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.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

February 5, 2013

5 Min Read

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It seems just about every business, from tax prep firms to doctors' offices to gas stations, has some form of social media presence these days. But there's little consensus on how it affects the bottom line of those companies, if at all. Ask 10 different organizations how they measure their social efforts, you're liable to get 10 different responses.

Ask Brian Benstock, general manager of Paragon Auto Group, if social media helps move Hondas and Acuras off the lot, and his answer is pretty clear cut.

"Are you kidding me? Absolutely," Benstock said in an interview. Benstock began investigating the business uses of various social and review sites in 2009, which in his view made him "late to the party." Benstock considered social to be "a blind spot," so he hired an outside marketing firm to take a look at Paragon's reputation online.

[ Ready to delve more deeply into social strategies? Read Top 5 Social Struggles For SMBs. ]

"It was horrible," Benstock said. "It wasn't horrible because we're bad dealers. It was horrible because the only customers that were having a voice on social media platforms were the customers that were dissatisfied. We had no policy, procedure, or way to address that."

Solving that problem entailed encouraging happy customers to share their stories online, too. Paragon's approval ratings are in the 90s, according to Benstock, meaning at least nine out of every 10 of the dealership's customers leave happy with their transaction. Likewise, it was incumbent on Paragon, which has around 300 employees and sells roughly 1,000 vehicles each month, to spread the word about its involvement in its New York-area communities, such as sponsoring local Little League teams.

Doing so involves a mix of process and technology. For the latter, Paragon is using Digital Air Strike, a social media and reputation management platform built specifically for auto dealers. The process side relies on actually being social -- you know, interacting with other human beings -- and on how Paragon sets up its operations. All of the vehicles Paragon sells are handed over to their new owners by "delivery coordinators" rather than the salespeople, who get to focus on sales rather than everything that occurs after the sale.

Benstock called these highly trained delivery coordinators "black-belt experts" in customer service and satisfaction. Part of their role is to ask every customer if they're satisfied before driving off the lot; if the answer is anything short of "yes," the coordinator's job is to resolve the issue. "If the customer is satisfied, then we want to encourage [them] to let other people know," Benstock said. 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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About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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