While there has been much written about every business’s need to dive head first into social media – and even a few articles recently that attempted to put a dollar value on a Facebook fan – nearly all of these discussions miss the mark for automotive dealers.
Although I can be convinced that an active Facebook fan for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s might be worth an additional $300 a year in revenue, I think it’s more than a stretch to make even a casual connection between Coke Classic and Courtesy Chrysler with respect to social networking. Forget for a moment about the strong attachment a consumer might have to Coke v. Pepsi or McDonald’s v. Burger King; the real test for dealers – who may also have rabid fans of their make (you know, the guys in the Chevy trucks with the stickers of Calvin urinating on a Ford logo) – is how often do customers actually engage, or rather interact, with them?
That is, if someone purchased a new 2010 Ford Escape from you last week, when is the next time they are likely to reengage you in a business transaction?
The answer is either three months (if they plan to service with you) or three years (if they plan to service with a quick lube establishment). In fact, your new Escape customer is more likely to become a fan of the local Jiffy Lube than they are to become a fan of your dealership. Don’t take offense; they simply plan to interact more often with Jiffy Lube than with you over the next three years.
You mean my brand isn’t as strong as Coca-Cola or Jiffy Lube?
Although a carbonated soft drink is something the average consumer enjoys at the rate of two per day and a passenger vehicle might provide a similar rate of daily engagement, we only interact with the automotive seller once every few years (even though our interaction with our vehicle’s make is daily). This means that the average customer of your dealership is much less likely to want to become a social media fan of your dealership than they are to become a fan of their favorite beverage or your OEM.
Ask yourself this question: If you didn’t work for your dealership, what is the likelihood that you would become an active fan on Facebook? “Not likely” say most dealers and dealership employees. Of course, I want to be careful not to inject my opinion into what I think a consumer would do, but let’s face it: consumers who service elsewhere have very little offline interaction with our dealerships, so why would they want to become our fan?
It’s not because the product you sell is less desirable than a Big Mac, but consumers are more likely to ignore your fan request than they are Ronald’s. We eat three meals a day and a few billion times a year that meal is at Mickey D’s, meaning consumers have a greater connection with fast food retailers than they have with the dealer who sold them their car. It’s precisely because so many of them have no use for the dealer after the sale that we cannot use the same social media measuring stick on a car dealer that we use on a global brand like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola.
Stauning’s continuum of social media engagement for business
This isn’t to say there is no place for dealers within the realm of social media. It is, however, an attempt to explain why so many dealers are struggling to drive even a miniscule amount of ROI from their online social endeavors: Consumers need to have a reason to connect with you after the sale.
This brings us to my Continuum of Social Media Engagement for Business – pictured below. (Because we like acronyms in the automotive space, let’s call it the Stauning C-SMEB – pronounced staw-ning see-smeb.)
The Stauning C-SMEB graphically displays the frequency of engagement an average consumer has with the retailer of a particular brand or the retailer itself. For example, because we not only buy our soft drinks by the case, but also by the cup (at stores and restaurants) or by the bottle/can (at C-stores and from soda machines), our frequency of engagement with a particular soft drink from a retail perspective is quite high. For some consumers, this level of retail engagement might even be daily.
Conversely, our frequency of engagement with the retailer of the shoes we are wearing or the computer we are using to read this article is much lower. Therefore, we are more likely to become a fan of a retailer regularly offering discounts on bottles of Coke Zero than we are to become a fan of a shoe store. This doesn’t mean we like local 7-11 more than the Foot Locker store in the mall, we simply engage more often with the often impersonal store than we do with the service-focused shoe seller.
But I just read that Facebook is delivering new car sales right now!
In a release that provided more buzz that actionable substance, Foresight Research recently reported that “… almost 13 percent of all new vehicle buyers used some form of social networking to share information on their purchase decision” in 2009.
Before you double or quadruple your Facebook efforts based on this, we need to ask the questions that this type of information begs, like: What did the study define as “some form of social networking?” Did their definition of “social networking” also include sites like FourSquare, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yelp and/or Digg? What is the percentage of new vehicle buyers who shared this information via text message, telephone or in casual conversations around the water cooler?
The point here is that while there are ways to engage with consumers online, a dealer cannot be in the middle of every conversation about a vehicle purchase. Additionally, the data doesn’t indicate whether the “almost 13 percent” shared this information before or after the sale. Because, intuitively, it would seem more likely that a consumer, thrilled with their new car, would share the information about their vehicle post purchase, we cannot expect our social media efforts to be truly influential to these whopping “13 percenters” before the sale.
So, you’re saying my dealership shouldn’t be on Facebook?
Because the discussion about whether a dealer should spend hundreds of hours developing a large Facebook fan base is sometimes heated, let’s instead debate whether a local real estate broker in your town should become equally as engulfed in a quest to dominate the social networks in their market.
If you were not personal friends with the man or woman who brokered the sale of your current home, would you connect with them online after the sale? Would you become a fan of their Facebook page or follow their Tweets? Would you care to read their latest musings or have any need to learn about their winter move-in specials?
The chances are very slim that you would want such an engagement. The value of your broker’s expertise quickly diminished within a few days of the closing. Plus, if you’ve been in your home more than one or two years, the realtor who sold you the house truly has nothing to offer you at this point. Unless you are in the market for real estate broker services, there is nothing in it for you to connect with them online. Additionally, your value to them as a Facebook fan would be diminished because it will likely be many years before you have a need to reengage them in a business transaction.
Of course, if that same realtor’s Facebook page continually offered tips on weatherproofing your home, reducing your property taxes or even aggregated local handyman recommendations and reviews, you might just be willing to both connect with them and stay connected with them for the long term.
It’s all in the WIIFM (What’s in it for me?)
For soft drink makers and fast food outlets, the constant offer of “free stuff” keeps many consumers loyal to their social networks. While dealers could also continually provide a barrage of freebies to keep loyal fans, the fact is that eventually incremental consumer revenue is needed to offset the cost of the freebies. Because our next scheduled interaction with the average consumer is either three months or three years away, it is difficult to justify all the free stuff required to motivate actual future purchases.
As dealers, you can provide a different kind of WIIFM for consumers. Just like the realtor example above, you could provide your customers with a steady stream of information meant to make the car ownership experience a more enjoyable one. From tips on how to increase gas mileage to recall notices to how to sync a Bluetooth phone with your new car, dealers could provide information that consumers want and need. Mix these informational pieces with actual human interest posts about your community and your dealership, and it might be possible to build a real network of fans (as opposed to the coached, incentivized or coerced networks we see in many of the loudest dealerships today).
Whether those fans reengage with you in a retail transaction in the future or not remains to be seen. What is even harder to define is whether or not your social media efforts actually led to this reengagement. This reality signals that it is now safe for dealers to start saying “Half of my social media efforts are working; I just don’t know which half.”