Dealership 2.0: Car Dealers Turn Toward Social Media

USA Today notes: Just a few years ago, John Pohlig might have hung up balloons and perhaps an inflatable gorilla outside this Honda dealership here to attract shoppers.

Instead he’s posting notes on Facebook and other social media sites. The effort is aimed at getting people to comment on what kind of car they’re likely to drive on a vacation — and includes dangling the chance to win a free iPad in return for a “like” endorsement on Facebook.

Four thousand “likes” later, and Scott Robinson Honda has a huge Facebook base. But can Pohlig, the dealer’s marketing director, point to actual car sales from his activities?

“No,” he says. “But we’re building relevance out there. Our objective is to reach as many people as possible. Over the long run, this will help build our business and our company.”

Active Facebook users can’t help but notice that more businesses are creeping into the conversation on the social networking site — and that local car dealers are one of the most aggressive and prominent talkers. Some 41% of dealers now have Facebook pages, according to CNW Research.

Most dealers, however, farm out the social media posting work to others. “Their niche is selling and servicing cars,” says Richard Valenta, founder and CEO of Irvine-based TK Carsites, which provides Internet marketing services for dealers.

Matthew Funk, an aspiring Los Angeles novelist, is one of the TK Carsites writers who pens Facebook notes for dealers and assists them with their strategic plans.

“Auto dealers not on Facebook are missing the boat because that’s where their customers are,” he says. “And that’s where their customers expect them to be.”

Shifting to the Web

Valenta’s firm helps some 40 dealers nationwide with their daily Facebook image, both in penning notes and advising them on social media strategy. TK Carsites’ rates start at $700 monthly for basic Facebook marketing and go all the way up to $8,000 monthly for website design, hosting and marketing services.

Some dealers are more proactive than others. Chuck Capps, one of the owners of Advantage Nissan in Bremerton, Wash., says he spends a few hours daily on social media. Facebook may not be a huge traffic builder for the dealers, but it does help get people to their websites, emerging as a vital marketing tool that for some has replaced the weekend newspaper ad.

Thanks to widgets designed by TK Carsites, Capps can instantly initiate a chat session with a Web shopper, offer directions to the dealership, show videos of cars, and tout discounts and specials.

So much so that some 68% of his business now starts at the website — from customers finding the dealership online, initiating contact and making an appointment to meet.

“People don’t just drop in like they used to,” he says. “Before they visit, they’ve already done their homework, narrowed their choice down to 2 or 3 vehicles, talked to us online about pricing.”

Capps used to spend $25,000 monthly on weekly newspaper, radio and TV advertising. Now he’s only spending money online, with $8,000 monthly to TK Carsites.

At Holmes Honda, in Shreveport, La., e-commerce director Bear Goodman says his Internet sales department has helped generate 30% of the company’s total income.

“People don’t have time to spend all day at the dealership anymore,” he says. “We answer all their questions online before they come in, and get them right out.”