Social Media: It's the Wild, Wild West for the Auto Industry

Last Updated Feb 23, 2011 4:10 PM EST

Everyone now understands just how powerful social media can be -- it's helped topple despots in the Middle East. But the automakers figured out how useful Twitter, Facebook and YouTube could be a while ago. Despite that, social media for cars is still a work in progress.

Want proof? Then check out this questionably useful set of infographics from Mashable (Numbers! Circles! Number and circles! And colors!) that runs down the efforts of the (formerly) Big Three, Toyota (TY) and Honda. Ford (F) was really the first automaker to get social media religion, professionalizing it by hiring a guy who is now widely recognized as the thought leader in the space, Scott Monty. But the competition has followed suit.

If you don't do social media, social media will do you
General Motors (GM) was late to the game (it had some pesky financial issues to deal with last year), although it created a corporate blog in 2004. Chrysler has struggled simply to stay on consumers' radar as a brand, much less a company that does cool things with Facebook. Both Honda and Toyota have been burned by social media, the latter quite seriously when it rapidly lost control of the conversation about its recalls last year on Twitter.

The core problem is that while social media is proving to be massively popular -- Facebook now brags that it has more users than Google -- it's also extremely hard to understand. Even power-tweeters are often unsure of what's really going on in their fragmented, 140-character realm. Imagine that you're trying to use that medium to support a 100-year-old brand that sells its products for tens of thousands of dollars and operates a billion-dollar global enterprise.

A million conversations that add up to nothing
How can something so important and so enticing to automakers be such a crapshoot? Well, Chrysler can't complain about 8.5 million YouTube views of its Eminem Super Bowl commercial. Nor can Ford be too unhappy about its more than 50,000 Twitter followers -- and that's just for the main brand, not including the numerous Ford employees who tweet the company's message.

Social media lets the carmakers maintain a running dialogue with current and future customers. It also provides a way for them to address complaints, even within the social media environment. Ford's Monty did just that recently on the hot startup Q&A site Quora, when questions were raised about the casting of Ford's Focus Rally online reality broadcast.

The drawback is that social media is a very young form of communication. Carmakers have always spent money on advertising with no clear means of measuring return on investment, but funding social media is a whole new ball game.

Hundreds of tweets and Facebook updates can be launched into the void. A social media campaign can create as many problems as it solves, if the content takes a controversial turn. Unfortunately, social media addicts have a built-in detector for bland brand messages and will switch off the feed without a second thought.

The day of reckoning is nigh
The Wild West was the Wild West, as screenwriter William Goldman says in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade, only for a short period in the late 1800s (he was writing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). For the automakers, their big cowboy status in social media could soon be put to the test, as metrics and data enter the field and put a damper on the party.

Social media outlets are also proliferating, so it's only a matter of time before the cold, hard realities of startup financing and a miserable IPO market narrow the car companies' options.

For the moment, however, the automakers are well-positioned. They can tap into an active base of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube obsessives who will gladly volunteer to promote brands like Chevy and Ford -- for free. Social media platforms provide them with new spaces where they can place ads that can then be accurately measured in terms of success. But will it all translate into higher sales and steady profits? That's a much bigger question.

Image: Twitter