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What Toyota Still Doesn't Get About Social Media

Toyota is undergoing the largest recall in its history. Not surprisingly it is scrambling to make amends with its global customer base through a multi-platform marketing campaign. More surprisingly, Toyota's efforts in this area - at least the social media component - appear to be falling flat.

First a caveat though: The timing for this crisis is unfortunate for Toyota. The public is sick of any sort of corporate malfeasance - or even incompetence -  and when the economic consequences are high for consumers, even less so. At the same time, the ways and online platforms on which consumers congregate to discuss and pass judgment on brands is in a constant state of flux. Keeping on top of these trends while trying to manage a legal issue, internal corporate upheaval and a global economic downturn is not easy for any company.

Toyota Will Take Your Questions Now

Toyota has done some things right. One cardinal rule of crisis management - especially in the era of social media - is never to hide from or avoid uncomfortable questions. To its credit after an extended period of dodging questions, Toyota appears to be confronting the issue head on.

For example, recenlty Jim Lentz, president and COO of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, took questions from the public online using the Digg.com engine to let users vote up those questions that they feel are most important. (via Cliqology).

Mediocre Outreach

Still, though, the carmaker's overall social outreach efforts can at best be described as mediocre, which is unacceptable - at least to the company's shareholders and customers - given the stakes.

Here are a few reasons why:

Its website is still talking about what a great brand it is. Pictured on the front are rotating ads for the vehicles not caught up the recall: the Sienna Minivan and 4Runner. Only about 1/45th of the real estate is devoted to the recall, JaffeJuice writes.

Toyota also failed to build up an online fan base before this crisis struck. Certainly given the long-developing nature of the problem the automaker must have had some clue it might have to do some public and widespread explaining - a Facebook fan club or active Twitter presence would have been smart bases to be developing.

But Toyota has less than 75,000 fans on Facebook, JaffeJuice notes. "When times are tough, the first place and the first people to turn to are customers, loyalists, enthusiasts, fans, friends, followers, advocates, evangelists…hell, even critics. These groups of people don't magically materialize overnight. They are built, earned and nurtured over time."

Only So Far

Of course even the most aggressive PR campaign cannot blunt all damage. Since the crisis erupted for the automaker it has done much backpedaling - both in public and with its nuts-and-bolts outreach activities - but to little avail. "Its spokespeople have filled the media with messages of reassurance, its PR people have blogged and tweeted non-stop to fill the information vacuum, its website is full of details about the recall and its call centre is working flat out to deal with customer enquiries." (via the Guardian)

So why isn’t it enough? "Despite a barrage of communication over the last fortnight … the key to its problems lie primarily in what happened before the crisis erupted, rather than its response to it," the Guardian concludes.

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