NEW YORK - AutoNation CEO Michael Jackson wonders if social networking really is an awesome new way for auto makers and dealers to reach consumers in the digital age.

“Is it a fad, or will it really change things?” he asks at a National Automobile Dealers Assn./IHS automotive conference here. “Is it interesting, but not worth the money?”

Most attendees agree social media is the real deal and worth participating in, but not everyone is sure yet how best to use it to help sell more cars in an indirect, non-evasive way.

“We struggle with that all the time,” Tom Doll, executive vice president of Subaru of America, says in response to Jackson's questions.

To Subaru, social media has become more a way for customers to connect with the auto maker, “rather than us going to customers,” he says.

Most social-media experts agree it is ill-advised to use sites such as Facebook to list dealer inventories and deliver high-pressure sales pitches. If social-network sites are akin to friends gathered around a campfire, it's not the place to pass out business cards.

The auto industry is learning what works and what doesn't on social- media sites, says Bob Carter, a group vice president at Toyota.

“It's coming to light that social media is a difficult environment to get through a (marketing) message,” he says. “Our strategy has been to use traditional media to deliver a message and use social media to amplify it.”

Automotive use of social media “is still evolving,” Hyundai Motors America's sales chief Dave Zuchowski says, while emphasizing its importance. “It must be integrated in everything. You can't take a shotgun approach.”

Innovative cars such as the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle can draw the interest of social networkers, helping to advance new-product buzz, says Nissan North America Senior Vice President Brian Carolin.

“The whole social-media community was talking about the Leaf,” he says. “If we want to engage with Leaf customers, you can tap into that. But the use of social media will differ across the portfolio.”

Auto makers should help dealers cultivate their social-network sites and make them interesting, says Mike DeCecco, Dealer.com's director-business development.

“Dealerships are the auto makers' brands in local markets,” he says. “Someone said, ‘Why would anyone want to be a (social-media) friend with a dealer?’ Maybe they said that because dealer sites are not interesting enough. Friends are people we have something in common with.”

Accordingly, dealers should post life-style blogs, videos and the like on topics dear to their local customers, such as “skiing in the Northeast or rodeos in the West,” DeCecco says. “If you can make the car dealership interesting, you win.”

With social networking, “we've shifted from the Web built around information to the Web built around people,” says Doug Frisbie, automotive strategist for Facebook that boasts of 500 million users.

The 1990s were an era for Web browsing, the 2000s for searching and this decade for discovering through social-media “friends,” he says. “It has happened quickly.”

Millions of consumers are on Facebook talking about purchasing vehicles, Frisbie says. “Forty percent of them say friends' recommendations are the most important factor in their next auto purchase.”

Social media can accentuate what dealers “have been good at since the beginning,” says Dean Evans, Dealer.com's chief marketing director. “Dealers are people people. But things got depersonalized with ‘send-in-an-Internet-lead.’”

Modern marketing gives consumers relevant information they want and also talks to them online, he says.

The social networking is a fascinating phenomenon, says Sid DeBoer, chairman of the Lithia Motors, noting his dealership chain has 4 million people in its data base. “How do you use that to reach out, get more friends and be a better dealer?”

With his own Facebook page, DeBoer asks himself questions typical of social networkers. “You wonder who do you let in as friends and what do you post.”

Utah dealer and NADA Chairman Stephen Wade doesn't concern himself with such matters. “I still don't have a Facebook page, and I don't know if I want one.”

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