“It was one of those  middle-of-the-night ideas,” said Amy Schlueter, vice president of Schlueter Automotive Group in Waterloo, Ontario, referring to their innovative new campaign, the Twitter Test Drive. The program launched in May, spearheaded by Schlueter and the auto group’s director of marketing, Stephen Heron. Schlueter Automotive Group has three locations handling Chevrolet, Hummer, Hyundai and Acura franchises.

The Twitter Test Drive Program invites the public to drive a vehicle for two days and “tweet” about their experiences. Twitter, an online social networking medium that asks users to answer the question, “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less, has exploded in popularity this year. Twitter users follow each other and receive status updates, called “tweets,” via mobile texting, instant messaging or the Web.

The auto group’s Web site, WaterlooAutoMall.com, prominently displays a link to sign up for the Twitter Test Drive. Someone wishing to participate completes the form and is contacted by Heron, who will talk to them to determine what kind of car they want to test drive and review the specifics of the program. For example, the participant agrees to participate in pre- and post-drive interviews and is expected to “tweet” about their experiences at least three times per day during the test drive period.

Test drives are done during the week, partly to let the drivers experience the cars in their day-to-day routines and partly because it decreases the likelihood that a customer would drive the car a very long distance on a weekend trip. The Twitter Test Drive rules and regulations stipulate that the vehicle cannot be driven over 800 kilometers, or 497 miles, during the test drive period; Schlueter said they used their own service rental contract as a model for the test drive rules and regulations.

When the customer arrives at the dealership to pick up the car, Heron conducts the pre-test-drive interview and an experienced salesperson gives the participant a walk around of the vehicle. The participant then drives the vehicle for two days and posts their observations on Twitter. When the two days are over, the car is returned, and a post-drive interview is conducted. Transcripts of “tweets” and pre- and post-drive interviews are posted on the  automotive group’s Web site.

According to Schlueter, the purpose of the program is primarily to educate the buying public on the range, quality and value of the vehicles they sell. “This is not like a let’s-see-how-many-cars-we-can-sell project,” she said. “It’s more of  an awareness and education project, just kind of go out there and let people know who we are as an automotive group, what brands we sell, and that we have great product across all our brands.”

She sees the Twitter Test Drive program as a way to reach out to a group of people for whom traditional advertising has become obsolete. “I think there is a growing community here and users talk to each other in a different manner,” she stated. “They don’t read newspapers, they don’t listen to radio. They text each other, they talk through Twitter, they talk through Facebook … that’s how they communicate with their peers …and if we want to talk to them, we need to start communicating how they communicate.”

 The program was not difficult to set up, taking only about three weeks to put in place, and cost next to nothing to implement. The launch of the new program was announced in the dealership’s newsletter, which reaches over 8,000 people, and Schlueter sent a mass e-mail to the staff of all three stores, asking them to forward the program information to anyone they thought might be interested. “It cost us kilometers at the end of the day, and staff time,” she added.

The response has been positive, said Schlueter, and many people are expressing interest in taking the test drive.  Many people like the idea of being able to try a car out for two days, as opposed to taking a 10-minute test drive. “We don’t mind if people are driving a vehicle that they might not be able to buy just for the experience of it. Where else are they going to get the opportunity to do that? And I think it’s great that people are just talking about the experience they had and where they had it. That’s a great benefit for us.”

Even though the program was not designed to be a direct route to a vehicle sale, it has in fact resulted in one direct sale. Schlueter said one of the salespeople recently used the program as a closing tool. A customer who was having trouble making the decision to buy a Hyundai Elantra purchased the vehicle after participating in the Twitter Test Drive.

“[The Twitter Test Drive] is a very legitimate review of someone in Waterloo driving our car, coming to our dealership, and everyone’s had great things to say,” Schlueter stated. She plans to continue the program for as long as possible, although she speculated that eventually some other new trend may replace Twitter in the public eye. “I always say you have to be aware of the next thing and Twitter right now is the next thing,” she said.  “I think we’re going to let it run its course.”

Vol. 6, Issue 9