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Automotive News - Social media: Say 'hi' before 'buy'

Social media: Say 'hi' before 'buy' - Despite risks, auto marketers all a-Twitter -- and Facebook

SOURCE: Automotive News
The town of Burgaw, N.C., boasts 4,000 residents. It's hardly the place you'd expect to find one of the most aggressive auto dealerships in social-media marketing. But the Internet can be a great equalizer.

Thanks in large part to the dealership's tech-savvy Internet manager, Matthew Heath, Safeway Chevrolet in Burgaw not only has a Facebook page. It also has a blog, a YouTube channel and 226 followers on Twitter.

That puts the store at the forefront of the industry's rapid embrace of social media, which give automakers and dealers a new inexpensive way to reach consumers.

Social media are Internet sites where users generate the content, forming communities to interact, share experiences and voice opinions. For Safeway Chevrolet, the direct cost is minimal. "The only cost is just the time it takes to do it," Heath says.

The hope is that the combination of product information, car care tips, consumers' vacation photos and heartwarming postings about a stray dog -- fueled by the attraction of online communities -- builds an affinity that leads to sales.

Benefits are hard to measure. But despite the uncertainties, for dealerships and automakers, social media are rapidly becoming a must-do activity.

Scott Monty, Ford Motor Co.'s social-media chief, says not using social media today "is almost like not having a Web page in 2000."

Heath suspects social-media activity is helping sales, but he can't quantify the increase: "If we were in an area with a demographic that leans more toward the Internet, we would do better. But it's definitely making a difference."

Sites to see
Some popular social-media sites
• Delicious: Users bookmark favorite Web sites and share them.
• Digg: User-submitted content is rated by other users; top stories make the front page.
• Facebook: Users build a community of friends with whom they share information, opinions, updates
on their lives.
• Flickr: Users share, store, manage photos.
• LinkedIn: Professional networking
• MySpace: Similar to Facebook but a younger audience
• Scribd: Publishes documents, including corporate presentations, screenplays and college theses.
• Twitter: Users send out snippets of information, known as tweets, to "followers."
• YouTube: Users upload and share videos.

The softest of sells

Using social media requires a new marketing playbook. Direct sales pitches are frowned upon. Instead, the object is to accumulate friends and fans and, as one Internet marketer puts it, make a sale "by accident."

Plus, a business puts its reputation on the line by giving anyone with a computer and an Internet connection control over the corporate message. Deleting critical comments from a site would violate the informal code of social media.

Experts say one thing that won't work is the hard sell.

Chris Herman, president of Herman Advertising in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says using social media solely for advertising can be a big mistake. "You turn off anybody who decided to become a fan of your business," he says.

First, Herman says, the business has to earn a potential customer's trust and respect.

His agency creates and maintains social-media accounts for several of its 25 dealership clients.

"The most important thing is to establish a relationship with your customer base that allows some interaction that's not specifically geared toward promoting product," Herman says.

Heath says the number of "fans" of Safeway Chevrolet's Facebook page grew after he replaced much of the car information on the site with community news, jokes and other content that often has nothing to do with cars. When the dealership does post information on a vehicle from time to time, people don't feel overwhelmed, he says.

Ralph Paglia, director of digital marketing for ADP Dealer Services, compares a networking site to a bunch of friends hanging out and having a conversation.

Says Paglia: "If you were having a party at your house, imagine if I showed up and started asking people: 'So I sell cars, here's my card. Are you in the market by chance?' I probably wouldn't' get invited back, right?"

Paglia even suggests dealers keep their social-media activities separate from the Web sites they use for car sales and service.

ADP, one of the dominant dealer management system providers, has a pilot program in which it builds online communities for dealerships and pushes the content out to as many as 100 social-media sites. The company plans to formally launch the service in February at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention.

One of ADP's pilot dealerships is Ancira Nissan in San Antonio. To showcase its inventory and service, Ancira maintains a traditional Web site built by Reynolds Web Solutions,

But it also hosts an online community built by ADP for customers, employees and suppliers. The site,, is filled with personal discussion threads, photos, videos, blog entries and community news.

Such communities can lead to sales. In October, Ancira employees blogged about a stray dog they had adopted as the store's mascot. They decided to keep the animal rather than hand it over to animal control because it was driving away raccoons that were damaging cars on the lot.

Paglia says a blog reader was so impressed with the dog saga that he decided to buy a car there.

"I've had several dealers tell me, 'Ralph, it's like selling cars by accident,' " he says. "You're providing information without it being attached to a sales pitch."

Double-edged sword

Sales Manager Don Clements, left, owner Larry Neuwirth, center, and Internet Sales Manager Matthew Heath of Safeway Chevrolet in Burgaw, N.C., use Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and blogs to bond -- in a low-key way -- with consumers.

But social media can be a double-edged sword, especially because many sites allow users to comment freely about companies and their products. Some big companies have been stung by opening their sites to naysayers. And once on the Internet, negative feedback has a life of its own.

Says Linda Gangeri, national advertising manager for Volvo Cars of North America: "People can basically broadcast whatever they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want. We kind of refer to social media as the wild, wild West."

A classic case of risk-taking was General Motors' 2006 campaign inviting the public to create their own Chevy Tahoe commercials.

Although most of the spots were positive, some people posted commercials, often using profane language, criticizing the SUV's fuel economy. Thanks to YouTube, the spots live on, long after the campaign ended.

Ed Peper, who was general manager of Chevrolet in 2006, answered critics on GM's FastLane blog site.

Peper wrote: "So, a few media pundits seem to think this social-media program was a failure, and others seem to revel in the apparent anarchy. We, on the other hand, welcome the opportunity to clarify the facts regarding fuel economy, vehicles equipped with E85 capability and consumer choice."

Honda got slammed recently with negative comments on Facebook about the styling of its Accord Crosstour crossover.

Spokesman Chuck Schifsky says some comments were based on spy photos purported to feature the Accord Crosstour. It turns out the photos showed a European Accord wagon being used as a mule for powertrain development. "We couldn't mess with the site once the comments were there," Schifsky says.

Ironically, Honda did have to pull down one positive comment. Turns out it was posted by an employee in product development who violated company policy by failing to identify himself.

Volvo's Gangeri says positive comments on the Internet tend to outweigh the negative ones. "People are basically self-managing themselves in this space, for the most part."

The Accord Crosstour incident hasn't deterred Honda's social-media efforts. The automaker is on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Its Asimo robot even has its own social-media following.

"People like to communicate with brands now," says Alicia Jones, who manages social-media sites for Honda. "That's the most interesting aspect of social media."

Video walk-arounds

For Safeway Chevrolet, one of the most effective forms of social media has been the video-sharing site YouTube.

Heath has started taping Safeway salespeople doing video walk-arounds of vehicles. He posts the videos on YouTube with specific customers in mind, but they are available for anyone to see.

Through word-of-mouth, a video created for one customer easily can generate 100 views, Heath says.

One of the store's most popular videos depicts Sales Manager Don Clements giving the virtual audience a tour of the Camaro SS. It's at

Heath posted the video in June. By mid-November it had attracted almost 1,300 views.

Safeway has done about two dozen walk-arounds, Heath says: "It would be more, but a lot of my salesmen are camera-shy."

Written by: Leslie J. Allen
Automotive News | November 23, 2009 - 12:01 am EST
You can reach Leslie J. Allen at

Views: 799

Tags: Automotive Marketing, Automotive News, Say hi before buy, Social Media Marketing, Social media


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Comment by Ralph Paglia on December 3, 2009 at 9:15pm
@Chris - I have had what sounds like similar experiences, and many professionals I speak with also suggest that they have benefitted in similar ways... For me, learning though personal participation has always been my most effective research tool, so before I ever thought about Social Media Marketing as an outsourced managed service for car dealers, I was living and learning the trade as a business development professional.

Lately, I have begun to realize that social networking is a great example of technology allowing people to do something we have always done, but a lot more efficiently and with more productivity if measured by relationships cultivated per hour spent.

Yesterday I was with a VERY successful Automotive Executive, and he started out by saying "I don't understand any of this social network stuff... I just don't understand why anyone would want to use Facebook or any of these other social media sites..." Two hours later, this mega-dealer who never gives ANYONE more than 15 to 30 minutes, started saying "OK, I think I get it... I hate to admit is, but I think I see what the attraction is... But what does any of this have to do with selling cars?" Well... One small step for Social Media Marketing, and one giant leap for a car dealer who previously wanted to shut off social media access in all his dealerships! And, before NADA, he will be a believer.

Comment by Christopher Baccus on November 29, 2009 at 7:22am
I love the quote, "it's like selling cars by accident." It kind of expresses my own personal foray into social media and blogging after several years. I'm not a car dealer, but I am a professional and get all kinds of contacts, offers, etc "by accident" just for being openly involved in my profession. It has provided a ton of great relationships and extended my network. It just all takes time and commitment, the payoff is far from immediate which could easily frustrate and certainly provides a debate on if social media is really worth the effort from a ROI perspective. Anyway, thanks for always sharing some interesting stuff.
Comment by Ralph Paglia on November 28, 2009 at 9:03pm
@ Ken - Thank you for the positive feedback! The reason why you were so well received at the Ancira Community is because that whole organization is the REAL DEAL! You may not be surprised to learn that the Ancira Auto Group has less than a 15% annual turnover rate, and most of that is retiring employees! Everybody you meet working at any of the Ancira dealerships has been there for years and years... This whole dealer group is the perfect setting for automotive social media marketing success... My biggest concern is that finding other dealer groups like Ancira is going to be very, very difficult. In the meantime, my team loves working with Ancira Auto Group and we bend over backwards to take care of their social marketing and reputation management needs. Their Google Analytics shows that the Ancira Community is up to over 100 Unique Visitors each day... So we are trending for over 3,000 Uniques for November and I have a feeling that December it will double in traffic.
Comment by Ken Gibson on November 28, 2009 at 3:47pm
Good job, Ralph, as usual. I love the case studies and examples, because the dealers that I work with and the ones in our social media marketing workshops need real-life peer examples.
I use the Ancira community site in our trainings at CIADA. Did I tell you I got a birthday gift from Ancira ? (chocolate cake - LOL)

Comment by Amy M Moore on November 24, 2009 at 12:04am
Interesting. There is a lot of risk in using the social networking sites but not using them leads to many missed opportunities. Everyone is not going to take some Joe Schmoe's word on most things. They are going to be curious, they are going to want to find out for themselves and that gives companies a huge opportunity to sell to these consumers. Instead of having to go after the consumer with direct mail and giant billboards, the consumer is now finding a desire to actually hunt down the dealers to see what is really going on and most are doing so from the comfort of their own livingrooms. I see one site that I would surely add to the list of sites to see. StumbleUpon is missing and it is becoming one of the ways site owners are using to increase traffic at a rapid rate.

Comment by Alan Moore on November 23, 2009 at 11:12pm
This is one awesome article and definitely gets vigorous repeated clicks on the Share button!
Comment by Ralph Paglia on November 23, 2009 at 3:52pm
David makes an excellent point... While assessing a dealer's involvement or participation in social media marketing, it is an excellent opportunity to review and refresh whatever websites the dealer has in place. That's what we did with Automotive Avenues of Denver, CO. When we built out their social marketing community at we ended up deciding a total redesign of their eCommerce, or main site, was due, so we did and is the result.
Comment by aaron kominsky on November 23, 2009 at 11:19am
sensational article ralph i hope whoever reads this decides to follow your lead

Comment by Ronald Goodman on November 23, 2009 at 10:55am
Ralph , this is a great article. very informative. Thanks Ron

Comment by David Alpern on November 23, 2009 at 10:47am
While I concur with Ford Motor Co.'s social-media chief, Scott Monty's view that not using social media today is akin to not having a website ten years ago, the opportunity for dealers now is two-fold: Packaging their dive into active social media engagement together with improvement of their website to be more informative and effective in driving potential buyers down funnel.

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