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Erich Marx, Director of Interactive Marketing and Social Media at Nissan, has been with the company for 22 years. When a student at the University of Michigan, Marx fell in love with cars and the car industry. From calling on dealers to working in vehicle distribution, he’s done it all. Over the last ten years he focused on marketing through a series of various jobs. More than two years ago, when the direction from management came to “put Nissan on the map when it comes to social media,” Marx took on the new task. With a team of three and some budget Marx did just that – put the company on the map among the car enthusiasts community.

Image“It started out with building a community. It was about building an organic audience and meaningful relationships at first,” says Marx. And so it is. Today the total size of Nissan’s social communities is in the millions. “It’s all about being an engaging brand,” he stresses.

Nissan got its push-start in the social space when it launched a hundred percent electric Nissan Leaf, the vehicle with zero emissions. Nissan Leaf was a huge catalyst for the company in the social space because it had a built-in following, a green movement of very socially active and savvy customers who embraced the car and what it stood for. And the company never looked back.

So what are some of the lessons that Marx and his team learned over the past several years?

Tap into your customer’s passions.

Nissan has a motor sports and sports car heritage, and it has a very passionate following that some of the other brands out there may not have. When it comes to the Nissan Z car series, the company has tapped into a performance fan community in an interesting way. “We learned very quickly that we could get a very strong level of engagement if we were celebrating our brand’s performance heritage and the fact that our cars are fun to drive,” says Marx.

Nissan runs a number of programs geared towards that unique community of the sports car fans. One of the things the company found is that almost every member of that community is a do-it-yourself enthusiast and had a “project” in their garage that they were tinkering with. So in 2012, the company tapped into that passion for rebuilding classic cars by introducing Project 370Z, the first ever social media build of a classic car. Over eight weeks, Nissan gave its community a choice of the car to restore, the parts to use, and the colors to paint, to build the car from the ground up together. They videotaped the entire build and shared the progress with the community as they went along, encouraging votes and engagement throughout.

But that wasn’t all. After the car was built, Nissan chose the lucky winner from the community to actually drive and debut it at ZDayz, a huge annual Z convention in Tennessee. Motor Trend was so intrigued by the project, they offered to bring the car to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in February 2013 to race against “the ultimate garage mechanic,” a fan who built his own 370Z. This organically extended Nissan’s reach and helped grow their community among the race enthusiast community.

“It’s not about transaction, it’s about interaction,” says Marx. It’s about building a deeper bond so that the fans become true advocates. “We want to turn their fandom into advocacy and evangelism.”

ImageDon’t just build a community, build an authentic community

“It’s very easy to build a Facebook community by just running sweepstakes and by giving away product and money. But at the end of the day you won’t end up with an engaged fan base, rather the community that doesn’t care about your brand as much as free stuff,” says Marx. Nissan didn’t give away anything, they didn’t bother with gimmicks. What they did was tap into the passions of the community through programs like Project 370Z to bring the right people into it.

Know why your community wants to engage with you

“People follow Nissan for one reason – they love our cars. And when we talk about anything other than our cars, our engagement levels with our fans drop notably,” says Marx. “We are doing a lot of wonderful things in various areas, but we only get half the engagement with those topics than when we talk about our cars.” Fueling the passions of your community members with the relevant content is extremely important for long-term relationships between brands and fans. Focus your messaging around what your community wants to hear and stay true to that.

Cost of ignoring social media is high

Marx talks a lot about COI – cost of ignoring. “There is a cost of ignoring the billion people who have chosen to participate, engage and communicate on social media platforms. And even though I can’t tell you today that I’ve sold exactly a hundred cars through our social media activities, what I can tell you is that I am building deeper relationships and advocacy around my brand, I can tell you that I am not ignoring our fans and the chosen platforms of communication. You will pay a cost if you don’t embrace social media for customer support, community engagement, and issue resolution.”

What’s next? Marx sees two distinct trends. One is using social media for service and support in an effective way. More and more customers are expecting brands to be accessible in real-time to help address concerns and answer questions. Another trend is social research that harnesses community knowledge that fans and advocates have about cars, the auto industry, and product ideas.  

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The Big Brand Theory is a weekly, exclusive column for Social Media Today that explores the social media strategies of big brands, both B2B and B2C. Look for the next installment next Monday morning. Logos by Jesse Wells.