Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve heard of Zipcar – the car-sharing service that allows members to book and borrow a car in their local area. It grew up from a small Boston startup into the poster child for the new ‘sharing economy,’ and mostly without inciting the negative backlash of other sharing companies like Uber and Airbnb.

Zipcar digital marketing

That’s not to say that it’s been an entirely smooth road for Zipcar; there have been speed bumps, but the young company has built up a brand and a digital marketing mix that is strong enough to smooth over road blocks (okay, I’ll stop now). The real test of this came in 2013, when Zipcar was acquired by Avis.

For fans who saw Zipcar as a new, forward-thinking, independent company, the purchase was a disaster. Giant corporation Avis is the second-largest car rental company in the world, a dinosaur by comparison – huge and out-of-date. Social media followers made it pretty clear how they felt about the purchase. And yet Zipcar has managed to emerge relatively unscathed. It’s an amazing feat if you think about it: maintaining the brand image of a green, sharing economy startup after a $500 million buyout.

How did they do it? Zipcar has their branding down to a T, and they market it effectively with every possible digital medium: great social, great content, great video, great word of mouth, and great interactions. This multi-channel approach drives both a loyal fandom and brand new lead traffic. If that sounds good to you, watch and learn what your business can do to rock digital marketing like Zipcar:

1. Create Killer Video Content with Real Value

When I joined Zipcar, I was super-impressed with their clever and amusing, but also informational, video content. Their website hosts how-to videos (fueling up your Zipcar, unlocking it, returning it, extending your reservation, etc.) and they are seriously funny, but of course they also serve as a fun FAQ resource. So while I’m getting to know how to use the service, I’m also getting to know their brand and noticing how well it fits my personality and values.

These videos led me to their YouTube channel, where I discovered a video campaign that ran online and on TV at the end of 2014, which we’ll call “I’d Tap That.” The campaign plays on the, um, colloquial meaning of that phrase which we all know, since you also ‘tap’ your Zipcard on the windshield to unlock it and start your journey. It’s crude, but hey, it’s also really funny:

Your video content doesn’t have to be hilarious, but it does have to hold some value for your target audience, whether it’s offering entertainment, information, news on new features or products, or tips for use.

2. Shape Your Social Strategy Around Your Target Buyer Personas

Too often businesses limit their social posts to obviously relevant material – i.e. self-promotional posts or topics. Your social media fans are likely to be interested in your business and your field, but that’s not the extent of their interests. Think broadly; your followers and fans are fully-fledged human beings and they have more than one dimension. If you haven’t crafted buyer personas that reflect this, this blog is a good jumping-off point.

If you’re a technology company, for example, you’re probably posting about technology news, new gadgets, etc., in addition to your own company news. But what else interests your target audience? If they’re mostly young people, their interests might also include green technology. If they’re older, posts about scientific advances in health, and health monitoring through technology might grab their attention – go beyond the obvious. So how does Zipcar do this?

It’s clear that Zipcar knows their customer persona is young, since car-sharing is really a product of the Gen X and Y generations. On their many social channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and LinkedIn), Zipcar posts news, original content and images, on topics like green living, green technology, and travel. They recognize that their young audience supports LGBTQ equality and the issues surrounding that, so over time that has featured in their social media content as well – though it’s not directly related to car-sharing at all.

Zipcar digital marketing

3. Create a Super-Personal Social Media Engagement Experience

We’re all looking for engagement on social media, but Zipcar is really going above and beyond here. Their carefully curated social content generates a lot of comments, and they get a ton of replies from Zipcar employees. This is true for customer service issues and general discussion:

Zipcar digital marketing

If you comment on a Zipcar post with a problem or question, you’re likely to get an answer soon. If you comment with a personal anecdote or praise, you’ll often see a reply thanking you for the input. If you comment on an interesting post that has nothing to do with Zipcar, you’re still likely to get a response. We hear a lot about using social media for customer service, but Zipcar is really, really working it in this respect.

Also, did you notice? Zipcar representatives who reply have Facebook names that make the interaction feel more personal: Tim at Zipcar, Alessandra at Zipcar, etc. Since each one is actually it’s own Facebook account, these customer service reps also have faces, locations, alma maters, and other personal details. If that seems like too much for your business, you can start slow by having your customer service staff sign their comment replies or tweets with their first names or initials.

4. Work Word of Mouth For All It’s Worth

It’s actually a pet peeve of mine when businesses don’t leverage WOM and referrals; it’s such a valuable lead gen strategy, and as millennials increase, it will only become more central. It’s proven (and only logical) that consumers value recommendations from their friends and family over ads or celebrity endorsements, so anything you can do to increase the likelihood that they’ll mention you, share your business, or refer someone is going to be worth the effort.

For Zipcar, this is a simple and effective strategy: refer a friend and you both get driving credit (money towards renting). They make it super easy by facilitating email referrals, and Twitter and Facebook sharing.

Zipcar digital marketing

The logistics of this might be specific to a subscription model like Zipcar, but your business can certainly find something similar to offer, whether it’s credit toward the next purchase, free shipping, or a discount voucher. There’s literally no downside – if no one decides to spread the word, you aren’t losing any profit, but if they do, you have the chance to impress a brand new customer and maybe even turn them into a loyal returning customer.

Zipcar is doing a lot, and they’re doing it right and in smart, creative ways. The strength of their brand image and voice, along with the uniqueness of their service, makes for great content, which is what all these suggestions essentially boil down to. High quality, wisely targeted content will connect, whether it’s video, blogs or social posts, and connecting personally with fans and followers will lead to happy customers who tell their friends.

Want to learn more about how great content can make for great social engagement? Check out this class: Best Practices for Integrated Content Marketing and Social Media.