When social media marketing burst on the scene nearly a decade ago, just about every dealership immediately piled onto the bandwagon. We didn't all know exactly what we were doing; we just knew we had to do it because everyone else was doing it.

At the time I was with AutoNation and we spent a lot of money and time trying to figure out how to market our dealer brands effectively on social media. The biggest issue for us, and I believe for many other dealers, was the lack of attribution. It was impossible to identify exactly how many sales and service appointments could be tied back to a particular Facebook post or tweet.

I remember one day I got into it with a Twitter guru who called me a Neanderthal for questioning Twitter's marketing value for businesses. I asked him how many retailers he follows on Twitter. He left me alone after that.

Another issue was that social media experts defined success by metrics that mean nothing to auto dealers. The number of "Likes", views and interactions on a Facebook page doesn't have any correlation to the number of leads, appointments and sales that your dealership generates.

Yet, the power and allure of social media cannot be denied. Hundreds of millions of Americans log into their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other accounts on a daily basis; often several times a day. Then there are the millions of businesses that have been hugely successful increasing their brand presence, reaching and connecting with new audiences on various social media platforms.

As social media algorithms evolved, the use of organic postings to influence fans diminished, and the era of pay-to-play began. Your dealership can now display ads to targeted audiences and you'll get some basic metrics, such as how many people saw the ad and clicked on the ad. Granted, this is better than it used to be but how many appointments did that result in? What is your ROI?

If you are a dealer who has been frustrated with the lack of attribution from social media marketing, take heart. I have good news because another evolution in social media is underway and it's going to change everything.

This new era requires a shift from viewing social media as a unique medium that requires clever and funny postings, sharing viral videos and lots of friends in order to be successful. Instead, view social media as another channel through which you convey the same marketing messages that you are already doing successfully using other channels, such as email, direct mail, text or phone.

But wait! I can hear the social media experts shouting already. Consumers don't like it when you try to sell to them on social media.

This is true if you're trying to sell to customers who aren't in the market for a new vehicle. It's also true for customers who have no relationship with you at all. But it's not true for all of your customers, or for in-market vehicle shoppers.

Let's say a customer purchased a vehicle from you a year ago and is due for their first 15,000-mile service. They may appreciate seeing a friendly reminder in their Facebook feed, along with an offer from your dealership for that exact service.

Likewise, if Mary is in the market for a new vehicle and has been researching SUVs, she may respond to a gorgeous photo of a SUV while she's browsing Instagram. When she clicks on it, she is brought to a landing page on your website where she can view an inventory video or virtual test drive.

This is the next evolution in social media marketing, and it's all possible now thanks to marketing automation technology and data analytics. Dealers can match customers in their DMS to social media profiles, track their online behavior and serve up automated, custom ads and offers to individuals at the exact right time in their buying or ownership lifecycle.

The best part is the attribution. Dealers can attribute service ROs, vehicle sales, revenue and other activity back to specific ads that were displayed to specific customers.

Finally, social media has grown up and joined the ranks of other proven marketing channels. For dealers that like to know the ROI of their marketing spend, it should be a glorious new era.

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