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, nissan.ancira.com.
But it also hosts an online community built by ADP for customers, employees and suppliers. The site, www.anciracommunity.com, 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."
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."
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.
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