We have interesting times in the auto sector. While there have been recent talks about slowdown, diesel tax issues, and cars not selling enough – either petrol or diesel; SIAM has also projected 9-11% growth of the industry. There are many car launches slated to happen this year that will make many car enthusiasts happy. Amidst all these, car manufacturers in India continue to focus on their social media initiatives to keep the engagement with customers and prospects high. It is encouraging to see Tata Nano opening up a merchandise store on ebay the other day. Global airlines have done it before to showcase their deals and it can be a good way to engage with customers. Car owners (at least some of the people I know and myself included) are always looking for some special deals or souvenirs of the car brands they owned or love. We have seen how strong and engaging are the car brand communities on Facebook. I won’t be surprised if Tata Nano and others start introducing more accessories with more online retailers. It is not as if the car owners are going to boost their revenues through this, but is a fun way of reaching out and providing value to customers. These matter when every player is out there doing the same thing in the social media space.
The auto sector is probably one of the top users of social media in India besides companies in other sectors like technology and lifestyle. Three years back, we would see just one or two experimenting online but now most companies are continuously keeping up with their engagements online. In the first Neilson McKinsey Social Media Brand Equity Rankings Index in early 2012, there were six auto companies in the top 20 list of companies with the best social media presence, and in the second report in Q3 2012, there were three. Ford was No. 2 in the first report and Maruti came up to No. 1 from 3 in the second report. Neilson said auto companies enjoy huge following on social media and there are a lot of reviews and multimedia sharing online. The first report saw a lot of car companies as their marketing initiatives peaked during the Diwali/ New Year time.
Obviously a lot of manhours, dedicated teams, and money are being pumped in to have a great online reputation. Why is this important? Are the car makers getting any sales online? More than direct sales, the online medium is used to create a favourable image of oneself – whether it be through creating communities and sharing unique/ interesting content, or addressing consumer complaint and queries. A 2011 Google report said that Indian consumers are ahead of US and Europe in using the Internet to research for car & bikes purchases and many Indian consumers use Internet as the first place to do their research before deciding on the vehicle of choice. So when somebody comes searching for information, the last thing you would want is a a list of negative publicity or unanswered complaints.
So what are our auto companies doing online? From what I have seen, these could be grouped into the following categories:
Social media platforms: Auto companies use social media platforms, particularly, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to build their own communities. Tata Nano, Maruti Ritz, Mahindra Scorpio, and Volkwagen India have some of the biggest fan pages on Facebook and obviously they are putting huge ad spends in building the communities. While the brands might have started these platforms to engage and converse the fans with ‘cool’ stuff, most of these have become customer redressal platforms, sort of a social CRM in other words. Not that there is anything bad in that. As a owner of a car of a particular brand, I wish to join a community where other owners are so that I can occasionally read up on their experience and share mine, and updates keep coming automatically on my news stream and I don’t have to have to go to their website.
Also another key point to note is how the auto players are trying to be innovative in the updates. There is so much you can talk about a car, so you now have to hook your fans interest in other ways viz. safety tips, driving tips, discussions around topical developments. The Maruti page has talked about our Olympic successes multiple times.
It is not just the hatchback and sedan manufacturers that are on Facebook. You wouldn’t have thought BMW might want to target the Facebook community and their clientele plays ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, but they recently celebrated their 1 million fan milestone. In fact globally, BMW, just like Coca Cola, turned a fan created page into its official community.
Hyundai is already on Google Plus and Pinterest. I would love to watch how the company will effectively utilize these platforms in the long run. Talking about additional platforms, Foursquare is one platform that can be used effectively to target all car drivers. They can check into various places at highways, milestones, and other interesting locations throughout the country and keep leaving tips for other drivers, for examples.
Campaigns: Campaigns are integral to social media marketing. They provide the crests in one’s annual engagement calendar and without them fan excitement dims. Campaigns are of two kinds that I have seen of majorly in the auto sector – one that involves real experiences of cars and multiplied online and the other, an online campaign that a fan can just sit at home and participate. The latter one is something you can easily do and get a lot of participation. But they might not necessarily create user experiences of your car, something which is the foundation of social media. I liked the Tata Nano Drive and Ford Discover Smart Drive concepts well as they involve actual drive experiences of fans. The former kind of campaigns I mentioned helps in certain situations say a teaser campaign, a safety campaign, or when you want to make a simple point fast. An example is Maruti’s latest ‘Kitna Deti Hai’ contest. Participants can enter details of which Maruti car they drive, how many kilometers clocked, and average run monthly and the app tells them how many money they have saved. I participated and the app told me i have saved more than Rs. 40,000 by driving a Maruti car. Hard to believe! How? When? But many people would loved it. Maybe it is a simple time pass and something nice that reassures you that you might have probably brought a car with good mileage.
Campaigns can win fans anything from a small merchandise to iPads, cameras, watches, or even a car sometimes. These provide fun for the community and keep them hooked.
What would be really interesting to see is how more and more companies are integrating their online campaigns and contests with other marketing initiatives – TV ads, billboards, posters, road shows? Only when everything is fully integrated, then I think they can make enough people to take notice. When Volkswagen did the ‘Anything for Jetta’ or when Maruti did the ‘Ritz Moments’ campaigns supported by traditional media spends, they were the talk of the town then. Running just an online version might just limit it to Facebook fans and probably those coming though ad clicks.
Online launches: Today you will hardly see any major launch without a live video being streamed on the company’s Facebook page or microsite. Companies also share the video embed codes with bloggers and website owners so that they can share the livestreaming from their own visitors. Particularly thanks to an aggressive local livestreaming company, the trend has caught on and companies today are exploring various options on how to do this in an innovative manner and whether they can go the extra mile in answering questions from their online viewers live from the stage.
Influencer relations: Way back in 2009 – 2010, very few auto companies talk about blogger relations, but look at the scenario now. There are many auto portals, auto blogs, auto forums, and auto sites of mainstream media and each of these auto influencers are being reached out to by the auto companies. Car test drives, programmes specially designed for these influencers, and invitation to events are a common thing today. Why are these influencers so important? Today we are living in a time when less than half of us as consumers trust ads. In a survey by Neilson in April 2012, 92% respondents trust recommendations from people they know and 70% trust information from consumer opinions posted online. And since the content from these influencers have high search visibility, prospective car buyers who are researching online are going to read their content in all probability and get influenced by it. But engagement has its own rules. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association guidelines are the most respected and followed by the best social media practitioners worldwide. You can request an influencer to review you car but cannot ask them to write positive about it, for example, I have spoken to many influencers and realise that they prefer writing for those companies who respect their independence.
Influencers need not just be auto experts. They can be travel, lifestyle, women, and tech bloggers as well. The trend is catching up and you see auto companies engaging with bloggers from all arena.
Online sale: Does all these engagement lead to sales? Probably nothing that one can show as a result yet. Probably we will see a ‘Take a test drive’ form on Facebook. Like many other companies, auto companies too need to balance how they are directing their communication among the prospective buyers and current customers. If you put in too much of a sales promotion content, you are sure to bore the current customers. But while all the companies try to strive balance, social media can be a good source of lead generation. You might see comparison tools in the Chevy Facebook page or Ford promoting its Midnight Sale on Facebook. The idea in these two instances might not be to get a sale from Facebook, but create awareness about their promotion and spread the buzz.
Lastly, it would be interesting to see how the various departments in each auto company are starting to use social media. Social media has to be a way of life within the organization and not just a tool of the marketing department or the communications department. A comprehensive social business planning needs to be in place. The customer service has to be in sync with the marketing and communications to answer fan queries. Support from the leadership team is paramount in insuring good focus on social media initiatives. A good understanding and thought leadership from the top can go a long way to highlight the organisation’s social outlook in the media and right fora. Dealors can play an important role. I once read how Ford in the US played its ‘Fiesta Movement’ videos at their dealors. HR team can start using social media to engage with prospective and current employees and look at how current employers are engaging with customers and prospects.
Disclaimer: I used to lead the Ford India social media account at the agency earlier.