Twitter is becoming an essential part of a dealer’s  marketing strategy, assisting with everything from increasing visibility to crowdsourcing. And within the realm of Twitter, one of the most powerful conversation tools is the hashtag, or “#” symbol, followed by one or more words — without spaces or punctuation — relevant to a specific topic.

According to Twitter’s website, the hashtag was originally created by users of the social media site. It has now become a way to participate in a global conversation, and it has been adopted by a wide array of different social media sites to categorize information for improved searchability.

F&I and Showroom spoke with two social media experts about their experiences with Twitter and how they have seen it directly benefit car dealerships across the country. Paul Potratz is the CEO of Potratz Automotive Advertising and Jim Flint is the corporate director of interactive sales and marketing for John Eagle Dealerships, as well as president and founder of digital marketing firm Local Search Group. Here are a few of their Twitter dos and don’ts.

Do Be Part of the Conversation 
One of the primary ways to achieve success through Twitter is to make sure each tweet — from the wording down to the tagging — is relevant. Many social media experts have called Twitter’s style “conversational,” so participating in that conversation is key.

Flint likens appropriate Twitter dialog to the way one would behave at a cocktail party. As the attendee is moving in and out of various conversations over the course of the evening, he or she would listen before interjecting a comment. 

“If you interrupted a conversation about beauty to say, ‘I’m having a car sale, buy this,’ people would look at you like you’re a bit inappropriate,” Flint says. “But if you walk into a conversation about cars, and you know a thing or two about cars, you should definitely add to it.”

Do Create Your Own Hashtag
Some businesses are very successful at creating their own hashtags, but doing so requires a little research. Use Twitter’s hashtag search feature to find out which keywords and tags are the most popular. Start by using existing hashtags to create a community presence.

Once you get a feel for the system, you can start creating original hashtags and working with your team to make them popular. And the way to do that is to use your newly created hashtags whenever possible. If a hashtag gets really popular, it might even end up in Twitter’s “Trending Topics” box. However, this requires a massive amount of tweets in very little time, Potratz says.

Monitor the hashtag using that same search feature on Twitter and work with a social media team to map out the company’s hashtags, determining which ones got more attention. Mapping helps create a solid Twitter strategy.

When popularizing hashtags, be sure to integrate those efforts into the company’s overall marketing plan by telling customers to follow a certain hashtag in e-mails or company literature. Put the hashtag on your website or embed it into your e-mail signature. Make it accessible for customers to find out more.

Do Use Hashtags to Crowdsource
Hashtags can be engaging in smaller, more specific dialogs, as they help give people a common frame of reference. For example, if a dealer searched “#Honda,” he or she would be able to see all Honda-related comments entered on Twitter. “Most people who want to be involved in conversations about certain topics will hashtag it,” Potratz notes. In other words, a Honda dealer will find more success reaching out to those already interested in their product. 

Hunting for hashtags can also be used to locate and contact customers or potential customers. Potratz says he often sees posts on Twitter about “#carproblems.” If a dealership spots such a tweet while reading the Twitter chatter, it can reach out to that person and offer to help. Also common are tweets like, “Need new car, what do you recommend?”

These are key opportunities to capture sales, but a proper response requires a personal touch. Dealerships can address the user and his or her specific needs, and maybe attach a coupon, discount or loaner car information. Just remember that creating good rapport with customers is essential.

“People talk about every step of their lives, and it’s excellent because it’s a chance to connect to them if we can fix their problem,” says Potratz. “Dealers don’t do that enough; it’s something they should really focus on.”

Potratz adds that, if used correctly, Twitter can also be a great tool for sales, service, credit approval and more. North Hollywood (Calif.) Toyota, for example, directly improved its ROI by reaching out to a woman who casually Tweeted about her car being broken into, he says. The dealership immediately offered her a discount to “ease the pain.”

Don't Write a Novel
Twitter limits each tweet to 140 characters, but you probably don’t need that many. It’s best to keep tweets short and to the point. Using as few characters as possible gives customers the essential information without losing their attention. It also leaves more room for hashtags, improving the tweet’s searchability.

Potratz advises dealers to make sure their tweets aren’t all about the sale. While it’s perfectly acceptable to link to the dealership’s site or content, you risk losing readers if you overpromote or sound too much like a salesman.

Dealers should still make their Twitter followers aware of their products, but in a more entertaining way. “People love pictures and videos, so it helps if you have something relevant to link to,” says Potratz. And with apps like Instagram and Twitpic dominating the market, photos tend to get a lot more attention.

Don't Limit Your Reach
When it comes to cars, customers will travel far and wide to find the best deal, so make sure your tweets are composed to grab the attention of potential clients outside of your market. “You never know where someone is, what their situation is,” Potratz says. “In my experience, they’re willing and able to travel.”

This same notion applies to hashtags. The broader a hashtag is, the more people it will reach. Being too broad, however, can work against a dealership. Something like “#Honda” will certainly come up in search results, but a dealer can reach a more ideal audience by hashtagging specific details, like a vehicle’s make or model.

Dealers can also hashtag other words that help convey the tweet’s message, such as #BigSavings. Be sure to check before using a specific hashtag to ensure it’s not already directing people to something else that might take business away from your site.

Don't Rely on Automation
Social media-management software such as HootSuite and Twitter apps such as Twitdom are useful tools if your goal is to maintain a presence without spending too much time on the site. Flint says it’s appropriate for your social media manager to use HootSuite, for instance, so he or she can allocate one hour to research and line up two weeks’ worth of automatic posts.

By doing this, however, a user is not actively engaging in the Twitter conversation. “Tweets are the easiest thing to deprioritize,” Flint says. “But that’s just a phase we go through.”

Flint said businesses typically go through three major phases when first familiarizing themselves with Twitter.

  1. You say you’re going to start tweeting, but never get around to it.
  2. You begin tweeting, but only generically, on your own terms and with predisposed and prepopulated components — usually via automated systems.  
  3. You realize Phase Two was ineffective, so you have to start participating in the conversation.

Flint advises Twitter users to always aim for the third phase. “Don’t do social, be social,” he says.

Don't Over-Hashtag
Both Flint and Potratz agree that it’s important not to over-tag tweets. Although hashtags are extremely important, overloading on them is off-putting and too advertorial.

“Using too many hashtags is almost like yelling on Twitter … It’s just like typing in all caps,” says Flint. “It comes across wrong and Twitter followers don’t get it.”

This is extremely important because some search engines will actually disregard posts that are carrying too many hashtags, treating them like spam,  Potratz says. His rule of thumb is to rarely exceed two hashtags per tweet. “In the Twittersphere, it’s considered rude when you overuse the hashtag,” he says. “Instead of throwing too many in, invest more effort in making sure you’re linking to something appropriate.”

Don't Treat Twitter Like Facebook
Each social media site offers customers a unique experience. Because Twitter operates in real time, the methods one would use to communicate with fans on Facebook don’t always apply.

“Twitter is more of a free-flow form of expression,” says Flint. “Dealers will make the mistake of thinking they can take their Facebook efforts over to Twitter and be successful. In reality, the conversations and demographics are completely different. Facebook is less detail-oriented and only about the big events.”

For example, on Facebook, one could say, “I went on this trip last week,” whereas a tweet could say, “I just went across the street.”

“You have to realize you’re in two different types of dialogs,” Flint says. He does not recommend posting tweets to Facebook, and vice versa. On Twitter, he finds dealers are more successful if they listen to what people are tweeting about and respond accordingly, rather than acting as the catalyst for conversation.

Don't Just Re-Tweet
Re-tweeting via Twitter takes two forms: Dealers can simply “re-tweet,” which posts another user’s tweet to their Twitter page, or they can post a “quote tweet,” which allows them to respond to the user’s comment in the same post. A major benefit to quote-tweeting is that it labels the responder as the author.  

Potratz advises dealers to reserve straight re-tweeting for interesting, standalone comments. For all other tweets, including customer feedback, dealers should “quote-tweet” and add a personal message to build a relationship with their clients.