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Why Going Social Can Make or Break the Automotive Industry

The car business has been notoriously slow at embracing aspects of the Internet since the beginning. Social media is no exception. In 2010, more in the industry from manufacturers down to dealers will learn to engage in social media or be left behind.

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From late 2008 until now, the automotive industry has been on a roller coaster that has seen more lows than highs. Government bailouts, Cash for Clunkers, brands being bought or dissolved, dealers closing in batches — it hasn’t been pretty, but not for a lack of trying.

There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for most manufacturers and dealers. It’s a “need” industry — people can only hold onto their current vehicles for so long before needing to add to or replace them. Without action, many in the industry will see the rebound of slow sales over the last 2 years, but many are turning to a “new” way of reaching out to the consumers: social media.

Social media itself is not new and has been used by businesses for years, but the automotive industry has lagged behind in embracing it. The nature of social media – being social and engaging with other people – is something that has been foreign to an industry that has relied on direct, to-the-point advertising to get their message across.

It isn’t new to everyone in the industry. Those who have engaged earlier appear to be starting to reap the benefits.

Auto Manufacturers and Social Media

Ford has been the poster child for manufacturers using social media for over a year now. Scott Monty and his team have invested time, money, and creativity into utilizing Web 2.0 to their advantage with efforts such as the Fiesta Movement.

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Another company making a strong effort is BMW. Their Facebook page is well maintained, takes advantage of many of the features available through fan pages such as video, images, custom pages, and contact forms, and has actively engaged with customers through it.

Many other manufacturers are way behind, but most are making an effort to get their. Mazda’s social media has been non-existent for a while, but a quick tour at Mazda corporate with David Harris, Group Manager for Mazda North American Operations, demonstrated that they’re aware of the concerns and are working towards improving their automotive social media.

Still, the one thing that every manufacturer is missing is engagement at the level that bridges the corporations with their customers — the dealers themselves. Nobody has demonstrated an understanding of how to help their customer facing, front-line stores capable and equipped to engage with customers through social media.

Auto Dealers and Social Media

It is here where the battle will be won or lost. While social media allows people to connect with others across the country and around the world, consumers still want to buy from dealers that are within driving distance. It’s in local engagement that the automotive industry must embrace social media, and so far very little of that has been happening.

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In the early stages of the social media boom, many dealers, lacking direction, turned to a mix of their traditional advertising techniques applied through social media. They would feed their inventory into Twitter streams and through Facebook updates. They would put Digg and Delicious buttons on their vehicle details pages. Vendors in the industry would tout their ability to help dealers reach millions of people through social media.

As a result, many came and left. They gave social media a shot and saw no value.

They were missing something.

There was no engagement.

There was no humanity.

They promoted, and it didn’t work.

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Signs of Change

While most manufacturers are still trying to get their corporate social media affairs in order, most dealers are looking for ways to get into social media properly. They understand that they need to but lack direction from above on how to do it.

Some dealers are taking measures into their own hands. Marlboro Nissan in Boston has built a blog, become active on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, and are engaging with their potential customers in a way that is driving tremendous traffic as well as increasing sales.  They are the case-study, but most dealers must still turn to the manufacturer for support.

Currently, that support is not there.

The only other place to turn is to their vendors. A recent partnership between KPA (an environmental and HR compliance firm), TK Carsites (an automotive Internet marketing firm), and Hasai (a social media strategy firm) has many in the industry turning to them for help. Through seminars, webinars, and services, the combination of the three will help dealers “go social” through the one key that they promote: engagement.

Rather than having their dealers spam through social media, they are teaching and assisting their clients to gain an understanding of what social media truly means: communication. By fostering a community of open communication rather than a one-way marketing dialogue, their dealers are able to truly reach and be reached.

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Another sign of hope is the upcoming NADA Expo in Orlando. Much of the discussion this year will revolve around social media with panels and vendors offering ways to help. Prior to the expo, there’s an automotive social media boot camp being held the day before to help those looking for more in-depth training than what they can learn at the NADA convention itself.

What Dealers and Manufacturers BOTH Need in 2010

The cream of the crop at both the dealer level and the manufacturer level will have 4 major components to their social media strategy that will make or break them in 2010.

  • Blog and/or Social Network: As consumers, we want to be able to communicate about dealers and manufacturers in a public forum. A blog or personalized social network is the easiest way to make this happen. Without one, the other, or both, consumers will turn to sites such as RipOffReport.com to make their statement to the public.
  • Social Network Engagement: Having a Facebook page and Twitter account are not enough. Both dealers and manufacturers must engage with consumers, offering news and feedback as well as entering into public conversations surrounding their brand. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to engage in ways that have nothing to do with the industry. A Dallas car dealer should express how they feel about the Cowboys winning their division. Honda should (and have recently) let people know about charities they support. In social networking, being human is more important than being corporate.
  • Videos: More time was spent watching videos in 2009 than reading emails. This is something that people want, and it’s not all about the advertising. Offering helpful videos for people to reference can help dealers and manufacturers “give back” to their customers. For example, many people have a hard time syncing their mobile devices to their mobile-ready new vehicles. Having an instructional video on the website that can be found on the search engines will help with branding as well as reputation.
  • Search for Customers on Social Media: We’re here. We’re tweeting out when we’re sick of our 1993 Corolla breaking down. We’re updating our Facebook page announcing that we’re going car-shopping this weekend. Yet, nobody seems to be listening other than our friends and family. Once dealers and manufacturers figure that out, they’ll find a gold mine ready to be tapped.

Many Will Not Get It

Just as there are dealers and brands shutting their doors today, so too will there be more in 2010 and beyond. It isn’t just the market – things seem to be getting better. In the end, those who embrace social media properly will have the best chance of not only surviving but flourishing in 2010.

Find +JD Rucker on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

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