Using social media requires a new marketing playbook. Direct sales pitches are frowned upon. Instead, the object is to accumulate friends and fans and, as one Internet marketer puts it, make a sale "by accident."
Plus, a business puts its reputation on the line by giving anyone with a computer and an Internet connection control over the corporate message. Deleting critical comments from a site would violate the informal code of social media.
Experts say one thing that won't work is the hard sell.
Chris Herman, president of Herman Advertising in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says using social media solely for advertising can be a big mistake. "You turn off anybody who decided to become a fan of your business," he says.
First, Herman says, the business has to earn a potential customer's trust and respect.
His agency creates and maintains social-media accounts for several of its 25 dealership clients.
"The most important thing is to establish a relationship with your customer base that allows some interaction that's not specifically geared toward promoting product," Herman says.
Heath says the number of "fans" of Safeway Chevrolet's Facebook page grew after he replaced much of the car information on the site with community news, jokes and other content that often has nothing to do with cars. When the dealership does post information on a vehicle from time to time, people don't feel overwhelmed, he says.
Ralph Paglia, director of digital marketing for ADP Dealer Services, compares a networking site to a bunch of friends hanging out and having a conversation.
Says Paglia: "If you were having a party at your house, imagine if I showed up and started asking people: 'So I sell cars, here's my card. Are you in the market by chance?' I probably wouldn't' get invited back, right?"
Paglia even suggests dealers keep their social-media activities separate from the Web sites they use for car sales and service.
ADP, one of the dominant dealer management system providers, has a pilot program in which it builds online communities for dealerships and pushes the content out to as many as 100 social-media sites. The company plans to formally launch the service in February at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention.
One of ADP's pilot dealerships is Ancira Nissan in San Antonio. To showcase its inventory and service, Ancira maintains a traditional Web site built by Reynolds Web Solutions, nissan.ancira.com.
But it also hosts an online community built by ADP for customers, employees and suppliers. The site, www.anciracommunity.com, is filled with personal discussion threads, photos, videos, blog entries and community news.
Such communities can lead to sales. In October, Ancira employees blogged about a stray dog they had adopted as the store's mascot. They decided to keep the animal rather than hand it over to animal control because it was driving away raccoons that were damaging cars on the lot.
Paglia says a blog reader was so impressed with the dog saga that he decided to buy a car there.
"I've had several dealers tell me, 'Ralph, it's like selling cars by accident,' " he says. "You're providing information without it being attached to a sales pitch."