DETROIT -- When Audi launched U.S. diesel-powered vehicles in 2009, it told Facebook followers that if 30 percent of Americans drove a clean diesel the country could save 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. And the message seems to have made a difference.
Audi initially projected diesel variants would make up 10 to 15 percent of the Audi Q7's U.S. sales, Scott Keogh, 42, chief marketing officer of Audi of America, said during a marketing panel discussion at the Automotive News World Congress. But half of the Q7s sold have been diesels.
"People responded with tweets, they responded on our Facebook page, and they emotionally got behind diesel," he said. "Had we said, 'Audi's launching diesel and it's going to cost $45,000,' there would be nothing to respond to."
Panelist Don Romano, chief marketing officer of Mazda North America Operations, agreed that social media are useful in touting positives about a company. But he warned that customer-handling missteps can result in public relations headaches if the complaints attract widespread attention on sites such as YouTube and Twitter.
Romano cited a recent YouTube video that shows a FedEx delivery person tossing a package containing a computer monitor over a customer's fence. But he said companies can minimize such problems by training and empowering employees to handle customer issues quickly and honestly.
"Just explain it," said Romano, 51. "Customers are very forgiving if you're honest."
Matt VanDyke, 39, director of marketing communications for Ford Motor Co., recounted how Ford got its not-yet-launched Fiesta in the hands of 100 consumers in 2009 and encouraged them to share their experience on social-media sites. Nine months later Ford had 132,000 "hand-raisers" for the Fiesta and many favorable online comments.
VanDyke said automakers need social media users "to tell our story to friends and family."