Social Media and Social Marketing: Make an Impact in a Crowded Field

Face it, marketing through social media channels is no longer optional; it’s a necessity. That’s old news by now, in fact. Regardless of the car-buying demographic—millennials, Gen X, or boomers—most of your potential customers are using at least one form of social media, and possibly many.

Pew Research reported in 2014 that approximately three-quarters of American adults use social networking and more than 90% have cell phones, with the majority of those being smart phones. Add to that the fast-rising popularity of tablet devices, and not only are your future buyers relying on social media to communicate, seek advice from their peers, and research products and companies, they’re increasingly doing it in mobile form.



The bottom line is that if your dealership hasn’t already taken its marketing campaign to social media, it is behind the curve. And not only is social media marketing a must, but it needs to employ a multitiered approach that hits both the most common and the up-and-coming social media platforms, and makes full use of mobile channels.

But if every dealership should be employing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc., to spread the word, how do you stand out from the crowd and get results? And how do you make your dealership’s marketing transcend the perception of advertising and turn it into a loyalty- and community-building way to not only connect with potential buyers, but to make them part of your dealership’s “family”?

To get answers, Dealer Marketing Magazine turned to a panel of automotive and social media industry experts: Micah Johnson and Alane Boyd, president and vice president, respectively, of GoFanbase; Brent Wees, partner and client services director at Dashboard, creators of Octane; David Brondstetter and Tim Fiorito, CEO and COO, respectively, of SureCritic; and Sean Stapleton, vice president of sales and marketing for VinSolutions.

Dealer Marketing Magazine: What is the single most important social media activity dealers need to be engaged in, and why?

Micah Johnson and Alane Boyd: The most important activity is sharing customer experiences on your social channels. Smiling faces from new-purchase photos to community-event photos receive 53% more likes and 104% more comments than any other content type on Facebook.

Brent Wees: Conversation. Plain and simple, we know that social media is about connecting with your customer base and reducing traditional one-way messaging. Conversation covers all social platforms, from tweeting back to customers or responding to a negative review. If your dealership is unable to execute this simple foundational social media practice, you need to reevaluate what you are doing in that arena.

David Brondstetter and Tim Fiorito: Any tool and/or process that increase the chances of retaining their customer through the sales to service to sales cycle is important. Right now, consumers are seeing a constant stream of advertising through their digital experience, and it’s almost impossible to remain top of mind. That means the most important activity is what happens when that customer is in the dealership, and if that experience is a good one, they’ll be more willing to push it out via their social media channels. It’s not enough to stay on top of the reputation assigned by Yelp and Google. Dealers need to be proactive in building a moat of positive experiences that aren’t subject to changing rules and algorithms.

Sean Stapleton: Dealers really need to understand their customer to understand the social media activity that’s most important—and beneficial—for their business. If high-end luxury cars are their core business, Vine and Pinterest might not be as important as they would be if they were selling entry-level cars where the main demographic is younger, first-time buyers.

Dealers have to be active on platforms where their customers already are, and they have to be there early in the decision-making process. Dealers can’t expect to join the latest social media app and for their customers to magically find them. They must conform to their customers’ buying and shopping habits by finding the sites that they’re using today and then using those to engage with them early on and throughout the purchase process.

DMM: As more and more dealerships embrace social media and social marketing, what can be done to stand out from the crowd and create a truly memorable experience for customers?

MJ/AB: First, leverage agile (real-time) marketing. Keep your social pages relevant to what is happening, and keep track of what is viral and bring it in to your pages in a creative way. A great example is #TheDress, which went viral recently. Dealerships had fun with their inventory by posting a photo of a gold-and-white vehicle and asking their fans what color it was while including links to their inventory.

Second, treat online fans as if they were standing in front of you—make it unique, inviting, and informative. The best advice we can give to our team is to pretend they are talking to you face-to-face.

BW: Video. While dealers understand the power of video content, it seems to be the toughest content for their teams to execute. There are fantastic examples of dealers and sales professionals doing video right. Dealers should be using these examples to build their own strategies. The social platforms have evolved their own capabilities in streaming video; it’s very easy to build that content out now.

DB/TF: I’m not sure there’s a cause-and effect relationship between the two. As a business, think of social media as another channel, just like newspaper, emails, direct mail, etc. That’s what a CRM system is for and there are many good ones on the market. I don’t think a funny video or any other typical social media event can create a truly memorable experience for a customer; only the dealership staff can do that.

What a dealer should be focused on is what actual customers think of their experience and social media, in particular reviews, a great way to understand the guest experience from the customer point of view. When dealers use this information to make tweaks and changes to their process, all customers benefit.

The real problem is getting reliable data. You really can’t do this with anonymous tweets and reviews. And I’m not just talking about a poor experience; dealers need to make positive reviews, tweets, posts, etc., required reading for all customer-facing employees.

SS: First, if you’re not already embracing social media marketing, you’re not in the game today. Dealers need to be engaged, be active, be realistic, and be everywhere their customers are. That sounds crazy, but it’s possible when dealers make social media a priority, not an afterthought. Social media must be part of an overall marketing, branding, and customer-retention strategy.

Second, dealers shouldn’t focus on standing out from the crowd. They need to understand what their crowd—their customers—wants. Where are they now? What are they looking for? What do they want to see? Dealers need to create relevant content that fulfills all those needs, and then feed that content into the channels where their customers exist. If competitors aren’t listening or serving up desired content, the dealer has the opportunity to give customers exactly what they want. Then, dealers can deliver the right message to the right person through the right channel at the right time. Serve up content that matches very closely with what a particular group or segment is looking for. Even with social media—and especially with social media—it’s one-to-one marketing, not one-to-many.

DMM: In terms of its potential for the automotive industry, what is the hottest up-and-coming social media platform, and how will it benefit auto dealers to use?

MJ/AB: Vine—these are short, maximum seven-second videos. This is perfect for new vehicles rolling off the delivery truck, featuring the entertainment system of a car, or showing what was experienced at an event. Next, Snapchat. This is one of the most intimate social channels for a business. You can send individual snaps or posts to your “story.” Dealerships can use this to introduce new employees, advertise special weekend events, or other unique things happening at the dealership you want your customers to know about.

BW: Snapchat is causing a lot of buzz. Millennials are slowly leaving Facebook for Snapchat, where they have the capacity to photo and video chat with greater privacy, but the engagement levels are higher. Brands are flocking to the platform as well due to the ability to build “stories” on the platform and tap into its growing popularity. Keep in mind the environment doesn’t seem to be engaging Gen X or boomers at the same rate, but it may only be a matter of time before that changes.

DB/TF: It’s less about the platform and more about your interactions. Customers want to feel like they are an insider; they want a friend at the dealership. Social media and online reviews allow those interactions to unfold, regardless of whether it be on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, text messaging, or a review platform that has contact management-type functionality.

If you are not taking the time to write personalized messages on social media and in response to reviews, you are failing to nurture the long-term customer relationship. If you are not taking steps today to empower team members to engage with customers, it’s something worth looking at as part of your normal process.

We get personal emails from our clients’ customers thanking us because someone at the dealership responded to their review. When we first started seeing this phenomenon, we didn’t know what to think. Why where the dealer’s clients thanking us? Over time we’ve realized that it’s all about the relationship. It’s probably not as much about the next hottest platform, and more about dealership personnel continuing to think about how to use any tools to increase customer retention. Without customer retention, it gets very expensive to fill the shop and showroom.

SS: We’re seeing that any platform that utilizes video is the place to be. Without a doubt, video is the fastest-growing segment, taking the top place that image-driven social media used to hold. YouTube is the second-largest search engine in the world, and there’s a reason for that. Video is engaging. Videos have color, sound, movement. Videos evoke emotion. The options for dealers to use video and the social platforms on which they can use them are virtually endless, and the bottom-line benefit is true engagement of their core audience.

Whether it’s best for dealers to use video on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, or elsewhere depends on where their customers are. Dealers shouldn’t just hop onto the hottest social media platform just because it exists. Dealers need to find out where their customers are and then really cultivate their presence there. Spend time and money on that platform, and make sure to create and share relevant, thoughtful, and engaging content. Strategic social media marketing is going to serve dealers better than spending time jumping onto every trending social media app.

DMM: What can a dealership offer in terms of unique content that will make its social marketing transcend being perceived as advertising, and instead transform it into a relationship with customers that builds loyalty and referrals?

MJ/AB: Customers need an easy way to share to the dealership’s social sites. The easier you make sharing on social for customers, the more social engagement, loyalty, and referrals you’ll receive. A mobile app like GoFanbase streamlines otherwise lengthy processes for the salespeople and customers to easily share and create word-of-mouth referrals for the dealership.

The mobile app creates unique content by allowing customers to share their photo from the dealership directly on their social pages while mentioning the dealership name for all of their friends to see. From there the dealership can create and leverage a social audience, from all social sites to attract other local buyers through free social word-of-mouth.

BW: Gamification (contesting/digital games and campaigns) can provide unique opportunities for dealerships to connect with customers in a manner that is enjoyable to the audience, and can build loyalty and referrals. New tools are being introduced on a regular basis to help dealers easily execute these sort of campaigns in the market. I feel that a bigger focus, though, is to make sure those tactics aren’t just used to build social media audiences, but to drive to a deeper, more direct interaction at the dealer’s website or with staff.

DB/TF: Honestly, probably nothing. The problem with transcending a perception of advertising is that it is, in essence, advertising. Consumers aren’t that naive. That said, consumers are used to being solicited in one form or another, so using social media as a channel is an absolute must. The problem we see right now is the lack of unique content, and that’s driven by a couple of things.

First, if you hire a third-party company to manage your social media, you are probably not going to get unique content. And it’s probably not going to be relevant to your customer or potential customer. Which leads me to the second issue: It’s hard to continually, day after day, create fresh, unique, and relevant content. You don’t get that for $700 a month for a reason.

SS: Dealers have to understand the difference between social media marketing and actual engagement. People don’t want to be marketed to. They want to connect. The best content dealers can provide their customers is honest, engaging, and emotional.

Think of the recent stories that went viral, like the Detroit-area man who walked 21 miles to and from work every day. A local dealership caught wind of that story and gave him a car. Or the Michigan-area couple that was scammed on Craigslist when trying to buy a van. RightWay Automotive, a local dealer, gave the couple the exact minivan they wanted, plus a six-month warranty, 30 days of insurance, and two years of free oil changes.

Let’s say the dealerships spent $30,000 each to donate these cars. With that investment, they became part of national stories that garnered a great response and brought the dealerships much praise for their philanthropy. Would they have seen that kind of return on investment, or more importantly, customer engagement, had they spent the $30,000 on an advertising campaign?

Advertising would’ve never connected with potential buyers the way those stories did. Instead, the dealers told a story that built brand awareness, loyalty, and referrals that spread far beyond expectations. It was timely, it was relevant, and more than anything, it came from the right place of wanting to “do good.”

DMM: Car buying has been often perceived by the general public as a “necessary evil” that consumers find stressful or painful. What effect has the use of social media and social marketing had on this perception, and does it have the potential to ultimately turn car buying into something people enjoy?

MJ/AB: With the aid of managing and being active on social channels, car dealerships have the great opportunity of humanizing themselves even before the person comes in. They can break the wall of a purchasing a vehicle being a stressful transaction, and morph it into joining a community. With mobile apps like ours, dealerships can display real customers’ comments and experiences on their social pages, making them instantly more trustworthy. This community builds trust and life-long happy customers.

BW: The car-buying process is only a “necessary evil” if your dealership makes it so. The Internet and social media platforms have allowed consumers to do far more research online and better prepare for dealership visits. The experience at the dealership is where the rubber meets the road. You have an educated buyer and if you make their experience at your store a memorable one those customers can do a world of word of mouth marketing for the store and staff. Online conversations about consumer experience can be found quickly and easily now because of social media.

DB/TF: We’re big fans of dealers. We’ve been fortunate to have met a lot of great dealers throughout our careers, so we take issue with “necessary evil.” We don’t think people hate buying a car; they hate paying for one. What we mean is that the breakdown for the customer seems to be during the finance process for whatever reason.

Ultimately, social media has leveled the playing field in a lot of ways. You can find invoice pricing from just about anywhere and get detailed information about a vehicle, pricing, and retail outlets at the click of a mouse. Knowledge is still power, and now consumers have that power. In a lot of ways, access to this data has produced customers who feel better about their deal and are willing to talk about it socially with their network. Everyone likes to talk about getting a good deal with everyone who will listen.

As for turning car buying into something the customer enjoys, dealers need to use data to optimize the experience. Social media is immediate. Customers who haven’t even completed their transaction are tweeting about it from the waiting room. You can always tell when someone’s upset in the waiting room: slamming their thumbs against the phone screen typing about their experience. They are easy to spot. Dealers also need to make sure those people they’ve already brought through the door are happy. Dealers should think of an unhappy customer at the dealership as a negative review on at least one review site. Imagine if you could catch a customer before they flamed you out online, and fixed the situation? Think about the time savings and impact to your online reputation. You can’t make an experience enjoyable unless you get them in the store.

SS: Now more than ever, shoppers are looking for honesty and transparency. Social media is a powerful forum that can be used to provide that exact accuracy, transparency, and honesty that will resonate with car buyers. Dealers can use social platforms to promote solutions to the things people dread about car buying. If a dealer offers no-haggle pricing, they should use social marketing to get the message out that what the car’s price is on the website is what they’ll pay at the dealership. No switch and bait. No hassle. A pain-free car-buying experience. When dealers use social media the right way, it definitely has the power to make the car-buying experience enjoyable for people and not the “necessary evil” it’s often perceived to be.

Social media also provides a great opportunity for dealers to build and manage their reputation. Social media can help dealers define their reputation and what they stand for as reputable dealerships. Likewise, social media can tarnish a dealer’s reputation, so it’s important for dealers to really listen and monitor what people are saying about them online. Using social media to build and manage reputation is the difference between surviving and thriving in today’s market.

We want to know what you think about social media and social marketing. How has it worked for your dealership? What specific areas do you want to learn more about? We encourage your comments via Twitter to @DealerMarketing or by email to kurt@dealermarketing.com.

Kurt Stephan

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