Gordon Stewart, dealer principal at Hoover (Ala.) Toyota, found success in social media by focusing on engagement rather than lead capture.

Gordon Stewart, dealer principal at Hoover (Ala.) Toyota, found success in social media by focusing on engagement rather than lead capture. 

In 1995, a 12-year-old kid went online and stayed there. Fast-forward to 2014, and this now-adult is accustomed to reading the news, shopping, looking at vehicles and even looking for service — all online. “We don’t talk, we text and Google,” says my Millennial daughter.

So why are so many dealers asking whether social media is a lead generator or time waster? I was tasked with answering that question at September’s Industry Summit, and I will tell you what I told the crowd in Las Vegas: It all depends on how you look at it. One of the major challenges dealerships are facing is that social media hasn’t worked for them in the past. So they’re ignoring it, abandoning it or just doing the absolute minimum and then getting on with their days.

The reality is that it didn’t work the first time because it wasn’t done right. We took a shotgun approach. It was the same old “spray-and-pray” mentality. Dealers signed up for Facebook, Skype, Foursquare, YouTube, Twitter, VEVO, Instagram, MySpace, Blogger — wherever they thought social media was, they felt they needed to have a presence.

All that did was give dealers a major presence on social media and no real focus. You were in far too many places, trying to accomplish far too many things, and, yes, wasting your time and that of your staff.

So that brings us to the actual question: Is social media relevant to today’s dealers? Absolutely! Here’s why:

  • Facebook has 1.19 billion monthly active users (MAU)
  • Twitter has 232 million MAU
  • LinkedIn has 259 million MAU

If that’s not enough people to make social media relevant to you, I’m not sure what will. And that’s not all! Let’s look at some other numbers:

Analysts believe 40% of all auto purchases made in the next decade are going to be made by Millennials — that same group who says they don’t want to talk. And according to the Spring 2013 Automotive Social Media and Reputation Trend Study released by ­Digital Air Strike, 81% of your customers read online reviews to narrow down to the right car or truck that they’re going to buy.

More to the point, 33% of new-car buyers are going to consult social media as part of their process and the same number will communicate the results of their buying experience on social media. So not only are they going to shop online, they’re going to talk about your dealership after the purchase as well.

Members of the Millennial generation are more likely to be found on Twitter than LinkedIn, and if they visit your website, they will probably be using a mobile device.

Members of the Millennial generation are more likely to be found on Twitter than LinkedIn, and if they visit your website, they will probably be using a mobile device. 

Why It Will Work

Social media buying is still kind of hit-and-miss with an older demographic. But remember those numbers we talked about — the people who are going to be buying cars. In 2015 and beyond, a good majority will come from members of the Millennial generation.

So who are the Millennials? By most standards, they were born between 1980 and 2000; some sources give a year or two on either side. An eBay Motors study showed that 94% of Millennial car buyers research their vehicles online. A popular refrain in the news right now is that Millennials don’t care. They’re not interested. They’re not buying cars. So why bother?

At the moment, many Millenials are not yet in the market. They are so connected to one another via their social media, they don’t think they have a need for a car. When the Boomers were teens, they needed a car to go see friends. But Boomers weren’t connected digitally like Millennials are. The youngest Millennials feel the constant connection to their friends via social media will suffice.

So if you’re going to be successful in social media marketing, you’re going to need to be aware of a few things. First and foremost, social media is about relationships. Second, on social media, you don’t talk at your prospects, as the old TV and newspaper ads from the 1960s and ’70s did. Dealers who are making money from social media tell stories that are relatable to car buyers.

“You don’t go for lead capture, you go for engagement,” says Gordon Stewart, dealer principal of Hoover Toyota in Hoover, Ala., near Birmingham. Stewart has learned that relationship building and sales are two totally different targets on social media. To do it effectively, you have to know your demographic.

Furthermore, you can’t rely on your factory’s branding. Your OEM can tell you, by brand, who your demographic is, but you have to know your own social media audience.

You can’t ignore the differences between drivers of pickup trucks, highline sedans and Volkswagen Beetles. They are three different demographics with three different hopes, dreams and driving habits. If you’re really going to be successful with social media and social marketing, you need to know who the avatar — your perfect customer — is. And not just for your brand, but also for each of your models. You need to know their background. What are they interested in? What is their education level? What’s their household income? What are their hobbies? What kind of music do they listen to?

Take the time to build a complete profile, and give each avatar a name. Susan has a husband and four kids in school. Bill is a 50-something empty nester who is finally ready for the BMW 5 Series he held off on while he was raising his kids. Effective social media marketing is all about targeting, and you have to be very precise.

You also need to be exactly where your customers are. That new Jaguar is not a likely daily driver for your typical Pinterest user. It will more likely be searched for by a LinkedIn user. Facebook and Instagram cover a wide range of customers. Twitter is a long-term relationship play.

Gary Vaynerchuk, one of the greatest authorities on social media marketing right now, says, “You have to market like the year you are in.” His point is that you need to have marketing tactics designed for the customer you’re targeting now, not the customer you focused on yesterday. You know those full-page Sunday ads you’re still doing, with all the small print? Their audience is shrinking, and you are missing an entire generation of customers.

You won’t find Millennials anywhere but online. And it is increasingly likely they will be using a mobile device rather than a computer, which means their smartphone, tablet, “phablet,” smart watches or whatever device they have in their hands is where your marketing has to go.

Unfortunately, about 60% of all websites — including many dealer sites — are not mobile-responsive. So that beautiful site you poured time, money and creativity into still looks great on your computer but is nearly impossible to read on your phone. If you are going to be successful with social marketing, your website must be responsive.

Social Media as a Lead Generator

To use social media effectively as a lead generator, you must be very clear on your objectives and strategy. This is too often an afterthought among dealers. Let’s start by identifying your business goals and objectives. Remember, on social media relationship building should be the main focus, not lead capture or sales.

But there is room for both. You need both.

To be extremely successful before you ever submit your first post, research your competition. There are a lot of easy, inexpensive ways to do that, especially when you look at sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. The information is baked right into the platform.

Now it’s time to choose your channels and your tactics. Will you be using visuals in your social media posts? Hint: the answer to that is “Yes!” You need to know what type of visual works best on each platform. Will you be using written posts? Think LinkedIn, blog posts and Facebook. And LinkedIn is now even letting you add videos and use their Publisher feature, which is proving to be very effective for social media marketing.

Next up is your creative content strategy. What kind of content are you going to put out on these sites? Is it lifestyle-oriented? Will it be blog posts? If so, about what? What about tweets? Is it going to be pictures on Instagram? As Hoover Toyota’s Stewart told me, “We have a responsibility to entertain. You have to know your audience.”

Take the time to figure out your dealership’s content strategy and allocate the resources and budget. I will tell you right now, if you just turn this over to your Internet manager without a strategy in place, your social media program is probably going to die — unless that manager is very well versed on social marketing.

You will have to dedicate some resources, which might mean bringing on a digital marketing manager. It may mean working with a marketing company or consultant. It might mean using an advertising agency. You must devote the resources and money to doing it right. It doesn’t have to take a lot of money but it does take dedicated resources.
Finally, make sure you have a presence on the sites that people are most likely to search for you — YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Instagram — but keep your focus on the platforms that attract your avatars. You can generate leads, appointments and sales with social media, but only if you do the research, find your customers and engage with them where they are.

Rich Moore is director of training for Protective Asset Protection and the author of “Sell More Luxury Cars Using LinkedIn,” a No. 1 Amazon Best Seller.
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