Social media websites, once an outlet for technophiles to share their innermost thoughts, daily occurrences and personal photos with the online community, are attracting the attention of auto makers in a big way.

The most prominent among these, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, all are names that have become part of the American lexicon. They also are becoming another tool in the auto marketers’ bag of tricks.

When used correctly, such websites can be an effective, and inexpensive, way to reach a large number of consumers, marketers say. Auto makers particularly are interested in the Millennials, an age group typically defined as those born between 1980 and 2000 that largely ignore traditional marketing techniques.

According to the L2 Digital IQ Index, which studies the effectiveness of social media campaigns, 73% of light-vehicle brands maintain at least one Facebook page, 70% have a YouTube channel and 60% use a Twitter account.

Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.’s top marketer and architect of the highly successful Fiesta Movement online campaign, says social media marketing messages are a way around the negative perception the public has of big corporations, much of it due to the economic recession and a litany of corporate scandals.

“Today, we see that 77% of people trust (big) companies less than they did a year ago,” Farley tells Ward’s. “We have an unprecedented amount of skepticism.”

The Fiesta Movement, launched in April 2009, has set the bar when it comes to gauging the effectiveness of automotive social media campaigns, says Christopher Barger, director of global social media for General Motors Co.

“I think it’s a remarkable demonstration of the power of social media,” Barger says. “They took a small car from an American manufacturer that’s not necessarily ‘buzz-worthy’ and turned it into a player. For companies on the outside who haven’t done something like that, it’s something to look at.”

The idea behind the Fiesta Movement, designed to create awareness of the new Fiesta B-car, which will launch sales in the U.S. later this year, was simple: put 100 Euro-spec cars in the hands of mostly young people who are adept at social media and assign them a variety of “missions” that are documented on various websites.

Themes of the missions included volunteerism, adventure and style and design.

Choosing the right people to participate, dubbed “agents,” was crucial for the campaign to succeed, Farley says. “Their world is sharing content. That’s what they like to do. If you pick the right people and give them a cool experience, that’s the one-two punch.”

The 9-month-long Fiesta Movement wound down in November after generating significant interest in the upcoming small car. Ford says the campaign resulted in 6,000 order reservations from all 50 states and 100,000 hand-raisers, 97% of which do not drive a Ford product.

Additionally, through an accompanying nationwide test-drive program, more than 162,000 consumers have seen the Fiesta in first person or through online interactions, while 35,000 have taken a test drive, the auto maker says.

Farley says he’ll use social media to promote future Ford vehicles but declines to divulge details. He admits receiving some criticism for launching the Fiesta Movement more than a year before the vehicle was due here, but says an online campaign takes time to build momentum.

Margaret Brooks, Chevrolet marketing director for small cars, is taking a different tact with the Chevrolet Cruze C-car, scheduled to launch in the U.S. in August. Although larger than the Fiesta and likely to appeal to both young and older consumers, the Cruze is an excellent candidate for a social-media marketing campaign, she says.

“We think social media is critically important as a way of creating excitement around the brand, helping build awareness and also for getting customer engagement and letting customers have their own dialogue,” Brooks tells Ward’s.

Chevrolet will launch a social media campaign to promote a variety of new products at next month’s South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, TX.

The campaign, “See the USA in a Chevrolet: A SXSW Road Trip,” emulates the Fiesta Movement in that participants receive a Chevy vehicle and must complete 10 different tasks while making their way to the festival from various parts of the country.

Eight teams will participate, with ideas for the tasks submitted by social media “fans and followers” of the campaign, Chevy says, noting chosen tasks will be revealed on March 8. Throughout their journey to the festival, participants will be judged on a number of criteria, Barger says.

“Twenty-five percent of the scoring process to determine the ‘winners’ of the contest will be the interaction they have with the (online) community along the way,” he says. “This will be measured in the number of ‘tweets’ they do, the number of times they respond to someone else's tweet and the number of times their (tweets are reposted by others).”

Participants also will be required to regularly post to Chevy’s Facebook page, he says, noting winners will receive a GM-sponsored “Tweetup,” an organized gathering of people that use Twitter.

Barger says events such as the road trip helps strengthen the auto maker’s relationship with online consumers by letting them chat among themselves, a strategy that can be rewarding and frightening at the same time.

“We don’t control what audiences are going to like,” he says. “That’s a scary thought for a lot of us, because our whole careers have been built on creating things people like.”

Ford and Chevy are not alone in jumping headfirst into the social media marketing fray.

Most auto makers, both in the U.S. and abroad, either are participating in such marketing or making plans to do so, which potentially could lead to oversaturation, turning off the very consumers they are seeking to attract, some industry experts say.

The secret to preventing social media campaigns from morphing into just another marketing gimmick is honesty, says Michael Sprague, Kia Motor America vice president-marketing. “There was a statistic that said 70% of all new content on the Web is social media, and it seems it’s going to continue,” he tells Ward’s. “But you have to be honest; you have to be transparent.

“Consumers can see through the advertising or marketing speak,” Sprague adds, noting a YouTube video featuring the animated hamsters used in Kia’s TV spot advertising the Soul cross/utility vehicle has received more than a million hits.

“(Through) social media, we hope to communicate our message, but also listen to consumers to help us make our products better,” he says.

Subaru of America Inc., which maintains both a Facebook and Twitter page, is careful not to appear to be trying to sell something, says Subaru spokesman Michael McHale. “I don’t want to go on Facebook and see one of my ‘friends’ trying to sell me something. I want to see them inform me. I want to see them educate me or entertain me.”

GM’s Barger says auto makers have to gain the trust of customers when it comes to using social media. “You have to earn your credibility,” he says. “There’s an automatic cynicism that comes about if you come across (as a corporate marketer).”

But the effectiveness of marketing through social media – allowing consumers to discuss products in a public forum – can backfire, especially when emotions come into play. Such was the case with an American Honda Motor Co. Inc. Facebook page dedicated to the Accord Crosstour.

The new CUV’s polarizing design drew some biting criticism, including: “A definite ‘cross out’ in any prospective car buyers list,” and “I guarantee you that somebody will get fired because of this car.”

The negativity apparently prompted Eddie Okubo, Honda product manager-light trucks, to comment on the Crosstour’s virtues without disclosing his affiliation with the auto maker. But his true identity quickly was uncovered, forcing Honda to remove his posts and issue an apology.

Despite the gaffe, Honda has no plans to abandon the social media realm, says Executive Vice President John Mendel. “If you’re going to put something up, best face forward is probably better,” he says, arguing the images shown on the Crosstour page didn’t do the vehicle justice.

While most auto makers believe social media is a cost-effective method of marketing, none are willing to disclose total savings. However, Mendel reveals some 25%-30% of Honda’s marketing efforts are via social media, while Farley tells Ward’s about 25% of Ford’s global media buy now is digital.

Industry skeptics remain unconvinced social media is a relevant way for auto makers to connect with customers, questioning whether the popular online movement is here to stay or merely a fad.

“I think it’s fair to say social media will evolve, but won’t go away,” says Chevy’s Brooks. “Since the advent of the Internet, there have been mechanisms for people to communicate and they continue to evolve.”

Says Farley: “I don’t think its fly-by-night. We have less time in our lives than ever, and our need to reach out to other humans has never been greater because of the stress in our lives. I think social media plays a critical role. It’s a sense of belonging.”

bpope@wardsauto.com