Car dealers are starting to use social media sites like... Car dealers are starting to use social media sites like Twitter to sell cars (Rosaura Ochoa, Flickr).

Car dealerships are turning to Twitter as their new media frontier, hoping to transform a vehicle for social chatter into a platform for car sales. Some pioneering dealers are gamely trying to build up the number of their followers and using their meager allotment of 140 characters to pass on micro-bursts of information, typically accompanied by a link to their website or Facebook page. But this experiment with the social medium is still a work in progress.

"The automotive industry has been a bit behind on Twitter and social media in general," said Joe High, CEO of XIGroup in Baltimore and Dealerskins in Nashville, two web design firms that focus on car dealers. "But now it is moving ahead at full speed."

Dealers tweet about lease deals, the latest manufacturer incentives, service specials, and just about every other thing imaginable. In one 24-hour-period in early July, Koons Automotive in Vienna, Virginia, announced an iPad giveaway, promoted its inventory of used Audis and VW's, thanked four customers for visiting its stores, and answered two customer complaints. The same day, Mazda dealerships across the country tweeted out an announcement about the brand's new certified used car program almost as soon as the Japanese automaker released it.

At least theoretically, a single tweet can reach thousands of potential car buyers trolling Twitter. And like everything else on Twitter, the action is taking place in real time. In rare instances, a consumer may even have to decide whether to take a dealer up on a sales or service deal within minutes. Some customers may decide they don't need the aggravation of rapid-fire social media engagement, but the tech-savvy under-30 crowd may actually relish it, a number of experts on social media say.

Follow The Dealer

As any Twitter fan knows, the goal is to have people find you with a Twitter search or "follow" your tweets. In the four years since its invention, it has become a mark of distinction to have hundreds or thousands of people following you, presumably waiting breathlessly for your every thought and action to be posted. But that's not a goal to which most dealerships can aspire.

Given consumers' built-in resistance to messages from companies, High said dealerships are doing well if they manage to get 100 people following them on Twitter. He compares it to clicking a box opting to receive a company's email newsletter. "To have 100 people willing to do that means that a dealer is doing a pretty good job of not bothering you and is giving you appropriate content," High said.

One reason that Twitter is catching on with dealerships is that they can use keywords to optimize their tweets for search engines just as they do with their web pages, according to High. In this way, they drive traffic to their messages and, in turn, to their websites. From there, it's a short leap to the showroom floor -- or so the thinking runs.

So far, dealers seem to particularly like using the new medium for used car sales. That may be because the prices for any given model vary significantly from dealership to dealership. So a tweet on a used car and its price at a particular store can be a useful piece of information. But there is still the question of whether consumers are buying.

"I don't think I have exactly sold any cars with Twitter," said Mitchell Brenner, e-commerce manager at Precision Acura of Princeton, in Lawrenceville, N.J., "But I have seen people going to my website who started on Twitter."

The medium does have some serious limitations for car sales. A Twitter search for a used BMW, for example, may deliver offers from a dozen or more countries, ranging from Britain to Dubai. "The chances of a person reading a tweet, and living relatively close to us, and shopping for an Acura is relatively slim," said Brenner.

Having Fast Reflexes

When dealerships crank up their tweets to warp speed, buyers with the fastest mental reflexes may fare the best. For example, as the month of June came to a close, Elk Mountain Motors in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, tweeted that it needed to sell "one more new Audi deal to meet its goal" and the buyer had just five hours to come to the dealership and get a special $1,000 rebate.

"Say a dealership has a slow afternoon, for whatever reason, and it has nothing going on between 1 and 4 p.m. It can have a special service offer that expires within the hour," said Timothy Martell, owner of the Wikimotive consulting firm and digital marketing director at Marlboro Nissan in Marlboro, Mass.

While Twitter is seen as the heir-apparent to Facebook, dealers may be having a tougher time grasping the concept. "With Facebook, the feeling is that there are real people out there," Martell said. "There is a tremendously active body of users. But Twitter is a lot more noise. It is viewed as where people with attention deficit disorder go, because what can you do with 140 characters?"

So for all the allure of its real-time communication and the thousands of Twitter posts advertising cars every day, most experts on social media are cool to its potential for promoting sales. "It is not necessarily something that I can see as a quick sales strategy," said Robert Edwards, president of Real Traffic Productions in Sarasota, Fla., said. "It's more of an opportunity to build a relationship."

High says one of the more effective uses of Twitter is that some dealers are monitoring tweets related to their operations and trying to respond to customer complaints as quickly as they come up. On occasion, he has tweeted his own gripes and has seen them resolved successfully after companies found his complaints on Twitter.

Boom Or Bust?

Experts agree that many dealerships are fumbling around a bit with Twitter. Even when they pay someone to manage the flow of information onto it, the free medium is still inexpensive to use. As a result, some dealers are flooding the market with too much information. "A number of dealers will post every single vehicle they have, essentially treating it as a free classified section," High said. "But other dealerships use it very well, posting tent events and weekend sales and things like that."

A certain amount of clumsiness may be natural with the fairly new medium, one that may mystify those who can't understand how a system that limits messages to a mere 140 characters could be effective. But the ethic of the Internet reigns supreme on Twitter: Give people interesting or valuable information and they will keep coming back. "The more you give them purely sales stuff, the less people will listen," Brenner said.

Over time, Twitter will be more relevant for car sales as customers become savvier about social media. A new generation of sales and service people at dealerships could accelerate its acceptance, too. But by then, tweeting may not be the rage any more. Dealers may move on to the next big thing, High said. He isn't sure what that will be. "If we knew what that was, we would already have started building it," he said with a laugh.

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