5 million Google+ followers, and 299,000 Twitter followers--and those numbers are just for the main Nissan accounts. Once you start counting followers for accounts devoted to specific car models, the numbers get much higher. Nissan also had 20,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel and more than 11 million video views at last count. Engagement is impressive across all platforms, as well.
In this exclusive interview with CMO.com, Jon Brancheau, Nissan’s vice president of marketing, details the company’s social media strategy and its goal of turning consumers into brand evangelists. To underscore its seriousness about social media, Brancheau said, the brand hired its first social chief in 2011. Since then, the company’s approach has been to embrace emerging social platforms and be open to a bit of experimentation.
Read on for an under-the-hood look Nissan’s social strategy.
CMO.com: When did social media start at Nissan?
Brancheau: With the launch of the 100 percent electric Nissan LEAF in 2009.
CMO.com: What did the strategy look like back then?
Brancheau: Probably best to describe it as test and learn, and we’ve never really gotten away from that. The social space is continuously evolving, and we want to understand all the various ways to play in it. So we try a lot of different things and learn from both our successes and lesser-successes. Specifically, in the beginning, the zero-emissions “green” movement was an early adopter of social media as a channel to spread their message, and Nissan saw an opportunity to build advocacy for the Nissan LEAF with this passionate and active fan base.
CMO.com: Can you talk about some of your early successes in social?
Brancheau: Early on, we were able to build a community of 200,000 fans for the Nissan LEAF by reaching out to those in the space that were active with regard to environmental issues and partnering with them to help spread the word about the Nissan LEAF. We also had some success promoting our high-performance cars and motor-sports heritage. We knew intuitively that enthusiasts would take to this emerging space and would be looking for cool photos and content celebrating Nissan sports cars, such as the 370Z and GT-R. Engagement levels really spike when we focus content on this part of our brand.
Nissan used social media to introduce people to the LEAF model, and even to encourage them to test drive it.
CMO.com: How many people were on the social media team at first, and what were they doing?
Brancheau: It began in our corporate communications department with one person internally and a bit of agency support--maybe two or three agency folks providing support and strategy.
CMO.com: How has your commitment to social media strategy evolved over the years?
Brancheau: In 2011, we became a true believer in social media and assigned a director to the task of establishing Nissan as a leader in the space within our industry and beyond, if possible. We still run very lean internally, but have added incremental agency support each year as our operation and opportunities in the space grows.
CMO.com: Which platforms are you prioritizing for the next 12 to 18 months?
Brancheau: I realize it’s the obvious answer, but Facebook remains the Goliath in the space simply due to its size and relative engagement opportunities. Of course, with over 3.5 million followers on Google+, Nissan is one of the largest brands worldwide [not just automotive], and we are poised and ready to leverage this when the opportunity presents itself there. Finally, since 2011, our approach in the space has been to embrace emerging social platforms and be open to a bit of experimentation. In summer 2013, we were the first brand to run a large-scale Instagram + Vine video contest in which we asked users to make a “microcommercial” for us. We ended up using three of the best submissions in an actual TV spot that ran during a nationally telecast college football game last fall. We plan to continue with this sort of innovative and “first to try it” approach.
CMO.com: How much of Nissan’s total digital budget goes to social media?
Brancheau: Enough to matter, but not enough that we lose sleep over it. The space is still evolving and maturing. Moderation has been our strategy, and we are having an impact--a win-win. There’s always budget for big ideas and opportunities.
CMO.com: What are some of your proudest achievements in social?
Brancheau: We’ve had a pretty good run the past couple years. And my pride in our success is twofold. First, I am proud that a number of different measurement tools and companies that follow the space rank Nissan consistently among the top performers in our industry in terms of fan engagement as well as social CRM metrics [such as “response time” and “percent of fans responded to”]. To me, this is critical to long-term success in this space. It’s the daily interaction and the respect we show our fans by posting compelling content, not spamming them, and responding to their issues and questions in a timely manner that matters most.
Second, I am proud that we we’ve hit a few home runs and had some really big moments in the space. In fact, we had one recently in which we partnered with Amazon to deliver a Nissan car to a buyer’s home in an Amazon box. On the day we were filming a video of this stunt, a neighbor snapped a photo and posted it on Reddit. Within an hour it went viral. The buzz and reach we achieved via that “spy photo” exceeded our wildest imagination. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good!
CMO.com: What are you finding does not work in social media?
Brancheau: Social is about interaction, not transaction, especially in automotive where the purchase cycle is three to five years long. We’re trying to build long-term relationships with our fans. We’re trying to build advocacy and loyalty with our owners. Using the social space as a billboard for your latest sales event is missing the point. Certainly, there’s a time and place to have a sales message, but the fact is that social is for dialogue and engagement. A brand that doesn’t understand this will quickly be unliked and unfollowed.
CMO.com: What are some of the biggest social media lessons you’ve learned during the past couple of years?
Brancheau: Probably the biggest lesson for us has been that people follow us because they love cars. They love the car industry. We are very proud of the relationships we have with non-automotive partners and organizations, and we want to tell people all about the things we do with respect to charities and the like, but we find when it comes to social media, our fans follow us and engage with us at a notably higher level when we post content about our cars. So that’s what we focus on.
CMO.com: 'Doing social' is social marketing. 'Being social' means enabling innovation and collaboration within the organization. Would you say Nissan does this?
Brancheau: We understand the distinction. And we embrace it organizationally.
CMO.com: How so?
Brancheau: Social really shouldn’t and cannot be isolated to one person, one team, or one department. There are opportunities to engage with Nissan customers and fans across numerous functions at Nissan. But it’s true that we have just one brand page [per platform], and it needs to be managed by a dedicated social team. So, to encourage collaboration and ensure we are leveraging all legitimate opportunities, we have regularly scheduled status meetings with various stakeholders and an open-door policy for departments to offer ideas and/or specific content from their area. Bottom line--if the content and message is relevant and shareable, regardless of where it comes from internally, it will be posted.
Mark Perry, Nissan North America's director of product planning, answers questions from members of the Nissan LEAF Facebook page.
CMO.com: What about paid social advertising?
Brancheau: It’s a must-have now. Despite promises made in the early years, social media is not a field of dreams where if you build something, people will come to it. Social content needs a “push start,” just like any other piece of content. I liken it to a child learning to ride a bike. Give the kid a little push. If it’s good content, then you’ll see organic growth through sharing and word of mouth. If not, you still get paid impressions at a competitive CPM.
CMO.com: What’s your advice to CMOs from a social media perspective?
Brancheau: First and foremost, you need to be in the space. You need to embrace and engage with your fans and owners, and commit to turn them into advocates and evangelists. And you don’t need huge budgets to do this. You simply need a mind-set that it’s important to establish a dialogue with your customers and prospects, even if that means taking a few lumps once in a while. A brand that is open, transparent, and engaged can make huge strides in building trust. And this opportunity is too important to dismiss.
CMO.com: Recently, Nissan had an ad that featured an Uber driver driving recklessly, and then weeks later a 6-year-old was killed by an off-duty Uber driver. Nissan got some feedback from consumers via social channels. What steps did you take to handle this tragedy?
Brancheau: First, let me clarify that our commercial, which features a James Bond-style car chase stunt, was in-market before we had any knowledge of this tragic accident. And, of course, we pulled and edited the spot the moment we found out. Second, with respect to unexpected bad news and/or negative reaction to the brand in the social space, we just always try to act and respond transparently and authentically. I would advise any brand in the space to do the same. It’s critical to build and maintain trust within your social community. Without it, you’ve lost the social game.
CMO.com: What’s the most important question I did not ask you having to do with Nissan's social media strategy?
Brancheau: The one everyone always asks is, “What’s the ROI of social media?” Our response to this question is always, when it comes to social, don’t focus too much on ROI. Instead, ask, “What’s the COI--the cost of ignoring--this fast-moving channel?” The fact is, it’s not going away. Over a billion people engage in the social space regularly. And it’s only going to grow. This is how people, especially Millennials, want to interact and connect with brands. It’s where they increasingly expect to have questions answered and issues resolved. It’s where they search for solutions, seek advice, and find like-minded communities. To dismiss social because a sales-driven ROI isn’t 100 percent clearly defined at this time is short-sighted and a poor strategy going forward.