Sunday, April 26, 2009

Harley-Davidson is revving up its social web strategy

Two days ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Randy Sprenger at Harley-Davidson to learn about their social web efforts. As a former agency Account Director on their business, I have a ton of passion for the brand oozing through my veins, and frankly was seeing some things on Twitter that made me wonder if they "get it". So I initiated this conversation to try to see things from their perspective. 

I'm putting myself in a bit of an awkward position here, frankly, which is a great way to learn. If I say anything negative, I risk ticking off people I like at a company that I love. If I don't, I'm not being completely honest. I'm counting on the fact that Randy - who is a seriously smart guy who had responsibility for globally for 8 years - said he is open to learning from others who have a strong point of view, as I learned from him. 

Harley-Davidson has embraced digital communication in a way that has well supported the desires of their uber-passionate customer community. And the social web is no exception. Although from the outside it sometimes looks like they are moving "at the speed of corporate," that is by conscious strategic choice. Moving deliberately ensures that they remain true to the ideals of the brand and authentic in spirit. Keep in mind: this is a brand that had a die-hard customer community -- fueled by H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) -- decades before community was cool. 

So job one, socially speaking, must be to support the passions and needs of that community. With 145,000+ fans on Facebook so far, H-D can post a question to start a thread and have 175 fan posts in ONE HOUR. Would you kill for that kind of customer engagement? Yeah, I thought so. Take a look at their very global Facebook fan page here.

Facebook isn't what H-D considers their biggest social web success, though. The company took some heat by a few die-hards for "selling out" when it used Victoria's Secret model Marisa Miller to launch its V-Rod Muscle model. But in conjunction with a 24-hour featured video buy on YouTube, its "Making of Marisa Miller and the Harley-Davidson V-Rod Muscle" video drew 600,000 views. Check out the video here. Although I must admit that, at the time, I was in the "sellout" camp, it's pretty hard to argue with that kind of outreach for a brand that has been working for a decade now to attract younger riders. As Randy said, "It's become a cliche, but content is still king." I couldn't agree more -- content and creativity -- and there are few brands that can boast the trough of rich content that H-D has to feed from. 

So the biggest thing I learned? Remember that things are not always as they seem from the outside. 

If there's anything I could constructively criticize about Harley's social efforts - and there isn't much - it would still be the personality, or relative lack thereof, of their Twitter presence.  In fairness, I should say that H-D started on Twitter in January 2009, so they are justifiably still in the "figuring it out" stage. I understand the logic that they are using it as a communication channel largely for "the brand" to communicate with those already engaged, and to listen to the voice of the customer. There can be no doubt that listening is a great early step on Twitter. But Twitter is also a chance to put a human face (or faces) and an otherwise corporate monolith, among a broader audience of curious passers-by who could very well become Harley riders if they are engaged in the incredible story and experience, by an actual human being. 

The time has come for many brands to stop treating social networking like an extension of advertising, and time to start using it as the personal, individual connection tool that it is. Authentically communicate person-to-person, not business-to-consumer. And I know I'm not alone in this opinion, as I've seen other conversation about it in my networks. Whoever I saw coin the term "P2P" last week, step up and take credit. It's the truth. 

What's next for Harley-Davidson on the social web and what's their biggest question for all the social web gurus out there? They are indeed in the process of shifting from using it as a customer tool to talking with new folks. Part of that challenge is deciding how to best address its many diverse audiences - women, younger riders, Hispanic riders, and more. 

Do you have any ideas? Have you seen a brand do a great job at this?  

If anyone knows anyone at Nike in the web/social web function, please hook me up with them. Off the top of my head that's the brand that's got the most similar challenges. 

Comments are very welcome - thanks.