Although few dealers will challenge the importance of including social media as part of a dealership’s marketing mix, many still question the overall effectiveness of the marketing channel. Sure, there have been instances where social media proved to be a powerful and cost-effective marketing tool for one dealership, but there are also plenty of anecdotes about social media being a complete time waster for another. So the question isn’t if, but rather how. 

Since nearly all dealerships are investing in social media in some form or another, it’s important to understand the dos and don’ts of effective social media marketing. But before you take the plunge, be sure your social media strategy includes these five critical elements: 

1. Clear Objectives and Trackable Metrics

In our experience, this is the biggest factor in determining the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of your social media marketing efforts. So what do you want to get out of social media? Many dealerships can’t answer that simple question. Yet, everyone knows you can’t invest in Google AdWords or launch a direct mail campaign without a specific objective or a plan to track results. So be sure to treat social media with the same rigor as you do your other marketing mediums.

The good news is, because social media is digital, it can be incredibly trackable. That means there are tomes of data available from your social media accounts if you know where to look and, more importantly, what you’re looking for.

2. Understand Your Audience

Many advertisers have historically sought to blast their messages to as many people as possible. Social is different. When posting on social, you are speaking to a specific audience. So who are the people following or liking your page? And what do they want to see? Chances are, they don’t want a constant stream of marketing messages.

You also need to understand the size of your audience and balance your efforts accordingly. If you have 100 likes on your Facebook page and 15 Twitter followers, you may want to spend more of your time and resources, at least initially, building a sizable, relevant audience instead of creating and posting content. We see far too many social media accounts spend too much time and effort posting good content virtually nobody sees. 

To build your audience on Facebook, consider running carefully targeted Page Like ads. You might start by targeting your own customers using Facebook’s Custom Audiences. When someone likes one of your posts, be sure to invite them to like your page if they haven’t already. To build your audience on other networks, proactively network with other users (engage with their content and follow them) and you will be surprised by how many of them follow you back.

3. Aim for Interaction

Far too many businesses think social media is just about posting. Social media is (surprise!) social. By definition, that means a two-way communication between two or more people. Far too many businesses treat Instagram or other social media accounts as just fancy billboards. If this is your approach, you are missing most of the benefits social media can offer.

But when posting, make sure a good percentage of your content has trackable calls to action (e.g., an invitation to comment or share, or even just a link to a website). Watch your “People Talking About This” (PTAT) score on Facebook. It varies by industry, but it’s safe to say that if your engagement score (PTAT divided by number of page likes) is less than 3%, you are doing something wrong.

4. Use the Right Tools

If your father was like mine, he probably lectured you at least a couple dozen times about the importance of using the right tools for the job. Social media is no exception, as the platforms are all different. I cringe when I see people cram their Twitter feed with automatic pushes from Facebook, or when they post content obviously designed for Pinterest onto Google+. Individuals go to various social platforms with different expectations in mind, and smart marketers need to understand those differences.

Many of the problems I see are the result of too many automated posts. Once again, social is social. Until humans want to carry on conversations with machines, marketers should avoid heavy social media automation. It’s OK to use great tools to make you and your people more efficient, but good content creation and quality engagement will require a living, breathing human — at least for the foreseeable future.

5. Invest Accordingly

Qualified resources, whether outsourced or in-house, are not cheap. And 10 minutes a day is not going to result in an effective social media presence. It’s always strange when we hear dealers complain about how “useless” social media was for them, but then we find out they were spending $200 per month on a vendor, or had their receptionist manage their social media pages in his or her free time.

Social media needs to be treated like the legitimate and powerful marketing medium it is. If you are expecting meaningful results from social media, you must put forth a meaningful effort in a combination of employee time, partner expenses and network ad spends.

If you manage these five areas well, you can have a great social media presence that will deliver cost-effective, measurable results to your business. But if you aren’t going to give social media the attention it deserves, beware. And remember, you can decide to not advertise in a certain newspaper or not run those banner ads, but you can’t decide not to be on social media. Consumers are talking about you online no matter what you do, so jump in wholeheartedly and join the conversations.

Now, there are advantages to managing your social media pages in-house. Problem is, the staffers charged with doing this are usually given 10 other responsibilities, so their efforts usually come up short. But if that’s the route your store takes, make sure the people managing those accounts know what they’re doing, have the right software tools to be effective, and are able to dedicate several hours a day to managing the store’s social media pages.

From my experience, outsourcing management of your social media pages is the approach that yields the greatest results. But it’s critical that you partner with a social media firm that specializes in the automotive space. One such company is Friendemic, which serves hundreds of prominent dealerships and groups across the country. It is also certified by most of the automotive brands, which means it qualifies for co-op ad dollars. 

Based on our analysis, Friendemic consistently delivers social media-generated web traffic at 75% or more below Google AdWords costs and cost per impression rates at 70% or more below costs in other traditional media. 

Strong online reputations boost search engine optimization, and loyal customer communities on social improve service retention. Word-of-mouth marketing has always been the most powerful kind of marketing, and in today’s world, that happens on social. Don’t miss out.

Bruce Rzentkowski, a more than 35-year veteran of the automotive retail space, is a partner at motormindz, a consortium of senior thought leaders from the top ranks of automotive manufacturing, sales and fleet management. Email him at [email protected].