Ford Motor Company has been quietly stepping into the transmedia arena as a producer, beginning in 2009 with the “Fiesta Moment” social media campaign, where 100 Ford Fiesta vehicles were given to non-professional spokespeople or marketers to use, drive and then comment on via Twitter and other social media outlets. The great success of that campaign apparently spawned a deeper dive into the use of not just social media, but a fully-concieved reality TV show, airing now on NBC on Saturday evenings, with a strong online transmedia component, using YouTube and Twitter to weave multiple stories. Committing deeply to engaging their audience apart from the mainstream media, Ford has brought in YouTube star ijustine to host a unique “spin off” series that runs in conjunction with the TV show.
Ford’s self-branded TV reality show, “Escape Routes” airs on Saturday nights on NBC, offering teams of contestants a chance to win a 2013 Ford Escape. It doesn’t sound very novel for a network TV show, until you throw into the mix a regular post show off-air online after the network broadcast, and the active participation of viewers helping to mold and create the experience through social media interaction. Viewer participants can also win prizes, in separate competitions online.
This is more than voting on American Idol: viewers communicate with the on-air teams via social media and play a strong part in developing the story (or, multiple stories), qualifying this to be a true transmedia experience. Through tweets, solicited video and routine online interaction with the teams, viewers have a constant voice in the process, offering their opinions and support, while often asked for suggestions for challenges and content they want to see on air or online. There is a gaming component just for the online viewer/participants, using a point system and awarding badges and real prizes. And, as with any good transmedia property, while there are multiple non-linear stories (the challenges, for instance) the characters making up the teams have very clearly defined personalities—in this case, their own.
On April 3rd, Social Media Club NYC held a live panel discussion with the reality show team members, iJustine, network broadcast show host Rossi Moreale, Ford’s U.S. Social Media Manager Craig Daitch, moderated by Howard Greenstein, President of the NYC chapter of the Social Media Club. Although the typical meeting would have been a round-robin discussion covering various aspects of social media, this was more like a game show where the 12 team panelists put their competitive energy on display. In between short commentary about the interactive aspects of constant communication with fans and viewers keeping it “real”, most of them expressed their excitement about playing this game not just for themselves but for the virtual teammates that had signed on and were keeping up with them. As if to prove the point, the twitter stream using the hash tag #EscapeRoutes was actively filled with commentary on the event both from participants in the room (comprised mostly of older teens and millennials) and virtual followers during the entire 2 hour meeting. Unlike typical marketing, branding or PR-focused meetings where agency account executives and a smattering of creatives will talk about ROI, privacy issues or how old values or methods translate to new technology, the conversation stayed centered around activity, participation and “what happens when…” Digital natives or the older early adopters in the room seemed comfortable with the seamless integration of a lean-forward and lean-back experience taking place simultaneously.
Ford’s destiny might be like Apple, moving from manufacturing physical products to becoming primarily a lifestyle and experience producer — if they find that creating transmedia properties does more for car sales than traditional advertising and marketing formulae. They already have a web series in the works, called “Plugged In,” to be broadcast on Yahoo’s streaming video site starting in May, to promote their first electric car, the Focus Electric. This will dovetail with the finale episode of Escape Routes, scheduled to end just as the new series begins.
Ford reported that “Escape Routes” gained a million followers on Twitter when the show debuted. Whatever one’s taste is for Reality TV or online gaming, there may be a new hybrid in the works worth watching.