After General Motors yanked all its paid media spend from Facebook in mid-2012, GM's chief marketing officer at the time, Joel Ewanick, suggested in a Wall Street Journal interview that Facebook is simply not a great place to advertise cars.
But GM eventually returned and Facebook has since doubled down on the auto category. In recent months its pitch to the world's Fords and Fiats has matured to include deeper audience insights married to third-party data.
It's also hiring aggressively. Its latest auto vertical recruit is Michelle Morris, who for the past seven years has led Google's category sales in North America. That's an enviable job considering the rich substrate of search query data at her disposal.
Facebook, by contrast, is in a relatively weak position vis-a-vis auto-intender data. While it has undeniable reach and access to Polk auto segments through Datalogix -- and hence the ability to compete on the media plan with endemic sites like KBB.com and Edmunds -- it's still working on ways to layer in additional value from the social graph.
"Google is such a strong brand,” said Erica Bigley, Ford and Lincoln digital media manager at Ford Motor Company. “I was shocked at first when she [Michelle] said she was going to Facebook."
Bigley said that Facebook, prior to this year, wasn’t "really giving us insight into their audience and using more the network model. By bringing in people who have strong backgrounds in the auto vertical, they're trying to change that."
Morris' network of Motor City contacts will come in especially handy as Facebook ratchets up its selling tactics to include reserve media. Earlier this year it presented at upfront media events hosted by several carmakers. (The word "upfront" may be too generous a word for some of these confabs, which were more along the lines of large meetings. Others were genuinely big, with participation from 100-plus media sellers.)
And Facebook is doing more from a data standpoint to package its audience for auto companies, adding more specific car buyer segments in a recent update to its Partner Categories. Many of those segments come indirectly from Polk, which sells its data into Facebook through their mutual partner, Datalogix.
The next opportunity lies in enhancing outside data with Facebook's own social signals.
"Facebook makes it very easy compared to some other social sites," said Ford's Bigley. "They can [see] every single action a consumer is taking. If someone posts on there, ‘I just bought a Ford Fusion,’ how can you turn that person into a strong advocate?"
Morris's hire follows that of Kass Dawson as head of auto-global vertical strategies. Dawson was previously with Jumpstart Automotive.