Auto Marketers Take Note: Real Relationships Still Rule in a Digital Marketplace


Today's auto marketers, like other categories, are continually enhancing their competitiveness by investing in the very latest in social media channels. Many are beginning to wonder, however if these sites provide a realistic return on their marketing investment.

In the face of this concern, there is significant evidence that consumers, particularly auto buyers, increasingly rely on the advice and recommendations of family and friends when they make buying decisions — i.e. word-of-mouth conversations.

There are more than 125 million word of mouth impressions about auto brands each and every day, and more than 90% of them take place offline. "Word of mouth" (WOM) is not a relic of the past. It is very much alive and kicking in 2013.

In a recent study conducted with MarketShare, we found that WOM drives sales directly, and makes marketing campaigns up to 54% more effective. No wonder McKinsey calls word of mouth "the most disruptive force in marketing."

The question then is what is the best way to spark WOM about your automotive brand, service or product? Unfortunately, we see too many marketers put the cart before the horse, debating the channels in which to communicate before even evaluating what their brand story is and if it is "talk worthy."

It's important to flip the current approach and start the creative process with the story, not the channel. What do consumers talk about when they talk about your brand, product or service? What information or experiences can you share with them that's new, exciting, emotional or valuable? That's the key to sparking conversations. Your message will only be shared if it makes them smarter and gives them something interesting and relevant to talk about.

Then, tap into the right talkers. These are the most influential people who will share information about your brand, product or service. Understand who they are, what motivates them, and where they seek out information.

Only then is it time to choose the right channels, and there are multiple channels that help to spark conversation. All media are social, and the primary goal of all marketing should be to help activate conversation. Contrary to what the marketing trade press suggest, the media channel that drives the most conversation in the auto category is television — yes, television is a hugely social medium — followed by company websites and online reviews. When you plan media to drive word of mouth, start with what works in the real world and be guided by facts, not hype.

Audi is a brand that understands this. We interviewed Scott Keogh, President of Audi USA when writing The Face-to-Face Book. He understands that the investment in a new ad campaign is directly linked to its word-of-mouth potential.

"Advertising is really a conversation starter. If it's good, the conversation will keep moving online and move into the coffee shops and the golf clubs. If it's not any good, you'll know right away that it's a dead-end conversation."

With that philosophy in mind, Audi invested in the 2011 Super Bowl, launching its "Release the Hounds" campaign poking fun at old luxury — specifically Mercedes-Benz. The investment paid off as word-of-mouth for Audi nearly tripled in the week after the Super Bowl. But this was not just a one week wonder for Audi. In fact, Audi's word of mouth has grown consistently each year from 2009 through 2012, and the quality of those conversations has grown dramatically during that time period too; more WOM, and more positive WOM. Its advertising plays a big role in driving those conversations. Keogh's push to insure his marketing investment drives conversation — "What can we get conversations around and where can we get them started?" — is paying handsome dividends for Audi.

While advertising is the number one marketing touch point that finds its way into consumer conversation, digital media is important too. Company websites are the second most talked about touch point in automotive word of mouth, followed by rating and review sites. Importantly, the people who talk about rating and review sites are twice as likely as the public as a whole to be word of mouth influencers in the auto sector.

Today's consumer marketplace is being driven by social influence. It's critically important to realize that the consumers are social in every facet of their lives. For marketers, there is a very exciting opportunity to find the right story that will compel people to talk, and mostly they will talk face-to-face. Unleashing the power of these face-to-face conversations will reap huge rewards. This is where the next social revolution will be fought and the battle for business success will be won.

Ed Keller is CEO of the Keller Fay Group, a market research and consulting firm specializing in word of mouth and social influence. Keller's newest book, The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace was co-authored with Brad Fay and published in 2012. Keller is a past president of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and of the Market Research Council. In 2011, he was awarded a Great Mind Award from the Advertising Research Foundation, where he was a long-time Board member.

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