By on June 9, 2017

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Facebook isn’t just a hotbed of meaningless virtue signaling, thinly veiled racism, political rants, and overly serious arguments with people you haven’t seen in several years. It’s also a great place for advertisers to spend their money — at least, that’s what the platform wants automobile manufacturers to believe. The social media site is trying to establish closer ties with the industry, and went so far as to send COO Sheryl Sandberg to Detroit to host the first Facebook Automotive Summit in five years.

However, if you’re anything like me, your feed is probably already clogged up with car ads. This morning’s limited browsing yielded placements for Jaguar and Genesis before asking me when I last drove a Hyundai. Facebook thinks it can do more, targeting the subset of its 2 billion users which could benefit automakers the most. While the website has stepped up its game, future ad investments will still suffer from runoff to zero-engagement click farms in countries like India, Egypt, and Brazil.

A large company might deem those losses acceptable, but does it really matter when so few people buy new cars online? 

“Our industries are converging. Detroit’s writing software and Silicon Valley is building hardware,” Sandberg told automotive professionals at a downtown theater. “The opportunities to learn from each other have never been better.”

According to Bloomberg, roughly 400 auto industry types were in attendance. There was also a women’s only event earlier in the day, co-hosted by General Motors chief executive Mary Barra, which garnered 200 sets of eyes and ears. Both of the meetings became an opportunity for Facebook to showcase itself as a precision advertising tool, citing examples where it sold data plans to GM customers with OnStar and wrangled potential sales leads for Cadillac dealerships. “We didn’t sell the cars,” Sandberg said. “What we do is build the platform.”

The automotive industry already pours tons of money into digital advertising. However, Facebook wants a larger piece of the pie. It can’t guarantee direct sales but, if it can target the correct audiences using computerized witchcraft, it could convince a shopper to consider a specific model in their comparative analysis. It can also identify individuals who are the most likely to make a purchase and usher you toward salespeople that will hunt them to the ends of the Earth in order to close a deal.

Facebook has always stated “No, we don’t sell any of your information to anyone and we never will.”

That’s not even close to accurate.

Facebook knows all of your friends, everything you’ve ever said about them, where you live, where you go on vacation, literally everything you’ve ever “liked” online, your purchasing habits, and what devices you use to browse. All of that coalesces into the purchasing of very specific advertising. And, while it might not hand over your phone number (which it also has) to dealerships, there’s no reason it cannot take it right up to the limit.

“The U.S. automotive industry is the second-largest spender on digital advertising behind retail. That makes it an enormously important target for Facebook,” Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst at EMarketer, explained by email. The research firm estimates that 71 percent of the auto industry’s total digital ad budget this year will go toward mobile. “Facebook obviously wants more of those mobile ad dollars.”

For the most part, people don’t buy cars online. However, virtual displays and panoramic interior videos are becoming commonplace. Television car ads are beginning to crop up online with links encouraging you to “find out more.” Most people may not purchase their car using the internet but there’s a good chance it helped them narrow down their final selection. Automakers know this.

“These are real, legitimate business partnerships now,” said Blake Beers, Facebook’s manager for the domestic auto industry. “We’ve gotten to the point where we actually are proving that we’re shifting business metrics.”

Automakers have begun using Facebook Live to broadcast video of vehicle unveilings that most people can’t attend, including Barra’s reveal of the Chevrolet Bolt at CES. Going live is always free but GM, as well as many of its rivals, have spent extra dough to ensure their videos appear in the news feeds of countless Facebook users. Who can say if it all equates to more sales? Still, the industry has deep pockets and isn’t afraid to reallocate a few billion dollars if it believes it can persuade you to visit the showroom.

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