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The auto industry is slowly recognizing the value of social in seeding desire, creating differentiation, and promoting ongoing brand loyalty and advocacy. Industry experts have identified clear stages in a car buyer’s journey – and social has a role to play in each.

Use social to become their aspirational “dream car” and trigger a decision to buy

You could say that consumers are always in the “dream car” stage, in which they constantly evaluate which car they’d most like to own right now. That doesn’t mean a brand needs to make ultra-luxury cars – it simply means their cars must be aspirational, and social can help.

Ford’s Fiesta Movement helps make the model an aspirational car among Millennials. Four in ten Millennials won’t buy cars without others’ opinions – so Ford builds driver opinions directly into launch. The automaker provides 100 “agents” with a new Ford and sends them on a road trip full of missions – having them authentically share their experience in their social channels, and gathering all of this sharing into a campaign site. Illustrating their experiences paints the car as fun, young, and something worth talking (and even bragging) about – a highly important factor for Millennial buyers.

It doesn’t hurt to be a luxury brand in the dream stage. Audi attracts huge levels of engagement on Instagram among aspiring owners yet to own their first Audi model. The automaker gets 4.5 engagements per Instagram follower, averaging 34 comments per photo. Part of their success comes from playing by the rules of the network. While other car brands attempt to use Instagram as a direct marketing channel by pushing followers to their Facebook pages or the brand site, Audi focuses on posting great photos of their cars, and re-posting photos from their fans. Their photos seed desire in fans not yet ready to buy an Audi – placing the brand top of mind for when the buyer is ready to move to a luxury car.

Make their list of potential brands, and outshine comparable brands through consumer advocacy

Being a buyer’s dream car doesn’t mean you’ll make their realistic list of potential options when it comes time to buy. To make that list, Lexus Sweden uses authentic consumer reviews almost every conceivable channel: The brand site, Facebook, and traditional channels including magazines, newspapers, and billboards. Explains Anders Drakenberg, Marketing Manager for Lexus Sweden,

“We communicate with reviews instead of just using traditional marketing because authentic customer commentary is more trustworthy. People put more stock in what other people think and say about our products, not in what we think and say.

The numbers back him up: 99% of reviewers recommend their Lexus. A study showed that visitors to the company’s website who engaged with reviews had 35% more page views than those who did not, and spent 122% more time on the site.

Importantly, this support from consumers backs up what the brand’s own marketing says – helping it positively differentiate from the competition. Says Anders,

“Our main positioning for our brand is two-fold – high technology leadership and satisfied customers. And what better way to communicate that we have satisfied customers than for the customers to say it themselves?”

Provide an exceptional post-purchase experience and connect with passions to build lifetime loyalty

Connecting with drivers around their passions ties your brand to drivers’ lifestyles. BMW’s “Ultimate Drive” app lets users mark their favorite drives on a map and rate roads. Not only does the app link the BMW brand to passion for driving, it directs drivers to the roads that let them use their cars (and their engines) to the fullest – which and in turn makes them like their car more.

Ford connects with customers’ interests in a similar way on Twitter. The brand uses different accounts to serve the diverse personalities and interests of their different buyers. Tweets from @FordTrucks focus on performance and power, while tweets from @FordDriveGreen center on environmental discussion. And it’s working – one in nine tweets about cars talk about Ford.

And of course, a driver’s lifetime experience with their car determines whether they’ll return to the brand for their next model. Ongoing conversations in a public space not only foster that relationship, but show other potential buyers that the manufacturer cares. Lexus Sweden fully understands this, says Anders:

“This is another way of capturing information that has traditionally been provided through online surveys and phone interviews. The big difference is that with reviews, they know their comments are actually published and heard. Our objective is to take the customer experience beyond a rating of 5, to create active ambassadors for the company who spontaneously recommend us. The fact that we have such good results and recommendations is a good start, but the final destination is beyond that.”

Social has a role to play in every stage of car buying – and these brands are already benefitting from that conversation.