The use of social media was one of the hot topics at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in Orlando last month. Dealers were barraged with pitches from companies offering to set up and run social media Web pages or to provide materials that dealerships could post.
Dealers should not ignore social media, a category that ranges from YouTube to Facebook to Flickr to Twitter. They can be valuable and useful marketing tools.
But like other marketing tools, they also can be financial and staff-time sinkholes with little return if a dealer isn't careful in determining how to use them, where they fit into an overall marketing plan and how they differ from the other available marketing tools.
Dealers must realize that social media are not venues for standard advertising messages. Social media are so named because they allow the formation of social groupings. They are not a conduit for the hard sell, any more than a dinner party is an invitation for a life insurance salesman to pester every guest present.
Dealers also should accept that they cannot control all content on social media, even on pages they have created.
Dealers must monitor their pages and be aware if negative comments -- about their stores, brands, sales staff or other targets -- are posted. But that doesn't mean censoring any comment that a dealer dislikes. Rather, a dealer should be prepared to respond without coming across as a bully or someone who shoots the messenger.
Dealers should take to heart the Honda example. When Honda posted advance photos of the Accord Crosstour in September, fans on the company's Facebook page were brutal in savaging the car's styling.
But Honda didn't strike down the comments or attack those who had opined. Instead, it argued that the photos didn't do the car justice and asked members of the online community to reserve judgment until they could see the car in person.
Dealers should promote a lively and engaged community on social networking sites, building on and promoting their involvement with the local community. If at some point a dealer becomes a target for negative comments on those sites, it is up to the dealer to take the high road and show that disagreements can be aired in a civil manner that still shows respect for all participants.