LOS ANGELES – After Zender Ford’s Twitter account got hacked, the dealership unwittingly began tweeting pitches for a weight-loss program. Chad Zender saw an opportunity.

“It turned out well,” says the Canadian dealer. “We changed the password and then reached out to our 3,400 followers.”
After all, staying in touch with just cause is an element of strong social-media marketing.

Zender has planned and executed an ambitious social-network effort for his Alberta store west of Edmonton, using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. “We made the decision to invest and put a large effort in social media,” he says.

Doing that from scratch two years ago has not occurred without incident. He discusses the trials and tribulations in a presentation entitled “Strategic and Tactical Challenges of Social Media at the Dealership” during the 2014 Automotive Social Media Summit here.

For one thing, it took him a while to find the right hire to handle the “social stuff” internally. That person is overqualified, well-paid, open-minded, fully supported and reports directly to him, Zender says.

Not all is done in-house. “We felt we lacked the skills to produce videos well,” says the second-generation dealer who also farmed out search-engine marketing and search-engine optimization.

“Outsource that which you do not understand or know,” Zender recommends.

The dealership is on the lookout for potential leads stemming from social-media sources. For instance, a local woman sent word to the Twitter-sphere that she wanted to buy a car. Zender Ford hopped on that, suggesting she stop in.

She ended up tweeting she was signing papers at Zender Ford for a new Focus. “This is what we are trying to cultivate,” Zender says. “But it’s difficult.”

After working as the dealership’s new-car manager for 10 years, he took over from his father in 2011. The son recently oversaw a 2-year, $12 million rebuilding project.

The store’s Facebook page heralded the grand reopening as a big event. Online activities included a share-your-story contest. Participants included people down on their luck. The chosen entrant won a new Focus compact car. A video of the giveaway went to YouTube.

The grand reopening promotion “cost a bit, but, after all, we gave a car away,” Zender says. “We got huge positive vibes from that.”

Building and maintaining an active Facebook presence require more than just flipping the switch and lighting up the sky. It’s a gradual effort. In retrospect, Zender’s expectations were too high.

“We didn’t get much engagement when we first started with Facebook,” he says. “Now, we are getting that, especially with people asking service questions. But I was expecting a gush at first.”

The dealershp’s YouTube posts dominate its market and have tallied 40,000 views. Zender credits videos for some direct sales. He recalls doing his first shoot on a cold Canadian day. “It was -15º Celsius (5º Fahrenheit) and I was standing outside talking about a car. It was brutal.”

Measurable successes from social-media efforts include a 100% increase in Internet leads since 2012, an online lead-conversion rate at a healthy 15% and an all-leads conversion rate of 30%. That’s 10 points higher than 2012.          

But it’s sometimes tough to analyze and make sense of all the metrics, Zender says. “There are too many experts. It’s mind-boggling sometimes.”

Among unmeasurable social-media successes he includes the cultivation of creativity, such as how the store turned the Twitter hack job into a marketing opportunity.

Conference host Charlie Vogelheim asks if, after the unauthorized weight-loss pitch, the dealership tweeted something like: “Consider buying a fullsize pickup from us.”

No, it didn’t, Zender says. “But that’s a good idea.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com