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Marketing experts and dealers alike agree that dealers who ignore social media are more than behind the times — they are driving away potential customers.

July 2015, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

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Earlier this year, LaFontaine Automotive Group launched an in-house marketing team to handle both traditional and digital media. 
Earlier this year, LaFontaine Automotive Group launched an in-house marketing team to handle both traditional and digital media. 

Dealers’ attitudes toward social media remain mostly ambivalent, despite rapid growth and near-ubiquitous use among potential car buyers. But at Thought Leadership Summits’ Automotive Social Media Summit, held in Marina Del Ray, Calif., last month, dealers, social media experts and even OEMs opened up about how ignoring this platform is potentially driving prospects away — even if a dealer doesn’t know it.

One of those social media advocates was Jason Stum, the marketing and creative manager at Michigan’s LaFontaine Automotive Group. Stum said that, even with the full backing of dealership management, he and his team have hit multiple roadblocks on the way to getting 64 social media profiles up and running for the group’s 16 stores.

“We had some early successes — and some things that changed along the way that we weren’t prepared for — that led to our ‘social fail’ and what we’re doing today to recover from that,” Stum told attendees.

Stum wasn’t the only speaker to acknowledge that maintaining a good social media strategy can be a struggle. Shaun Del Grande, president of Del Grande Dealer Group in California, noted during his keynote presentation that the average dealer simply doesn’t have the resources to build a social media team. What has helped his 14-rooftop group extend its reach, he added, is a strategy that relies on social media monitoring tools. They’re partly responsible for the one million views the organization’s YouTube channel garnered last year.

“So when we had two stores, having a social media team — videographers and photographers and web designers — was not a possibility. So then you say, ‘How do I do that?’ So you either go [to an] outside [agency] or you figure out how to start out small and get creative. We started with a three-person team and now it’s 19, 20 people.

“But we don’t plan and plan and plan like some of the OEMS,” Del Grande added. “We’re small, nimble and fast.”

Team Player
The consensus among the event’s presenters was that social media is now too important to a dealership’s reputation to be the responsibility of just one employee. Chris Walsh, Naked Lime Marketing’s vice president of sales, pointed out that there are now 30,000 mentions of car buying on social media sites daily. And consumers in general are 20% more likely to work with a brand because it is more visible in search than its competitors.

Chris Walsh talks about turning followers into leads. 
Chris Walsh talks about turning followers into leads. 

“Every four seconds, someone is posting something on social media about the car-buying experience,” he said. “So dealers that are not participating in social media are missing opportunities to capture that relationship capital. They are risking letting their competitors embed themselves in — and, in some cases, dominate — those social media conversations, and they stand to lose sales now and retain fewer customers later.”

To reach its social media goals, LaFontaine Automotive Group officially launched an in-house marketing team this past February. The launch followed three months of discussions between Stum, Business Development Director Carlos Mojica and the group’s owners. The nine-person team, which handles Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google+ profiles for each of the group’s locations, as well as traditional advertising, operates out of LaFontaine’s Cadillac-Buick-GMC store in Highland, Mich.

“That was one thing that we were sorely missing,” Stum noted. “After [our outside agency] would finish a commercial, we would get the link from the agency that said, ‘Here’s your commercial. It will start airing on this day’ and we were trying to scramble to build digital assets around this campaign that we were just finding out about.”

Since the marketing team’s launch, Stum said LaFontaine has received unprecedented feedback on its traditional media and doubled traffic to the group’s website. But prior to bringing its marketing in-house, LaFontaine’s digital strategies were suffering due to the volume of tasks that had been taken on, including website strategy and email marketing.

“… We just kept piling it on our own plates. We didn’t bring new people to our table and give them empty plates to put stuff on,” Stum said. “So we started taking all this stuff in, and because our social media was preforming so well, we put it on cruise control.”

The resulting lack of consistency ended up costing the dealer group its active social media following, something it is trying to repair through efforts like its new social media ambassador program, which asks willing F&I managers and salespeople to post updates to social media from their stores.

“We were finally ready to reel this back in and it was too late. It was already gone.” Stum said. “We had Facebook pages with 5,000 likes where we couldn’t get more than three people to like one of our posts.”

Rules Change
Stum, like many presenters, referenced Facebook’s changing algorithms as one of the major challenges to his group’s strategy. In 2013, the social media giant revealed that only 16% of the content a dealer posted was making it into the News Feeds of its Facebook fans — that’s unless the dealer paid for ads.

At the Automotive Social Media Summit in June, Larry H. Miller Group’s Spencer Beckstead, Del Grande Dealer Group’s Shaun Del Grande, Toyota Motor Sales’ Monica Womack Peterson and Rikess Group’s Mark Rikess discussed digital marketing strategies during the closing session.
At the Automotive Social Media Summit in June, Larry H. Miller Group’s Spencer Beckstead, Del Grande Dealer Group’s Shaun Del Grande, Toyota Motor Sales’ Monica Womack Peterson and Rikess Group’s Mark Rikess discussed digital marketing strategies during the closing session.

But a survey of 2,000 car buyers conducted earlier this year by social media marketing firm Digital Air Strike found that dealers who are willing to pay are reaping the benefits. In fact, 46% of respondents reported seeing an ad for a local dealership on Facebook. And if they clicked on that ad, 37% said it was to obtain information about a product or service, while 27% clicked to view a sales promotion or contest.

“So if your story isn’t out there, your competition’s is,” warned Digital Air Strike Cofounder and CEO Alexi Venneri during the summit’s closing panel.  

Also discussed were some striking statistics about a “click-to-buy” feature Facebook began piloting last year. Monica Womack Peterson, Toyota Motor Sales’ director of social media strategy and operations, revealed that the OEM has been “going hard” when it comes to marketing parts and service over social media. Driving those efforts, she added, are Facebook’s sophisticated ad-targeting capabilities.

“You have continued revenue opportunities doing a tire sales event, doing a key finder product, even an oil change,” she said. “So hitting people when you know it’s about that time for them to get new tires, then all of a sudden they see something about a deal. And the effect of that campaign has been way over our expectations. We knew it was going to do well, but it’s exceeded our expectations five times over.”

Toyota’s success in this area is supported by stats from Digital Air Strike. Nearly half (48%) of car buyers the firm surveyed said they would use Facebook’s click-to-buy feature to make automotive-related purchases, whether those be accessories or gear valued at $250 or less (27%), or service discounts (19%).

Good Reputation
Changes at Facebook are also blurring the lines between social media and business review sites. For the first time this year, Facebook broke into Digital Air Strike’s Top 10 review site list, landing at No. 7. And in June, the social media site launched a new product for businesses: Facebook Bluetooth Beacons.

Del Grande Dealer Group President Shaun Del Grande explaina his dealerships’ online marketing strategy.
Del Grande Dealer Group President Shaun Del Grande explaina his dealerships’ online marketing strategy.

Beacons — which Facebook is offering to businesses for free — ping the smartphones of nearby consumers with information about the business, a prompt to “like” the business’ Facebook page, and recommendations about the business from consumers’ friends.

“That’s going to encourage more check-ins,” Venneri told attendees. “And car buyers are checking in, too. And you want them to do that. That’s like a third-party endorsement for your dealerships to have them check in.”

The vast majority of car buyers (75%) trust a review from a friend on Facebook over a review from an unknown shopper, although Cars.com and Edmunds remained the top review sites for car buyers. But even if that review is negative, presenters agreed that responding appropriately could turn a disgruntled shopper’s frown upside down. At LaFontaine, positive reviews are forwarded to the whole store — but negative reviews merit a more nuanced approach.

“The negative ones go to a more targeted managerial group,” Stum explained. “And then we spur the conversation that happens between the store and the customer. We don’t try to solve the problem — we just give the problem to the people who can actually solve it.”  

Jason Stum heads up the in-house marketing team at LaFontaine Automotive Group.
Jason Stum heads up the in-house marketing team at LaFontaine Automotive Group.

Panelist Spencer Beckstead, advertising director for Larry H. Miller Group — another Internet-savvy dealer group which launched an online buying experience in May — also pointed out that reviews are beneficial to dealers in larger ways.

“We find that the more reviews, and the more the content is relevant and real, the more those bubble up in search results,” he told attendees. “Nobody goes out and searches for the ‘highest rated CSI dealership near me.’ What we find is there is a little bit of a disconnect between what the OEM is asking and what the online public is actually posting from a review standpoint.”

Fear of Missing Out
It’s those organic search results — comprised of social media profiles, reviews and dealer websites — that can make or break a car sale without a dealer even knowing it. “Dealers today, I think, need to know about the cost of ignoring,” Digital Air Strike’s Venneri said. “How many people didn’t even go to your website because of something they saw in search? Eighty-three percent said it made an impact and they looked at it.”

In fact, 74% of all car buyers surveyed by the firm said they would drive between 20 and 60 miles to buy at a dealership with good reviews — up 9% over last year.

“If [social media] really is as powerful as we’re going to give it credence to, why would we not afford the cost of actually having somebody [working at the dealership] who understands what’s going on?” Beckstead asked audience members during the summit’s closing panel. “The conversation needs to change inside dealerships. … The ramifications of sales you’re going to be losing because of whatever happens in the social media world are catastrophic. But [thinking that way] is going to be a paradigm shift for the industry.”

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