Industry Pulse: GM’s Mary Henige on Google+ brand pages, social media

Industry Pulse: GM’s Mary Henige on Google+ brand pages, social media

Google Plus (Google+) and its launch of brand pages has been a hot topic of discussion lately. I recently connected with Mary Henige, who serves as the Director of Social Media & Digital Communications for General Motors, to discuss the automaker’s social media strategy and Google+ brand page launch.

Mary Henige has been with General Motors for more than two decades and during that time she has served in numerous roles. She clearly has a passion for GM and the auto industry as a whole. Mary’s energy and ‘can-do’ attitude were contagious even over the phone, so it’s no wonder to me how she has come to earn such a high-level position within one of the world’s largest auto manufacturers.

The Google+ buzz

I was part of the lucky group that got access to Google+ before it was open to everyone. Having been on the new social network for a few months prior to brand pages launching, I’d already begun establishing relationships with folks in the automotive community and in my professional life. The only problem was – there were no companies or brands allowed during the initial phases. Brands – and their enthusiasts – wanted to participate on Google+ much like they do on Facebook. This made for some intense anticipation of Google’s brand page launch, which finally happened on November 7, 2011.

Within hours of all brand pages launching, I had an email from General Motors’ social media team inviting me to join their Google+ newsroom. I was both intrigued and impressed that GM reached out to me rather than me having to find them, particularly because they were the only auto manufacturer to do so. It was a savvy move by the brand to welcome engagement from bloggers and influencers – and to encourage us to use their brand page as both a resource and an open forum. I immediately joined and became part of a conversation chain that included Mary Henige. That’s actually how I got this interview with her.

So what’s the buzz all about getting on to Google’s social network? It’s not just about following the latest trend, although that does play a part, according to Henige. It’s about exercising all opportunities to connect with your audiences.

GM’s big social media picture

GM realized what many organizations – both big and small brands – have not yet learned. “We realized that since social media is growing and everyone’s basically a blogger or an influencer, we wanted to be able to allow them to access niche stories,” said Henige. “There’s a lot we can do. [For example,] we can get right to the media through a small, targeted hangout with bloggers who have an interest in child safety seats.”

Henige believes that through social media, the possibilities are endless. “When Google+ came up we were thinking ‘What can we do to engage consumers?’” said Henige. “The platform allows you to do some things that people really want,” she added, referring to video hangouts and a more open forum to communicate on a personal level.

She anticipates that GM will use Google+ roughly twice a week. “When we looked thru the end of [2011], we feel we have two stories per week that have enough of a hook for journalists and bloggers to talk about,” she said.

“You can really, in some ways, target your messages and make your company accessible because, today, everyone wants access.” – Mary Henige, Social Media Director, General Motors

When asked about how such a large brand keeps online content organized, Henige explained: “We have an editorial board and we coordinate who’s putting what news where so we don’t get in the way of our own news.” That’s a smart strategy, and one that many companies need to understand before spreading themselves too thinly across the social sphere.

Google+ and auto brands worked together behind the scenes

General Motors, much like other automotive companies, worked closely with their Google reps to prepare for the official brand page launch. Many GM enthusiasts couldn’t help but notice that Ford had an official test page before many others did. Mary told me that GM gave its test page to Chevy because they decided it was the brand that made the most sense to be out there first. “Do you need a newsroom out there, or do you need Chevy out there during the centennial?” said Henige, referring to Chevrolet’s recent milestone of 100 years in operation.

When asked about the complaints about Google+ in its early stages, Henige gave a realistic perspective: “It’s evolving, it’s technology,” she said. “People need to get over that it’s not perfect.”

“I can’t imagine [Google+] is going to go away,” said Henige of Google’s social network.

GM already has more than 1,500 people in its circles and nearly 2,000 followers. And for Henige, the more people who share content the better. GM has launched brand pages for OnStar and Chevrolet, with Buick, GMC, and Cadillac on the way.

Where do GM’s dealers come into play?

Dealers actually become brand ambassadors, says Henige, because they end up sharing GM’s content with their networks. She gave the example of ChevyGirls, an initiative GM’s Chevrolet brand has run with some dealerships.

“Dealers who do [social media] well will have digital directors,” Henige explained. “They’re the ones who are going to be good because they understand the long-term investment it takes to get the ROI. They’re tring to figure out where the consumers are.”

On being a leading lady in the auto industry

Mary didn’t go to college planning to work for General Motors, or even in the auto industry. Her dad was a GM engineer, but her degree is in organizational communications. Since her start at GM, Mary has held nearly a dozen jobs there. Her favorite? The one she currently has. “I told [my supervisors] I wanted to go into social media,” she said. Mary believes that having a media relations background made for an easy transition to social media. “It’s been a really fun career,” said Mary. “ When I first started working for GM, I had no idea I’d be sitting here 25 years later.”

“I think this is a great company. And I think the auto industry is really interesting, and there are so many opportunities.” – Mary Henige on being a woman leader in auto industry.

For Henige, it’s not simply being a career woman in the auto industry that poses a unique challenge. “It’s the world we live in now,” she said. “We all have so many demands on our lives.” Her husband had a career as a GM engineer. He took early retirement so that he could stay home with their children.

Sage advice for other big brands

Wrapping up a wonderful conversation with Mary, I had to pick her brain for some advice for other large brands out there in social media.

“You have to try things. You have to experiment and be flexible,” advised Henige. “There’s also no perfect way to do things. People have to just jump in.”

Here are her words of wisdom:

  • Social media is very experiential.
  • Just because you’re not on the social web listening it doesn’t mean people aren’t talking about your brand – they are.
  • Don’t be afraid to engage detractors.
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Melanie Batenchuk founded Be Car Chic in 2009 as a way to help consumers make smart decisions when buying and selling their cars. Her prior work at the dealership, trade association and manufacturer levels has provided her a deep understanding of the complex facets within the auto industry, making her a leading woman in her field.