Does social media work in the car industry?

As many of you know, I used to work for Saab Automobile. I worked in the Marketing Division with some responsibility for the company’s social media presence. I say ‘some’ responsibility because I worked with another guy in this area. He had more responsibility for what you’d call the broader social campaigns such as Facebook and Twitter. My main responsibility was content creation and the running of the Inside Saab website (which, I’m pleased to say, is still online).

I was rapt to be working for Saab and I’m sad that that ride had to come to an end. And whilst I believed in what I was doing – the Saabs United experience had proved to me the power of real fan engagement – I did sometimes wonder whether the social media experiment had enough stickability to deliver tangible results.

It’s all well and good to put stuff out there. It’s even better if it gets views and engages some people. But does it influence buyer behaviour and can that influence be measured?

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Case in point: The Ford Falcon

Earlier this year, Ford introduced a 4-cylinder version of it’s large car here in Australia, the Falcon. The Ford Falcon is an icon here. Traditionally it had either a six or eight cylinder engine. Ford Falcon V8s are still raced today in Australia’s most popular racing series, the V8 Supercars.

The 4-cylinder Falcon features a turbocharged Ecoboost engine and sprints from 0-100km/h in the same time as the traditional six cylinder. It’s a large car, reasonably well equipped (less equipment in the 4-cyl version) and seats 5 adults in comfort.

By all reports, it’s a good car to drive and the power comparisons with the 6-cyl model speak for themselves.

The trouble: no-one’s buying it.

The Ford Falcon used to be one of the top selling vehicles in the country. Now it’s not even in the top 20 and the significantly more economical 4-cylinder version has done nothing to arrest the sales slide from large family cars to either small cars or SUV’s.

In a story on the Falcon yesterday, Ford Australia’s Neil McDonald talked about the advertising campaign, including the following Youtube clip, being a success.

He measured the success in terms of the video having had 380,000 views on Youtube.

Unfortunately, that ‘success’ hasn’t translated into customer interest. The 4-cylinder Falcon has only found 53 private buyers here in Australia. In contrast, 159 of them have been sold to Ford Aus employees.

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General Motors and Facebook

Earlier this year, General Motors announced that they were stopping their spend on Facebook advertising. Here’s what I wrote back then:

I’ve never been a huge fan of Facebook in general. I understand and agree that it’s a valuable tool that companies can use to reach their customers, however I’ve always questioned the depth of that contact.

Social Media practitioners love to talk about their success. They’ll produce all sorts of graphs about buzz, about likes, about comments, and there’ll be trends and comparisons to back it all up. That’s all well and good, but what does it mean in terms of actual customer relationship?

I worked in social media at Saab but I’m not convinced of the value in social media for companies producing long-term durable goods such as automobiles. These goods take a long time for people to buy and most of those people tend to own them for a long time.

Social media works great for small-value impulse purchases. Skittles, M&M’s, bookstores and all sorts of other low-cost product makers can have a good impact on sales because their customers aren’t thinking for a long time about their purchases.

But carmakers?

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Content, Relationships

There’s a relatively old saying when it comes to web publishing – content is king. Yeah, the videos are great and you can do a campaign that gets people talking around the water cooler on a Monday morning. But what counts in a high-value purchase such as cars is relationship.

If you want to build relationship with your customers, you’ve got to offer them more meat, and less ‘fluff’. If you want to connect with them in a long-term sense – which is the only sense worthwhile in the car business – you’ve got to treat them as adults. Respect their intelligence and have a conversation that’s worth having.

You’ve got to include all your brand values in that social space, not just shorts that pop into someone’s inbox but do little else.

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Porsche, Alfa Romeo

Two companies that I tend to follow are Porsche and Alfa Romeo. Both are brands I admire and aspire to own (one of them, an Alfa GTV6, is already in my garage).

One of them is doing a great job with social and one of them isn’t.

Porsche have spent a lot of money on the social space and are reaping rewards from it. They have an army of Facebook followers but more impressive, to me, is the Porsche Youtube presence. Porsche produce a phenomenal amount of video content and the impressive thing about that is that it’s not all new-product oriented. They produce video about subjects their fan base are interested in, especially racing. The Porsche Youtube channel has 580 videos and has had 24 million views and because they vary the content between new products and Porsche culture, I see it as a brand success for them. Porsche’s range, and sales, continue to grow, too, even through the GFC of the last few years.

Porsche’s social strategy is centralised, focused and promotes what is already a powerful, aspirational brand in a professional way to all corners of the globe.

Alfa Romeo, on the other hand, seem quite haphazard in their social organisation. They have an official Facebook presence, but there are also Facebook pages for Alfa Romeo UK, the Alfa 4C, the Alfa 159 and others.

Go to Youtube and it’s even more confusing. There’s Alfa Romeo Japan, Alfa Romeo UK, Alfa Giulietta, Alfa Mitoblog. The actual official Alfa Romeo Youtube Channel hasn’t had a video loaded to it for five years.

It’s a dog’s breakfast and as an owner and massive fan of the brand, it’s very sad to say that the haphazard nature of Alfa’s social presence seems to reflect the haphazard state of the brand itself at the moment.

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So does social media help?

I think social media can help car companies but right now, there aren’t many of them using it the right way.

The internet is a great way to reach out to customers but it has to be meaningful. You’re selling a product that is bought for many different reasons. Some of those reasons, for some people, are quite mundane. For others, automotive brands are a passionate issue and in order to reach those people you have to a) be easy to find, and b) give people a reason to maintain contact by providing them with real, meaningful content.

You can’t just do a viral video with two frogs and expect to draw people in. By the time the laugh is over, they’ve moved on and it’s quite possible they’re conversing with your competitor because over there, they’ve got a channel to have a conversation and direction that makes it meaningful.

Car companies should take a long-term view of social media and use it not as a hook to catch new customers, but as a lure to engage their interest over a prolonged period of time.

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11 Comments

  1. Once you start, you have to keep it going. And do frequent changes. A dormant site is a turn-off. I don’t do Facebook or Twitter, I like a bit of privacy. But I do surf the web – a lot. If there is something I like I visit often. If it stays unchanged for too long, I stop going.

    Some sites I visit once and go away. For instance, I went to a concert at the weekend. The soloist mentioned that she had some new gigs coming up. I found her website, clicked on the “Events” link and found that it hadn’t been updated since 2010… No good.

    But in automobile terms, things might be a little slower, but I think that the key things are information and accuracy. If I’m looking for a car on line. I need to know all the details, not just some of them. The web is infinite (almost) it’s not a brochure that gets too big or heavy. So there’s no reason to skimp as long as it’s structured and findable. If I want to know if I can get a bulky bit of kit in, lets look at the detail drawings. A “will it fit my garage” is not enough.

    The other important bit is to keep the archives on line. Many people will buy a used car. If you can only access the detail of the latest offerings, it won’t help. Let’s say I want to buy a 5 year old 9-5 saloon. What was standard and what were the option packs? Are the contemporary brochures available? They should be.

    That sort of basic info will get people involved when they buy the car. Once bought, then the fan stuff can be fun, but it needs to be current and carefully monitored. If the company doesn’t do motor sport, you will struggle to get a teenage aspirational following. Lots of problems there. But lots of space for innovation.

    And you don’t want to mix the factual bits and the fun bits. Get a good index!!

    This whole approach in the internet age is based on everyone doing there research and deciding on what they want before they go near a car showroom. I suspect that this is exactly the opposite of what Marketing and Sales Directors want. They want mugs in the showroom, sales of warranties, hire purchase, options etc. to maximise profits. Probably an outdated approach in the internet age.

    So in summary. Facts, fun, fresh,

    And if it’s interactive. Be even handed. Allow valid criticism, but dump the trolls.

  2. I’ll be the foil here. I commented before on your musings about social media and automobiles that I thought the social media in place now isn’t in synch with car BUYING. It’s in synch with car ENTHUSIASM. It maintains loyal customers or long-time fans.

    It’s difficult to sell a car to the masses 140 characters at a time. Average people will certainly use blog-style reviews to hone their decisions, and so I believe that form of social media is valid. However, how ‘social’ is that form of communication? Some blogs are simply online magazines with little interaction. Others are more active. It’s a mixed bag.

    It’s an interesting question, and I agree with your assessment that few are doing it right.

  3. Absolutely loved “Inside Saab” and your “Saab’s United” blog. You add dimension to a product and make us want to learn more about it. Your writings are always a great read! Long live Swadeology!

  4. Swade, Thanks for showing toad add for Ford . Son Tim did voiceover for toad that survived. Doubt now that there will be any more adds.

  5. I understand why people like so called “social media”. Social media were the IT buzzword de jour a few years ago. The IT industry is very good at those. The main reasons is that it is an industry that is evolving rapidly. That means they don’t have to fulfill any of the promised dreams next year, because by then there is another buzzword that is dominating the headlines and capturing everyones attention. But a buzzword is very good when trying to get a management to allocate (more) resources for what you want to spend your time with. Hence, “social media” is of course very important for the PR dept.

    What I generally don’t understand is why companies think “social media” (or rather social networks) is a good idea. It kind of goes against two main things in marketing: being in control.

    There will always be new and hyped walled gardens on the web. MySpace, Second Life, Google+, Facebook, Renren, LinkedIn, etc. How do you decide on where you “need” to be? What about one that is growing and popular, but is targeting a narrow group of people (ethnic, political, etc)? And what to do when the popularity of a certain commuinity is in decline? How do you react? When do you exit and with what reason? How about the fans that you leave behind there? Since it is an active choice for users to enter such a walled garden, they think they have the final saying on how companies should behave there. A campaign against you for some muddy reason is only a few mouse-clicks away.

    New walled gardens means that a company constantly have to enter new realities and build their presence there. They need to figure out how they work and how they should (re)act within those communities. Although that may be exiting for the people doing it, it makes the company vulnerable. A company generally want’s to look like an established entity. They wan’t to control the situation, be on top of the game, and have a confidence in what they do. But it takes time to build a presence, and what users do not want is “coming soon”, “under construction”, etc. The risk is that you either rush things and make a sloppy job, or that you profile is so low-key that it is pointless.

    How does a company have a consistent message all over the place when there are subset of the web that suddenly can go in direction you are not prepared to? You want to send the same message about your company, but can that be done when you don’t control the framework or what you can (or are allowed to) do?

    Since you are somewhat close to your competitors, it may be tempting to mimic everything others do. And there is also the risk that you always react on what users want. “Car company A had this thing going on last week and it was fun, now what does car company B and C do for us?!?” It is like trade shows. You are there in a specific moment in time, and your competitors are all around you. Of course you have to stand out and make a splash. But what if you can’t do that exactly that week? Then you try to do it anyway, and it can be very pathetic.

    You are not in control.

    I think Inside Saab was very good. It was open to everyone, and visitors could also participate with feedback. The message was “Saab” and there was no need to constantly react on what others did. No “pleasing the crowd now”, since the crowd came to Inside Saab and not the other way around. But the site still provided all that I think is needed:

    – communicate when you want and in the way you want
    – users comment on posts
    – polls about general or specific issues
    – multimedia about about the company
    – damage control other that bone-dry press releases
    – focus on Saab without constant reacting to what others do

    1. Darn ctm, seems like you put a lot of intelligent thought into your reply. I’ll satisfy myself by agreeing with you wholeheartedly because I’m too lazy to think something thorough that well. 🙂

  6. It’s no big surprise that the Falcon campaign is ineffective (in terms of sales).
    The video conspicuously avoids talking about the product. The only mention is patently absurd; what modern 4 cylinder car is unable to achieve cruising speed on an open road?

    They are trying to appeal to older consumers with the “4 cylinders can be used in a normal car” pitch, but those consumers are way past their prime in terms of advertising susceptibility. And they can smell BS.

    The frog part is geared to younger consumers, but that generation was born decades after the “real cars have sixes or eights” thing became irrelevant. It just doesn’t speak to them; may as well be hieroglyphs (or hippies telling them the car is groovy).

    Reminds me of the advertising campaign that Nissan used to introduce the Infinity brand in the US. They decided not to show the product, and the brand was (coincidentally or not) a flop for the next 15 years. Great-looking adverts, but counterproductive.

    That doesn’t mean that social media can’t be used to sell cars. It just means that companies can’t ignore the fundamentals. Cars are expensive durable goods. You can sell video games, sports drinks, clothing, etc with a viral campaign, but that’s because those things don’t cost a whole lot. Most people can take the loss if they pay to see a bad movie. That’s not the case with cars.

  7. Online presence etc will only work if the product matches. Love them or hate them, (I love them), Porsches do what they say on the tin. Other brands do not so clearly live up to the expectations. Therefore their Internet presence is more likely to receive adverse attention or comment. The Falcon is a rubbish car, in four or six cylinder form. It depreciates like crazy. I learnt both of those facts the hard way. I am not malicious enough to clutter up whatever online presence they have, but others may be so inclined.

    Saab could have continued to interact and develop that because of the passion many owners had for the brand. Bear in mind though that as has been noted either by yourself Swade, or another Saab commentator (I do not have the quote to hand), Saabs problem was reaching out to new customers. Most of us who were passionate in some way were passionate about old Saabs and not necessarily trading in or up, so it may not have helped the company in terms of lifeblood, i.e. sales.

    Also, if you have a Buffon in charge, such as the one you drew attention to in your observations about Lotus, the damage could be significant.

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