ORLANDO -- Ford dealer Wendell Barron spent much of his time at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention trying to understand the social media marketing craze sweeping the industry.
The closest he had come to social media before was a Facebook page that his wife created for him. But Barron joined hundreds of other dealers learning about social media and evaluating a dizzying array of products.
"Until I got here, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what was out there -- at least enough to get by," said Barron, who munched a breakfast roll as he waited for a general session to begin. "I found out I have a lot to learn."
Dealers are using sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, along with blogs, to connect with vehicle buyers and potential buyers. They're organizing donation drives for Haiti, chatting about their sponsorship of baseball teams and inviting folks to wine tastings at their dealerships.
All of this creates a more casual relationship with consumers than traditional advertising can. It also drives online traffic and links to a dealer's sites. That, in turn, improves the likelihood that the dealer's stores will show up on the first page of critical search engines such as Google when people in their area look for a vehicle. It's all part of giving a dealer's links optimum visibility in search engines.
And that's what Barron, owner and vice president of Courtesy Ford in Okemos, Mich., near Lansing, is looking for: "What I want is for our store to appear at the top of a list when someone in our area goes online looking for a car."
In Orlando, he had plenty of company in his questions about the confusing social media landscape.
Dealer.com CEO Mark Bonfigli said his booth was the busiest it has been in 10 years as dealers sought answers. Dealer.com, which provides online marketing tools to its 8,000 dealership clients, offers a suite of social media products and services.
Vendors such as Dealer.com are offering to build dealer sites optimized for search engines; create pages and connections on the right social media sites; and create content and track comments across the Internet about the dealership, allowing dealers to respond quickly to negative reviews or comments.
In general, dealers at the NADA convention found little hard evidence that social media will sell cars. But they also heard examples of how social media can benefit, or harm, dealerships.
For example, social media can be a quick arbiter of marketing.
The blogosphere panned a Texas Honda dealer who tried to take advantage of Toyota's recall misfortunes with a giant electronic sign message: "Our gas pedals don't stick!"