Social Media and F&I: An Overview From Industry Leaders – Part 1
Social Media and F&I: An Overview From Industry Leaders – Part 1

This is the first of our series on social media as it relates to the F&I industry. In this series, together with opinions and insights from top industry experts, we will look at topics such as how, or even if, providers and agents should use social media to connect with their constituents, explore how to use social media as a communication tool rather than strictly as one for marketing, and explore the social review culture and how it could affect the F&I industry in the years ahead. We will finish with suggestions for a solid social media plan.

But first, the question really is: What do we mean by social media? If you ask 100 people, you will likely get 100 completely different answers. The term is really more of a blanket phrase that covers a multitude of networks, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. So the place to start with ‘social media’ is to look at each of the main types, how they are used, and what they are good at. We will look at LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter as the “Big Three,” and then touch on some of the other services that have their own loyal following – Reddit, Yelp, Foursquare and Instagram.

LinkedIn – The Business Tool

Of all the social networks, LinkedIn is the only one that is completely focused on the professional community. It is designed to essentially replace the traditional rolodex, consolidating all of your contacts into one place for quick and easy access. But along with the basic contact information, you also get a rich set of data, such as their work history, who else they are connected to, their skills and even recommendations from people they have worked with. Think of it as that rolodex with a full, updated resume attached for every person.

It is the ability to see whom your network is connected to that really makes this a powerful tool for providers. “You never know when those second or third degree connections could lead to new business or cultivate new relationships,” said Brian Crisorio, vice president, United Development System (UDS). He sees this specific network as the “new age” way of finding referrals.

And not just finding the referrals themselves, but also learning more about the person you will be talking to before ever picking up the phone. “There is no reason in the course of prospecting with clients, to ever talk to a stranger,” said Pat Donahue, owner, Agents Management Group (AMG). “With profiles, I know what they look like, where they were educated, what their background is, who they follow, etc. – I know as much as if we were roommates in college. And I’ve learned that if I have an appointment set with someone, they’ve done their homework too, and know about me, my background, and what I bring to the table.”

But LinkedIn is more than just profiles – groups are another powerful tool the site offers to its users. You can join or create either public or private groups, and use them to communicate directly with your audience. One provider we talked to has a private group that only allows active clients to join. They use it as a place to communicate with the user base, answer questions, and offer a place for the users themselves to internally interact and share ideas and tips.

All in all, LinkedIn is a very powerful tool for professionals to connect to, and share information with, a wide range of potential audiences.

Twitter – The Quick Sound Bite

If LinkedIn is a place for detailed, thoughtful conversations, then Twitter is the sound bite of the social media world. It limits users to very short, 140-character messages shared with the public. There, you don’t have private groups, but you can pick and choose who you follow. Any messages you “tweet” will be automatically sent to all the people who, in turn, follow you.

For business, one of the best uses of Twitter is for news. Steve Pearl, president, The Oak Group, noted that he follows quite a few mainstream news outlets on Twitter, as well as people who are putting up information dedicated to the business community. But right now, he noted, there isn’t anyone in this industry, specifically, who is tweeting something worth following. And that is where a savvy provider can step in.

A powerful way to use Twitter is to post links with very short headlines or summaries to relevant content. It does not have to be your own content. Linking to an article you found interesting, or a news item you believe impacts the industry, along with a quick note about why you think people should read it, is a great way to build a reputation as a knowledgeable source of information, and transforms you from a sales person into an industry expert.

Facebook – Creating Relationships

When Facebook first started, its goal was to allow people to connect with their friends. It was, originally, a closed system for college students that grew to the large player it is today. But the core of the service hasn’t changed; the group of “friends” you share with has just gotten wider.

Today, businesses can have their own Facebook landing page, as a place where they can interact directly with anyone who wants to post there. The trick is to find the right balance of information, and the right audience to target.

Jane LaSalle, director of sales, marketing and training, American Dealer Services, actually rates Facebook as her top social media site for business. “Facebook is phenomenal because you can put a page together that says who you are,” she noted. She believes the ability to define who you are as a company then translates into the relationships you build. She checks in regularly with the providers she works with who have pages, looking for news and updates about products, and seeing what the providers have to say.

Facebook, as LaSalle pointed out, is a place to build a more personal connection, with both agents and consumers. She values those providers who take the time to “like” or comment on something she has posted, showing that they think of her as an individual. “Yes, large providers have agents across the country; what do they do to make us feel a little bit special?” she asked.

The Other Guys – Finding a Niche

Of course, there are far more social media sites than just those three. Some of the other services that also have large, if more niche, followers, are Reddit, Yelp, Foursquare and Instagram. Each of them has their own pros and cons, like the big three.

Reddit bills itself as the “front page of the Internet” and is a place where users post links to everything from news articles to photos of their cats. There are smaller breakout groups, called subreddits, for any and every topic you can think of, including CarTalk, Cars and Autos. People go to these places to share stories about their experiences, give tips about everything car related, and even ask for advice on things such as what car to buy – or what F&I products to consider.

On more than one occasion, there have been AMAs – Ask Me Anything – from people who claim to be in the car business, including some who said they were car salesmen or F&I managers. In these, users post questions, and the person chooses which ones to answer, often spending roughly an hour providing various responses. The community doesn’t just ask questions, either. Often, other users will answer questions with their own experiences or advice. It is a good place for providers to get involved, either by hosting AMAs or participating in them, to debunk myths and educate people.

Yelp and Foursquare are both similar types of services – they both allow users to “check in.” Where Foursquare focuses more on helping people find new places, Yelp focuses more on the review side of things. In both cases, these are social networks that are ultimately of more benefit to the dealers than the providers, but that is not to say there are not opportunities. Reviews tend to cover every aspect of a consumer’s visit, including the F&I office and even their experience with a specific product. We will cover social reviews and how providers can get involved in more depth later in the series.

Instagram is a social network dedicated almost entirely to photos. Users take photos of almost anything, and post them for others to comment on, or “like.” In LaSalle’s case, she noted that she will take photos of a dealership she visits, or a car in the showroom, and post it. And she takes note of the providers who take the time to comment on or acknowledge those posts. It is another way, as she noted for Facebook, to help establish a personal connection; the express purpose is not necessarily to sell anything, or even educate anyone on a product. But instead, it is for building relationships that will last.

There are many other social media platforms out there, but these are the ones providers can use to help grow their business. The growth of these networks provides a huge and powerful tool that providers today just aren’t taking enough advantage of.