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Ford signals the need to reinvent Radio – are you listening?

Last week Inside Radio featured one of the most important items of the year, and I'm guessing the significance of it evaded many readers:

Auto rebound has Ford reinvesting in media, but it’s not “buying off the shelf.” The automaker’s seasonally adjusted year-over-year sales rate is up 17%, according to Ford Motor Media-Team Detroit senior partner and managing director Kevin Brown. “We’re all about consumer engagement and brand advocacy,” Brown says. That means giving consumers first hand experiences with its brands so that prospects can then “push out to their own personal networks.” The goal is to build a “culture” around the product, followed by endorsements and, ultimately, traditional advertising. It’s the opposite of the old one-to- many paradigm where Ford would start with a big network TV campaign. During his nearly 60-minute chat with 35 Michigan stations, Brown illustrated the approach with a pair of recent examples. To bring back the Ford Fiesta, which hasn’t existed in the U.S. for 15 years, it put 100 vehicles into the hands of bloggers and other user-generated content producers so they could share their experience with their own social networks. “Those people in turn, pushed it out even further,” Brown says. Within five months, Ford was able to measure 60% awareness of the brand — months before commercially re-introducing the vehicle in the marketplace. “Social media will play a role in how we market going forward,” Brown says. So will event marketing, such as a recent Drive One For Your School campaign. Working with high schools, Ford staged 800 test drive events where it donated $20 per test drive to school booster clubs to help under-funded school activities. The campaign generated close to 120,000 test drives. Such events represent a “huge opportunity for local radio and TV stations getting their on-air personalities involved,” Brown says. He also suggested that the distinction between traditional and digital media needs to be “erased — all of this is audience-driven media.” His advice to sellers: Forget “off the shelf ad packages. If you can customize a program that meets the strategic needs of the product, your opportunity to make the sale greatly increases.”

While it's lovely to suggest that this represents "a huge opportunity for local radio and TV stations getting their on-air personalities involved," one might legitimately ask: "WHAT on-air personalities?"

But that aside, can you read between the lines here?  Because if you can you'll see that Ford is putting your best personalities on par with bloggers.  Why?  Both have audiences – and, if anything, the audiences of their target bloggers, while smaller, are far more interested in the subject matter than your audiences.

If there's anything we know about "viral" messaging, it's that it spreads through communities that are interested in the content, regardless of how big or small they are.  Ford is placing a premium on first-hand experience and the social networks of influentials.

And what about advertising?  Rather than being the first step in the process it's the last.  And that means it's automatically less important than it once was.

So if we "erase the distinction between traditional and digital media" we have to recognize that, as I have been saying here for some time now (thank you Tom Asacker), there is no longer any such thing as radio per se.  We – and the bloggers who compete for our dollars – are all "media."

What Ford is saying is that the customer – the consumer – the listener – owns the ability to spread the word about the product.  The customer is driving the messaging bus.  Building a "culture" around the product (and that word really does not require quotation marks) is not some kind of manipulative pre-fab exercise. Rather, it's about tapping into existing threads of interest and sparking them with something attention-worthy which drives their passion.  In other words, it has everything to do with "marketing" – and nothing to do with "advertising."  

Thus leading to the obvious question: Which business are you in, Mr. and Ms. Broadcaster?

What Ford is really signaling is an interest to shift ad dollars to marketing dollars.  Now because radio reaches so many people and, in many cases, has relationships with these people, we have an opportunity to leverage those relationships in interesting ways for our clients.  But we need to recognize the significance of Kevin Brown's words:  Media today is audience-driven.  Audience-driven.  Not radio-driven.  And not ad-driven.

As I read headlines from radio conferences where group heads bemoan "radio's need to get new customers" or "too much reliance on Detroit" or other low-hanging nonsense du jour, I feel like there is a high-ranked tier of this industry which is completely out of touch with audience trends and completely deaf to the words of one of their largest clients.

Listen to Ford.

They are your client.

They know their audience and yours – perhaps better than we do.

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