LOS ANGELES – Mistakes were made. Erich Marx admits that as director of interactive and social media marketing for Nissan North America.

But he savors the successes, saying they outnumber the stuff that didn’t go so well. Regrets, there’ve been a few. Enough for him to mention during a candid conference presentation titled “Living on the Edge: Successes and Lessons Learned in Social Media.” 

“Get a plan or get lost,” Marx tells attendees of the 2014 Automotive Social Media Summit here as he hammers home the importance of a social-media strategy.

Nissan prides itself as an early adopter that seeks new ways to engage online with consumers, makes small bets on emerging trends and tolerates short-term flubs if lessons learned aid long-term success.

Just as automakers compete to sell cars, they also vie for the attention of people using social-media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram. There are a lot of users, but also a multitude of channels.

“The digital space is unbelievably cluttered,” Marx says. “We have to try new things to remain competitive. It’s critical for brands to be innovative and exciting in the social space with new ideas and content that keeps consumers engaged.”

Social media is about interactions, not transactions, he says, warning against using the likes of Facebook to tout big sales events or $199-a-month lease deals.

“Facebook should be about experiencing the brand in a non-threatening way.”

Much has gone right for Nissan in its social-media effort. For instance, Marx fondly recalls Project Z, in which the automaker invited Internet users to weigh in on how to beef up the 370Z sports car.

Participants on the Nissan Performance Facebook page voted on ways to radically enhance the car’s performance and design. Using the winning specs, a tuner shop went to work, creating what's billed as the world’s first crowd-sourced customized car.

Nissan plans to do something similar when the redesigned Titan pickup debuts next year. “If it works, figure out a way to do it again,” Marx says.

He also tells of a publicity event that seemed to go awry, but actually turned out fine.

“We had put a new Nissan Versa Note in a giant Amazon box and delivered it to someone in Wisconsin. We had a camera crew shoot it, with the intention of running it later.”

The video would reveal just what was inside that big box on the bed of a truck parked on a Madison street. But a neighbor photographed the subcompact-in-the-box surprise and posted it online.

“It was like, ‘This is horrible. What about our video?’” Marx says. “Then we stopped and said, ‘Wait, this is cool.’”

He cites a lesson learned there: “The consumer owns social. Brands don’t. In social spaces, you don’t control it. It ended up great in this case, but it could go wrong in another. So be prepared.”

Then there was the time when Nissan pranked Toyota after it announced three days in advance it planned to reveal the redone Camry sedan on Twitter. But Toyota didn’t buy any search-engine terms tied to that event. So Nissan did. Consequently, some Camry clicks took people to a Web page featuring segment competitor Nissan Altima.

It was funny. Well, kind of. Marx and his colleagues did high-fives. But Toyota was not amused. In retrospect, “I wouldn’t do it again,” he says. A lesson for all: “Protect your turf.”

Sometimes seemingly good ideas go bad. One such occasion was at the Chicago Auto Show three years ago when Nissan used Hangouts, then a relatively new Google+ tool for live online video broadcasts.

Technical snags messed up that effort. “It was a disaster,” Marx says. “A live event is a challenging atmosphere to try out new tools.”  

As part of a social-media plan, he recommends setting aside a small budget for experimentation, remembering core marketing principles and exploring partnerships with innovators.

“People ask, ‘What’s the ROI?’ I turn it around and ask, ‘What’s the COI, the cost of ignoring?’”  He predicts marketers eventually will figure out how to measure social media’s return on investment. “But it is not clearly defined now.”

He also foresees a day when automakers use social media for proprietary consumer research, with the feedback shaping product development. “We’re not quite there yet. I’m not sure anyone is.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com