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Can Social Media Sell Cars?

A car dealer discusses what social media optimization means in the automotive business -- and whether it helps move vehicles off the lot.

Although positive encouragement is a good thing, asking customers -- even the happiest ones -- to say specific things about you online is a bad idea that will likely come back to bite you, according to Benstock. "You cannot load customers' lips," he said. "They will see right through that, and you'll be a fraud. That'll go online, too."

Responding to online comments -- whether on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp or any other site -- is a must whether they're good, bad, or somewhere in between, Benstock said. Doing so can have a positive snowball impact on a company's social media interactions, online reviews and other data that prospective customers might review when making a buying decision.

"Most people don't just want to complain; they want to solve their problem," Benstock said. "If you can get that customer just prior to making a bad review and talk to them, and go overboard to resolve their concern, then not only do you get a positive review [but] you create an advocate at the same time."

Measuring the impact of social media optimization and related areas such as online reputation management, according to Benstock, "is not a one-to-one thing that you can quantify on a bottom-line statement." Nonetheless, he believes any business that avoids social media does so at its own risk.

"I would say the number-one thing influencing people is social proof," Benstock said. "People are making [purchasing] decisions based on other people's opinions." In Benstock's view, that's as true for cars as it is for, say, earphones. Benstock, an avid runner and marathoner, said he goes through earphones "like you go through socks." When it comes time to buy a new pair, he goes online to find out what other runners are saying before making his choice. Brands or models that get poor reviews -- perhaps the speakers get easily clogged with a runner's sweat, for example -- get passed over.

"I'm done. No matter how much advertising that particular company did to get me interested in their headphones, I'm done," Benstock said. "Am I going to believe a full-page ad you have in a local newspaper, or am I going to believe the last 35 people that did business with you and what they say?"

It's not much different with bigger-ticket items like a new car, Benstock said. That said, among the social lessons and advice he'd offer other executives: Don't try to manipulate negative feedback or get it removed. Rather, work to improve service levels and encourage the happy customers to share their experiences, too.

"Headphones and cars are subject to same market forces -- the customer wins and the customer's opinions count," Benstock said. "Having a bad reputation online is like having a giant billboard out in front of the dealership that says: Don't buy here."

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