LAS VEGAS – Social media is a great way to drive sales at a dealership, if there is a clearly defined plan in place.

So says Jeremiah Owyang, partner of consulting-firm Altimeter Group speaking at the Driving Sales Executive Summit here.

“Focusing on tools and technologies is dangerous and unfruitful, especially since they change every few months,” he tells dealers. “Go back to your business goals and structure your social-media goals around them.”

When outlining social-media goals, it’s important to stop and think about how deep a dealer wants to delve into the strategy. The more involved he is, the more time and effort it takes. The first step in building the best strategy is to determine who his customers are, where they are and what they care about, Owyang says.

Also key is understanding what vehicles customers have purchased in the past and why, and how they use social technology by following what Owyang calls an “engagement pyramid.”

The bottom tier is watching consumers online to see what content they are reading. “It may be reviews or ratings about your dealership,” he says. Next comes sharing, such as Twitter tweets, Facebook postings, emails or anything consumers use “to pass information on to each other on a trusted network.”

This is followed by monitoring comments, especially consumers who give feedback on particular experiences or opinions. The Baby Boomer generation is heavy into commenting, Owyang says. “They love to leave their opinion to show others.”

The next stop is monitoring consumers who blog, upload videos or create other original content on the Web. While smaller in number, this group is more influential than others.

The top tier is fan forums, dedicated to particular brands such as GM, Ford or Toyota. Although they represent only 1% of the online community, consumers who conduct forums are considered “super influencers,” Owyang says.

Monitoring the different tiers is tricky but can be done in a number of ways, including signing up for Google Alerts, a free service that identifies certain keywords and sends correlating content via email.

There are also paid services that provide more thorough details on consumer activity, such as Radian 6 and Visible Technologies.

Once a strategy is developed, Owyang says dealers should engage consumers in dialogue. Rather than just send email blasts with the latest sales or vehicle inventory lists, it’s important to listen to what car buyers have to say and reply to them on a personal level.

“We need to act like buyers – passionate, constant, intimate and loyal,” he says. “You have to touch them weekly or monthly.”

Dealers’ first instinct “is to use traditional marketing to spew out content on social channels,” Owyang says. “I’m here to warn you they’ll tune you out if you only do that. You have to act like they do.”

He cites several auto makers that have made great strides in personally engaging consumers via social media, including Ford Motor Co. with its Fiesta Movement campaign and General Motors Co., which personally responds to consumer concerns on Facebook.

As a social-media strategy begins to take form, Owyang urges dealers to “benchmark your progress based upon your business goals, not (consumer) engagement data. Change your mind set. Letting go will yield more results.”

bpope@wardsauto.com