Connecting to Consumers: What Would Agents Like? - Social Media Part 2
Connecting to Consumers: What Would Agents Like? - Social Media Part 2

In our last social media installment, we took a closer look at the major social media platforms, and the strengths and weaknesses of each of them. This month, we’re going to take a closer look at using social media to target a specific audience – end consumers.

The social media channels to reach end consumers revolve around just a few of the major platforms – Facebook and Twitter. Consumers turn to these two platforms, more than any of the others, to research products, ask questions and interact with companies – including providers, if they have a presence.

But should providers be using the social media medium that way? We talked to a few top agents, and their responses varied. But one common trend did emerge – this is not a “grey area” subject matter. Agents are either strongly for or strongly against providers using social media to connect to consumers.

One side believes it is a good brand-building effort, creating a community-type atmosphere that makes consumers want to purchase the product again. An example of that would be a Facebook group, where consumers come to share stories about their experience with the product, and ask questions of other users. These agents see it as creating name recognition, and an awareness of the product type and the benefits it can offer. The other side sees it as not having decent enough returns on the investment of time and resources – they would like to see providers put that energy into other places.

For the most part, the divide seemed to fall along the lines you would expect – agents who use social media themselves were more likely to look for it in their providers, and the more involved they are in social media, the stronger their opinions were. They see the benefits as being a better way to communicate and share information, where the people who are ultimately buying are congregating. Where Facebook is a place to create a community, Twitter would be the source for information – to provide consumers with details about product changes, new products coming to the market or links to articles detailing product benefits or debunking common misconceptions about F&I, for example.

Those who didn’t see the value in providers being active in social media cited one of several reasons. First, was a question of who is the target audience. They believe marketing to consumers directly isn’t necessarily the route to go, as a consumer can’t walk into a dealership and ask for a product by brand name – they will be offered the brand that location has decided to sell. So these agents wondered how social media would actually benefit the provider, or the relationship between the provider and agent. The second reason they pointed out was time – it is a valuable resource, and they questioned if providers are spending it on Facebook and Twitter, what are they giving up in return?

One agent who fell on the positive end of the spectrum was Steve Pearl, president, The Oak Group. “I’ve always had a thought that the best way for us, as an agent, to sign dealers is to be able to provide a service to the dealer to help them make more money. That’s what it’s all about,” Pearl said. “I’ve tried to champion and haven’t gotten any real feedback from providers - why don’t we somehow reach out to the end-user, and somehow guide them back to a dealer doing business with us? I have tried to champion that and haven’t met with much success.”

He sees it as a partnership with providers, to get out there and reach consumers, and educate them on the products and what they do. One option, for example, might be to include a list of dealers on a Facebook page - sorted by area and including links to their Web sites - where consumers could see who is selling that brand, and click through to interact directly with the dealer. Pearl believes this type of scenario would be a great way to help drive traffic to the dealers, and help raise awareness and acceptance of F&I products at the same time.

Brian Crisorio, vice president, United Development System (UDS) doesn’t see this as something the agents would necessarily be involved with. “Most F&I products are designed to create loyalty or enhance experience,” he said. “That could be realized by the provider and dealer if they did something together - they could launch a cooperative campaign. In that regard, it’s still the dealer’s brand, with the backing of a provider, and we’re essentially just a broker.”

He does see some problems with that idea, however. He noted that it could “muddy the waters,” and that it’s a dealer’s job and right to sell these products, and if a provider started advertising, he said, they could start getting direct calls, and where do they send the customer? It could cause problems in the distribution network, so he doesn’t know if he thinks it’s something a provider should put their time and effort into building.

Jane LaSalle, director of sales, marketing and training, American Dealer Services, sees social media as a way to build relationships. “First and foremost in any industry you have to get yourself noticed,” she pointed out. “How do you do that? There’s only one of you, and hundreds of thousands of partners.”

One idea she proposed was for providers to offer an app, rather than focus solely on the traditional social media platforms, although promoting that app through channels like Facebook and Twitter, to gain awareness and build a following, would be a major component. It helps to solidify the community, and give people a reason to come back. She noted that, once a customer has purchased a service contract, for example, if every time they were in the dealership for an oil change they could “check in” on the provider app to earn points, or some other kind of reward system, that they could then exchange at the dealership for free services, such as a car wash, or upgrade to a more premium service for that visit.

“The customer is rewarded for coming in to the dealership,” she noted. “We’re not selling them something, we’re rewarding them, so we’re not just asking for money all the time. We’re giving them something. Everyone should be doing this; I wish I could build apps because there is so much we could be doing to reward customers for buying that service contract or tire policy. And we could reward F&I guys for selling the policy, too. There is so much interaction we’re leaving on the table right now.”

Pat Donahue, owner, Agents Management Group (AMG), doesn’t disagree that social media is something providers can’t afford to ignore, but he is more cautious in his approach. He used an analogy of a big box retailer, which sublets its sporting goods section to a provider. He asked, if a consumer has an issue with a product, do they go to the provider, or do they go to the retailer? He noted that the provider relationship with consumers in this industry is much the same – customers will go to the dealership, and not the provider, if they have questions or complaints. “Someone buying a service contract or GAP isn’t going to be communicating with the provider or agent, they’re going straight to the dealer,” he noted. “So if we’re going to tweet or use Facebook, we need to think about who we’re going to.”

With all of that in mind, something providers need to be careful of, however, is to remember that anything posted online – directed to consumers or not - becomes public knowledge. So even if it is not originally directed at the end consumer, they can access that information via a simple search on sites such as Google or Bing. So providers need to keep that in mind – even if the message isn’t targeted to consumers originally, the odds are very good that consumers will find it anyway.

John Braganini, principal, Great Lakes Companies, drove that point home. “The vast majority of the communications we have with dealerships and vendors are on a case-by-case basis, much of which needs to be kept confidential,” he noted. “As I instruct my children, if you don’t want everyone to see it, don’t put it on social media.”