My, How the CMO Has Changed

A posting (and responses) on GM’s Facebook Wall, July 2012

When you visit Joel Ewanick, CMO of GM, in his offices in Detroit, the first thing you notice is that unlike most C-suite executives, he’s not on the 39th floor of GM’s Renaissance Center headquarters (the highest floor). Instead, you exit the elevators on the 24th floor, less than two thirds up the building.

The second thing that strikes you is the floor itself – it’s bright with natural light, sports an open plan bustling with energy, and features a central video wall sporting constantly updated feeds reflecting consumer sentiment about GM and its brands – Facebook wall postings, Tweets, news stories, and the like.

Before meeting Ewanick, I stopped in front of the wall and read the updates as they streamed by. It only took a few seconds to realize that the feeds were unfiltered: a complaint from a new SUV owner expressing severe buyer’s regret was was prominently featured.

I mentioned that post to Ewanick when we met, and he confidently responded that  someone would answer the complaint by the time our meeting was over, if not before. (I didn’t check, as our meeting went long, but a quick study of GM’s Facebook page bears this out quite dramatically – see image at upper left).

As someone who has spent many years visiting CMOs in tall buildings, I can tell you, this is nothing short of a revolution, and it’s happened in what amounts to an eyeblink in our business. And while Ewanick has made a point of illustrating this shift in a visual way on his 24th floor, I can tell you what he’s doing under the surface is not an isolated case.

In the normal course of business over the past two weeks, I’ve met with half a dozen Fortune 500 CMOs – men and women running massive marketing businesses for some of the best known brands in the world.  Every single one of them now takes the idea of “conversing with customers at scale, leveraging technology” as a north star. It’s an extraordinary shift.

I recall meetings just two or three years ago where senior marketing executives told me they couldn’t possibly allow engagement with customers – it was too dangerous, and far too costly. And yes, there are still holdouts that have yet to convert their approach to the market or who are still far too tentative in their embrace of what I call “conversational marketing” (I’m looking at you, United Airlines).

If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you might recall that I’ve been on about “the conversation economy” since 2006. It was going to be the name of my next book, till I decided to go all meta and take the ideas behind it and blow it up into a much bigger tome, one I’ve yet to finish. Since 2007, “The Conversation Economy” has been one of the most populated categories in my site, along with “Joints After Midnight” and “The Web as Platform.” And it’s at the heart of the company I started in 2005, which gave voice to and popularized the idea of “conversational media,” a platform that empowers consumers and would, I predicted, force brands to “have conversations with customers at scale.”

So here we are, just six years later, and the idea has taken root and is now at the heart of a spectacular string of successes in our industry – from the sale of Buddy to Salesforce, or Virtue to Oracle, to the rise of Sponsored Stories on Facebook or Promoted Tweets on Twitter. Companies are thirsty to understand how best to converse with their customers, and I’m thrilled this shift is occuring. When major enterprise software companies see “social” and “consumer engagement platforms” as the next big thing, you know something’s in the air.

So now what? What’s next? Well, I’m going to wager we’re entering an era of confusion and information overload. It’s great to respond to customers, to drive learnings from those interactions back into your enterprise, and to try to be “more social” in your marketing efforts. But the infrastructure to execute at scale in conversational media is still being built, and both consumers and marketers are uncertain as to how they might best converse – witness the ongoing questions about whether Facebook is an advertising medium, for example. What’s happening in marketing at the moment isn’t merely a technological shift. It’s a deep, organizational rewiring of How Things Get Done, a response to the platform power that consumers have harnessed through the Internet.

Just as like the music industry still wishes for the days when it controlled its own production and distribution, the media and marketing world still yearns for the silver bullet of the thirty-second spot on Seinfeld, even as it knows those days are over. Someday soon, we’ll realize that we’ve figured out a new kind of bullet, but not before enterprises reorganize how they operate – on every level, from product design to management to marketing. If Ewanick’s 24th floor is any indication, the work is certainly underway. Just 38 floors to go….

19 thoughts on “My, How the CMO Has Changed”

  1. Re United Airlines contrast – surely the staff-to-customer ratio required to engage in conversations only works if you’re selling high-value goods like cars but is less appropriate for high-volume, lower-value goods like airline tickets? Unless, you start favouring certain customers based on Klout scores or equivalent which introduces a new form of class division…

    1. Totally disagree. Look at Starbucks, or Nike, or Comcast. There are now very efficient ways to engage, and United is starting to – I got one response last month, for the first time ever, on Twitter, but not a second one….

      1. If you’re talking about providing personal responses I don’t see how that can scale for all customers of certain companies.  Given that, I was talking about an inevitable (and potentially automated) favouritism so citing your own experiences doesn’t count when until recently you were the number one  “John” on Google.

      2. I still am, in my own little world, thanks to Google’s personalized search! In any case, there are automated tools, plus escalation software, plus people (key) that can and should make it possible for companies to scale this.

      3. My cynical view is the objective of these social media tools is to target limited customer service resources at the most “influential” customers rather than the most deserving in order to maximise the wider *perception* of customer service.

        Businesses who can’t service everyone will figure keeping an influential customer happier is better than one who isn’t. It’s also technically easier to call the Klout API for a customer’s “influence rank” rather than attempt to rank customers by the “deservedness” based on the text  in their tweets/posts. 
        People like your good self who are heavily entrenched in “broadcast mode” will do well from this trend. 
        Our network connectivity is rapidly becoming like a new credit rating system and will influence everything from levels of customer service to the price of your car insurance (I use nets to spot insurance fraud risks). The question is – is this a good thing?

  2. A few years ago a marketing exec at a mega-FMCG company told me that for a long time the way to become the marketing director was to find a good agency and create three award-winning TV campaigns. ‘That doesn’t work anymore,’ he added wistfully.

    1. Wistful is how many are in disrupted industries, for sure.
      I had one fellow in the music industry tell me that they were all just “hanging on for their retirement bonuses”

  3. I’ve already told the story of GM’s 24th floor. I’d say that with every story retold, another, we’ve climbed another floor. But, I gotta say, I hope that when we get to the top, we say hi, enjoy the view and head back down to the 24th and get back to the work we love.

    1. Can you post the link?! I looked for stories about it and failed to find them (I will admit I didn’t look *that* hard, but did Google around….)

      1. hi, john
        not sure what links you’d like me to post; my comments are referring to you and your story about GM’s 24th floor. How can I help you further? 

  4. how companies converse with their customers and keep their engagement levels high will determine those that succeed. It is also how online communities develop and get more social conversations ongoing that will influence many individuals in the social web. 

  5. Sunday August 5th Denver Post article headline “GM ads fail to drive interest. Alas, Mr. Ewanick has been dismissed from GM. Too little too late?

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