Last month, Chris Myers Nissan landed a new TV pitchman and about 1,500 new Facebook friends in one stroke.
The Daphne, Ala., store, across a bay from Mobile, hosted an "American Idol"-style contest to find the next face of the dealership. About 50 contestants auditioned. Some sang. Some danced. Some played it straight.
A TV commercial then spliced together highlights and urged viewers to visit the store's Web site to watch the videos and vote.
The result: more than 20,000 votes plus 77,000 unique visits to the store's Facebook page in April, up from fewer than 1,000 monthly hits before the contest. Facebook friends soared from 60 to more than 1,600.
Rick LeMaitre, the dealership's manager, was looking for something different to boost what he calls a "location-challenged" store. In late 2009, the dealership was moved to Interstate 10, about 5 miles from the Chris Myers Auto Mall, which houses the group's two other stores.
"We needed to really set the store apart and make it different," LeMaitre said. "We just weren't getting the kind of traffic we wanted" in the new location.
The contest approach tapped a seemingly insatiable demand for two pop-culture trends: contest-style reality shows and social media. It was an effective approach for a store looking to raise its profile in a way that traditional media can't, said Jay Murphree, president of Action, the Atlanta advertising firm that ran the contest.
"The first challenge was to get the community paying attention," Murphree said of the Chris Myers contest. "Then an emphasis was put on the store's location. It put them on the map."
Murphree had seen dealerships host in-store auditions for on-air talent, generating buzz for a day. But he wanted to tie in social media and the store's Web site to create a campaign with some legs.
He said the approach works best for dealerships that have a low public profile for whatever reason: one that recently moved, for example, or a store that is isolated.
That describes Coastal Chevrolet in Savannah, Ga. The dealership is part of the 10-store Vaden Automotive Group but doesn't carry the Vaden name and has a stand-alone location.
That wasn't a problem until late 2009, when the store lost its general manager, who also was its TV personality.
"We always felt like that store required a different marketing approach," said Jane Vaden Thacher, CEO of Vaden Automotive.
"When we lost our manager, we lost our identity."