Social media is a “huge phenomenon that is not going away – it’s here to stay,” says John Holt, CEO of the Cobalt Group Inc., a digital automotive marketing firm.

Accordingly, dealers shouldn’t sit on the sidelines while the rest of the world plays the social-media game, he says. “The question is: What’s the right way for dealers to use it.”

It’s inexpensive for a dealer to maintain the likes of a Facebook page, Holt says. But he doesn’t see waves of customers drawn to such dealer Web connections. “They are not looking for a relationship like that with a dealership.”

Still, it is another channel for customer contact. “You want to provide every path to a sale that you can,” he says. “But I wouldn’t give up a website to get a Facebook page.”

Consumers are interacting more with dealers online, says, Steve Anenen, president, ADP Dealer Services, pointing to social media as “another way to reach out.”

Social media can help dealers establish long-term relationships with consumers.

But the downside is that a customer with an ax to grind can use that social network as a way to hurt a dealer’s reputation, whether it’s deserved or not.

For dealers, social media is “really about reputation management,” says Kevin Henahan, ADP’s vice president-marketing.

“It is not about selling cars or sales people blogging to customers. Studies indicate that won’t work,” he says. “It’s about taking control of your brand.”

ADP offers various social-media services. One of them is monitoring websites, looking for negative and positive comments about particular dealers.

“If it is negative, you jump on it fast and try to fix the problem,” Henahan says. “If people are saying good things, you want to amplify it. That will drive sales.”

Dealerships are pursuing social-media strategies, although some skeptical dealers are not sold on the idea, says a study by GOSO, a Web and social-media firm.

The study claims 25.5% of all dealerships have a Facebook page and 10.9% have a Twitter account. This does not include the large numbers of dealers who have created user accounts for their dealerships.

The total number of dealerships on Facebook amounts to 5,155; the total on Twitter, 2,195.

The top automotive brand on Facebook is Chrysler followed by Buick, Chevrolet, Mazda and Jeep, the study says.

The top auto brand on Twitter is Toyota, then Chevrolet, Honda, Nissan and Ford.

The study says the Internet’s most searched automotive brand is BMW, followed by Ford, Honda, Lincoln and Mini Cooper.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com