Social Media Doesn't Sell Cars

Earlier this week I drove home my new Ford Flex. It is our official family vehicle and something that we’ve been thinking about for the past year since we were leasing out last car and knew we’d have to replace it this fall. I am not a “car guy” and at the end of the day want something that meets my needs, looks good and is a solid safe car. I even tried to put out feelers last November and the only company I heard from was Ford.

Plaza Trailer Inn, Oct 21, 2008Now, I feel I should point out that my close friend Scott Monty works for Ford so it didn’t surprise me that he replied when I put out feelers and anytime I had a question about Ford, I knew I could go to him. I go to him as a friend, but the great thing is that I know that complete strangers can also go to him and get the answers to their questions. I love that.

But, anyone who thinks that I bought the car because of Scott and all the great social media work that Ford is doing is delusional. No matter how good your social media program is I am not going to drop $40,000+ on anything based on just those efforts alone.

I’m writing about this because I want all the consultants, agencies and brands to realize that having an active and useful communications program that leverages the online space is a crucial part of every business today, but it can’t be what you balance your bottom line and future success of your company on. If you do, you can bet you won’t be in business for long.

I remember the first time I saw the Ford Flex, I hated it. Scott picked me up at the airport in Arizona when we were both speaking at a conference there. I thought it was a boxie thing with a dumb white roof (I don’t get why people like this) and it felt like Ford was trying too hard. I mean if you haven’t seen the commercials or print ads for the car they were always at night, trying way to hard to make it feel like a hipster mobile. I rode in them at various conferences that Ford had a presence at and I liked the roominess but it never clicked for me.

We needed a car that could hold our two kids, our dog and luggage. We based it all on being able to fit everything needed for a weekend trip to New Hampshire to visit our parents. If it couldn’t handle that then we didn’t want it. Originally I wanted (and still would like) a hybrid car, but the options in this size are extremely limited so at the end the final consideration was that it needed a third row so we could fit some of the kid’s friends as well.

I have zero brand loyalty when it comes to cars. I shouldn’t say that. The first car I ever bought new was a Saturn SC2 and I had nothing but an awesome experience with them. I wanted to buy a Saturn this time around, but actually found their one option was not big enough for us and now that the brand is going away it really wasn’t an option. They understood how to sell a car and keep a customer happy.

One thing that I always loved about Saturn was how they would allow for extended test drives. I remember them giving us the car and telling us to bring it back before closing and we went off and spent the day in it. That was the only way I knew I loved it.

Our Cabin & Ford FlexIn Orlando this summer we were given a Flex on an extended test drive so that we could try it out with the kids for longer then a spin around the block. We took it to the grocery store, ran errands and used it for a few days for everything we did. Both Laura and I drove it and got a feel for it. The kids got to experience it as well and tell us what they loved and hated about it. We really got a full opinion of the car that we would not have any other way. At the end of that we both were thinking that it would be a great car for us.

Now, I don’t know if this is something that Ford usually does or if it was something unique because of my friendship with Scott and the company. I personally think this is something that every car company should consider. Yes, it can’t be done for every single shopper, but if the situation is right and the manager feels it is OK, then dealers should be empowered to allow for longer test drives then what is normal. All car company should consider this.

At the end of this summer we went out and tried out all the other cars that were in the running for us. There actually weren’t that many options based on what we wanted in the size and price range we were aiming for. It seems that car companies only want to sell you a mammoth SUV if you are in the market I was. At the end of it all as we sat down to talk all the options over we ended up going with the Flex.

I’m laying this all out because as you can see Ford was very active with us and that helped us form our opinion. But, at the end of the day if the car hadn’t met our needs all of this extra good will wouldn’t have mattered when it came time to purchase. You can give me a good feeling and that might make me buy your CD, stay at your hotel or fly your airline, but it is not going to make me lay down a lot of money for something as large as an automobile. Safety, function, price and quality come first and foremost.

As you set out to begin using social media, I hope you realize that what it can and can’t do for you. I hope that whatever agency you are working with or consultant you’ve hired to make this a reality,  knows what they are talking about and are not just selling you a bill of goods and promises that twelve months from now you are going to be upset about.

The New CarYou need to be listening, responding, outreaching, engaging and always being helpful. This isn’t an option anymore for you if you want to be a successful business. But, even with all that, it still and always will boil down to having a good product first.

One final thought for you, is that no matter how much good will you build up, it only takes a single employee to ruin it all and put you back to square one. The dealer I bought my car through almost made me call the whole deal off just on the actions of a single phone call. I almost canceled my order, after waiting weeks for the car to arrive, and went to purchase it from a different dealer. I most likely will not recommend to my friends that they go to this dealer if they are looking for a car.We live in an always on society now and this means every one of your employees must realize what their actions can cause.

I’d write more, but I haven’t even gone for a drive with my whole family yet as I’ve been traveling for business and I’ve got to go do that!

Be smart about social media and don’t think it is going to do more for you then it is. Alone, it won’t do you much good. Integrated with good products, smart campaigns and a solid business strategy it can work wonders.

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  • C.C., you’re absolutely right, social media *doesn’t* sell cars – any more than PR or advertising or other means that we use to make people aware of our products. And while we can’t simply post a tweet and sell a car, the place of social media is in the wide end of the sales funnel, creating awareness and changing perceptions about the company over time.

    Really, it’s about the lost art of relationships in business. And while it’s not super sexy or about some amazing new technology, it’s at the core of what makes a difference. And no, this isn’t something we can do with every single customer, but if we choose wisely and know how to connect with key influencers who will help us tell our story by telling their own, then we’re off and running. We do try to connect with key bloggers and give them extended drive experiences – no expectations required – and then aggregate content in a place where others can find it.

    Very glad that you chose the Flex. We know you had lots of choices. Looking forward to continuing the relationship with you.


  • This is above and beyond a great post. The bottom line is these are tools for leverage… not a loaded gun to someones head making them do something. If you don’t have a solid product it doesn’t matter.

    Good to see you this past weekend CC.

  • Steve

    Nice post – and you’re right on about the need for marketers to pay attention to the whole experience of the customer – starting with the conception of the product and continuing all the way through the sales cycle to on-going satisfaction and renewal of the relationship when the time comes. The weakest link in car manufacturers’ relationship with their customers is the local dealer. Many are awesome, I am sure – but many more leave a bad taste in the mouth. Here’s where social media may work the best for the car biz – building relationships with strong dealers and their customers. And culling the bad dealers. Good luck with the Flex!

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  • Great post, C.C! I totally agree with your statement, “that having an active and useful communications program that leverages the online space is a crucial part of every business today.” Scott made a great point, too, with, “it’s about the lost art of relationships in business.” Here at CarMax, we understand that a car purchase is a big investment and we realize that people have a choice where to purchase their car. Our online efforts, aside from our website, provides opportunities to communicate with potential and existing customers. We relish our customer relationships and the social media tools that help nurture them.

  • Very nice post. Businesses are shifting from one-time sales events to creating engaging customer experiences throughout all touch points with people. Your dealer experience clearly shows that organizations have to be diligent in creating these flawless experiences on all levels and in all divisions. A Twitter page won’t change your business (unless you’re Kogi BBQ) but a concerted effort to change the external consumer experience and, at the same time, change the experience internally will prepare you for the future.

  • You are right. The current standard of a quick test drive is not long enough.

  • C.C. – great post and I couldn’t agree more. The existence of a social media program at a company — whether we sell cars, soap, software or widgets — doesn’t sell a product. What the social web allows us to do as companies is, as others here have said, build relationships and get back to providing a connection with a company. Through those human connections, awareness of products can develop; questions can be answered; concerns can be addressed. When you’re talking about a purchase as big as an automobile, this just gets magnified; no one is going to put five figures into a purchase just because of a Twitter account, a Facebook presence, or frequent interactions on your blog. Social media can get you in the door, but at the end of the day the product has to sell itself to you.

    In most B2B sales, no sale is made on the first pitch, the first day a rep comes in to meet with the client. Questions are asked, golf games and dinners happen, second and third pitches are made… in short, relationships are deepened. Trust is earned. And eventually when the sale is made, it’s usually as much about the trust and the relationship you’ve built as it is about the product.

    Social media is the same way. For us in the auto industry, these tools allow us to invest as much effort in the 80% of consumers who *aren’t* in market “in the next 12 months” as we’ve traditionally invested in the 20% who are ready to buy. And as a side benefit, you get to hear the real feedback of real people, which you can incorporate into future campaigns and future product.

    Great perspective and one I think needs to be heard more often these days.

  • (This is a repost of the original comment I left on the Facebook note of this blogpost- sorry, CC- I should have placed it here.)

    It was funny- when I tried the same thing, I didn’t hear from Scott, (not that it’s his job to sell all his social media friends Ford cars….) And we ended up with a hybrid Toyota Highlander- again, for the third seat issue without having to get another van. And we ended up at a dealership farther away from our house than we would have liked, because they were working harder for our business, locating cars as they were coming off the production line and heading to the States, and the other dealership just wasn’t doing the same thing, and wanted to charge us more for the same vehicle.

    What I want brands to learn from this is that the relationship between the consumer and the seller matters, especially on big purchases like a car. I want to have someone who seems to value my business and time, and I try to do the same thing with the vendors I deal with- I am not interested in wasting anyone’s time- I am interested in getting all the information I can and make an informed decision based, at least in part, on someone showing an interest in my business as well.

  • CC

    Great post. Totally agree that SocMe, advertising, etc., no one marketing channel can sell a consumer anything. Like you I too once had a Saturn and like you felt the buying experience, including the puppy dog — take it for a day — approach was brilliant. Interesting that Ford did the same for you.

    Makes me wonder if Ford and other companies for that matter should partner with folks like Zip Car to create a test drive program. Let folks trade in their every day car for a day or two and test one of Ford’s cars. Pick up and drop at a local dealer or other central point. Treat the whole experience as Marketing/Advertising expense.

    Donate the cars to charity or sell at highly reduced prices when you’re done. Maybe even get folks to give on camera or some other type of “this is what I thought” testimonial that the company can use in it’s SocMe efforts.

    That would be cool because as you noted, the days of “let’s drive this puppy around the block to see if you want to drop $40K on it” are kind of over.

  • First of all, as a retired Ford guy thanks for buying one. It will help keep my pension check coming in! 🙂
    Social media can put a “face” on a large company and make it seem more personal. I follow Ford on Twitter and was pleasantly surprised when they responded to my Tweet. It showed me that they actually cared about what I said. If I didn’t already have a relationship with Ford that would have given them a step up when I went to buy a car.
    Now I’m going to keep buying Fords because they are a good value for the money. Oh yea,I get a great discount too!
    Did your friend Scott let you buy the Flex under his A Plan?

  • CC,

    Thanks for your post. Yes, I agree that social media brings amazing, new opportunities for today’s companies. And, like most things, it’s not WHAT you do, but HOW you do it that matters most.

    One of the companies who I think is doing social media right is Zappos. The way they’ve leveraged YouTube and the Inside Zappos channel is brilliant (and they have a nice presence on Twitter, too). The company’s outreach is engaging, fun, and gets you excited about the brand. When you like the players and the approach, you WANT to be loyal.

    Hope you enjoy your new car!

    Amber @wordsdonewrite

  • Good stuff. Actually you have three ideas here, all important. One, as Bernbach said, good advertising will kill a bad product faster. Same with social. Social is key, but product has to be great. And the entire UX has to be good. Too few brands think about that user experience from top to bottom.

  • SusanE

    Nice article. It is always interesting to know anothers thought processes. It’s also interesting to understand how advertising influences anothers decisions.

    Can I ask what advertising convinced you that $40,000. was a comfortable price to pay for a vehicle? And did you know that the Flex features that you describe are exactly like the Ford Station Wagons of my era? They were Mothers vehicle for hauling kids, groceries, luggage (because we didn’t fly much) and the family dog. Our vehicles were also two-tone in color. Our ’56 Chevy Wagon was all that.
    Gawd, what goes around comes around if you live long enough.
    My generation was fiercely brand loyal. We had Chevy, Ford, and GM. I think your generation is brand concious, but for different reasons.

    My dealers have always given me a car for a few days to take home and see if it fits. Tends to make me decide to buy sooner.