LAS VEGAS – Online discussion groups are freer than before. People can say pretty much anything within reason without their comments getting zapped.

Ralph Paglia remembers a time of greater restrictions, particularly if an auto maker were hosting a discussion group, and things got critical.

“In the old days, if someone on, say, a General Motors website said, ‘I have a problem with the brakes on my GM car,’ the moderator would delete that,” he tells WardsAuto. “Not anymore.” Now, someone from GM likely would respond.

The social-networking phenomenon has ushered in a wider exchange of information and opinions, notes Paglia, vice president of Tier10 Marketing, a firm that offers online services to auto dealers.

As social media has become more open and powerful, its influence on car-buying has increased. Most car consumers research and shop online, many of them visiting social-media sites.

One of four auto buyers use social media to post comments about a newly purchased vehicle, while 44% remark on vehicles in general, says a Dealer.com study.   

Today, people aren’t allowed to throw Molotov cocktails into cyberspace, but they can say a lot, from panning dealers to complaining about brakes, without fear of censorship. Many online discussion groups still are moderated but not like before.

“All of our forums are managed, because you have to look out for flamers who are disruptive everywhere,” says Jerry Orban, a vice president at VerticalScope, which runs several automotive consumer websites, such as AutoGuide.com.

But consumers who aren’t arsonists are encouraged to share their thoughts and buying experiences.

And many of them do. No topic is too mundane, Orban says. “People can get down deep in discussions about door locks or valve covers.”

He and other experts discuss modern marketing during a recent J.D. Power and Associates conference session here entitled, “In-Market Shoppers and Social Media: Gathering Information for Purchase Decisions.”

Auto makers have a social-media advantage over other industries because many consumers are passionate about their cars and often express their feelings online, says Robert Brown, Nissan North America’s senior manager-social media marketing.

“People have ties to their cars, so we’re lucky,” he says. “We try to think of content strategies and turn those into conversations, then sales.”

It requires resisting the temptation to try to control the brand during online conversations, Orban says. “Your whole organization has to take up that idea.”

Straight talk helps, too. “If you talk to people like you advertise to them, they’d punch you in the face,” Brown says. “People don’t always want to hear in your discussions what the Nissan Altima’s monthly payment is.”

Social-media discussions about car-buying should include the people who sell them, says Todd Stainbrook, who heads an automotive unit for Myspace.

“Where does the dealer fit in that conversation?” he says. “Auto companies work on having social media and reputation management for themselves, but you need dealers in the conversation, because you don’t sell cars without them.”  

The conversation may flow and include many people, but when purchase time nears, “it becomes a 1-on-1 relationship,” says Danielle Russell of Google. “It’s like any relationship; you have to work on it.”

An online customer relationship presents challenges to auto makers and dealers “because ultimately it comes down to specific questions.”    

Despite the Internet’s role in how car consumers shop, at some point they must get offline and visit a dealership, says Lincoln Merrihew, managing director-transportation for Compete, an online marketing firm.

“It is a unique industry, because you need to go into the showroom and experience the product,” he says. “There’s also the trade-in, another thing unique to the car industry. When you buy a plane ticket, you don’t trade one in for it.”

Consumers are selective in sharing information, says Merrihew, who likens social media as a digital form of graffiti.

“People put all sorts of personal information on Facebook, but they are reluctant to put anything about themselves in a lead submission to a dealer,” he says.

Auto makers face similar reservations, Orban says. “If a manufacturer is online and being social, there’s a certain wariness that it is just interested in promoting the brand.”

Facebook is the giant of social-media sites. Myspace is smaller, but draws younger users. “We want to celebrate that youth culture, rather than try to be what we are not,” Stainbrook says.

He adds, “Everyone is sharper than they were a couple of years ago. You’ve got to be authentic.”

Hot new vehicles can thrill young people who are heavy Internet users, Orban says. “They can engage in intense online discussions about a particular car. Then they talk to their parents and discover they can’t afford it.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com