Dealership chain AutoNation Inc. has typical management positions such as CEO and chief operating officer, but it also has new-age job titles not usually found on a corporate hierarchy.
There's the “chief blog officer” whose duties include surfing the Internet for web logs that might affect or mention AutoNation and contributing commentary when appropriate.
Then there's the “chief Facebook and Twitter officer” who monitors tweets, sends out articles to various websites and posts photos of satisfied customers and their cars on Facebook.
They are part of a 3-person marketing team that is championing AutoNation's social-media effort to engage with customers in untraditional ways, says Gary Marcotte, the firm's senior vice president-marketing.
He spoke about that at the 2010 Automotive Social Media Summit in Los Angeles. For the presentation on how to connect to young buyers in informal ways, he wore a Hawaiian shirt instead of a suit and tie.
“This is not about selling cars or making offers, it's about making connections and maybe, just maybe, they'll trust us so that, when they do buy a car, they'll buy from us,” Marcotte says.
In the growing world of social-media, AutoNation wants to be the “un-dealer,” he says. “We say and do things you would never expect a dealer to say or do.”
That includes asking people to write reviews of AutoNation cars they bought. Whether good or bad, those assessments are posted on the company's website and Facebook pages.
It also includes answering consumers' questions on such topics as the true cost of cars, markups and how financing works. Another aspect of the program are videos, such as one of an AutoNation mechanic explaining what's under the hood.
“Part of being a good dealer is just answering people's questions,” Marcotte says. “We're just going to put it out there. Hopefully, people will think better of us. We'll see.”
Coming soon are postings of customers relating their experiences of buying, owning and servicing their vehicles.
Many consumers distrust auto dealers, says Marcotte, citing data indicating dealer distrust at about 75%. “We're here to wipe the slate clean. It's a chance to redo things. There's a whole new world out there.”
AutoNation's social-media experimentation “makes a lot of people real nervous,” he says. “But putting the AutoNation process out there for all to see makes the industry better. And it doesn't cost a lot.”
AutoNation tracks online interactions, Twitter responses and the like. But the firm is not focusing on the project's bottom line, Marcotte says. “We didn't promise return on investment. We are not caught in the ROI trap. It's liberating.”
He adds: “With social media, you are an invited guest in someone else's community. We want to respect that and not do anything that would dishonor that commitment.”
From an overall marketing standpoint, social media allows dealers to engage with customers continually, not just when they are buying a car, says Adam Simms, dealer principal at Sunnyvale (CA) Toyota, known for its Internet innovations.
“If you don't get high in the funnel, you will be left behind,” he says. “Dealers have tended to work on the conversion rate in the lower part of the funnel. But the higher you are, the better and the more cost effective.”