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Does Social Media Sell Cars? Numbers Say No, Brands Say Yes

Benjamin Hunting
by Benjamin Hunting
May 18, 2011

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Social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter have become increasingly integrated into not just the publicity and sales campaigns of individual dealerships, but also those run by each major automotive brand. While the conventional wisdom states that a social media outreach plan is key to selling cars and trucks in the digital era, a recent study by R.L. Polk & Co. seems to indicate that the full power of these online juggernauts has yet to be effectively harnessed by the industry.

Automotive News reports that only three percent of buyers were actually influenced by any type of social media in terms of selecting the vehicle that they ended up buying. Just over 4,000 shoppers looking for either a new or a used car were polled by R.L. Polk & Co., providing a sizable sample of individuals who were apparently unaffected by the cavalcade of blogs, tweets, status updates, videos and discussion forums designed to help drive sales from the online world to brick and motor dealer lots. An additional study by Dataium tracked the browsing habits of web shoppers seeking out automotive deals only to discover that out of 1.5 million study participants, less than one half of one percent actually visited a dealership website as a result of discovering it via social media.

What to make of these numbers? While the lack of direct correlation between social media campaigns and vehicle sales might seem discouraging, many dealers liken the effect of a Facebook, YouTube or Twitter presence to that of more traditional forms of advertising, such as billboards, where thousands of eyes view the posted messages each day without necessarily dropping by a dealership on the way home from work. In contrast, dealership and manufacturer websites appear to be making a more effective connection to potential buyers, thanks perhaps to the in-depth product information provided by these sites combined with the ability to quickly connect with a salesperson via phone or email.

Despite the conclusion that social media has yet to be proven effective in generating direct sales, a separate piece in the Automotive News describes the ongoing efforts of most automotive brands to continue to forge ahead with developing a strong online identity in this particular digital sphere. According to spokespeople for Mazda and Buick, a social media strategy is a key component of an overall online presence that encompasses not just websites but also mobile phones and devices as well as digital editions of television programs, newspapers and other publications. Facebook and the iPad are not replacing mature advertising markets such as sports sponsorship (NASCAR, the NCAA tournament) or print advertising, but they exist as a complement to an overall publicity push.

The true value of social media for car companies may not necessarily be in translating Facebook friend requests and re-tweets into sales, but rather in building a more emotional and intimate relationship between a brand and potential buyers. By creating a sense of community around a particular automaker's products, companies are able to build an environment where when the time to purchase a new car or truck arrives consumers may have already been subconsciously 'won over' through their previous social interactions with the brand. Digital and social media are not going anywhere, but understanding their role in the business of selling cars and trucks might require that car companies, dealerships and customers alike start looking at the online world through a fresh lens.


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