There’s no debating that “social media” is a term being heard more and more around the car business. But many dealers are left wondering what the big deal is. They have spent as much time promoting their stores on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as anybody else, but they have yet to see a return on their investment. So how do you get the type of return the so-called “experts” say you should be getting?

The answer to that question lies not in whether you should be using social networks, but in how to use them effectively. We see stats all the time that tell us that Facebook is where the fish are, but you will never catch them if you’re using the wrong bait. Let’s break down the specifics on five of the top social networking platforms available today and discuss strategies for putting your dealership on the top of your customers’ minds while generating — and influencing — word of mouth.

Facebook

With more than 500 million active users, Facebook.com is the most popular social networking site in the world. The site allows businesses to create official profile pages to communicate with their customers and fans. It’s most definitely where the fish are, but it can also be a huge waste of time if not used correctly.

Basic Strategy

1. Create a profile: Click on “Create a Page” and select “Automotive Dealer/Vehicle Service” from the types-of-businesses list. Use your dealership’s name for the page name and check the “official representative” box. Once you have set up a profile page, you can populate it with your dealership’s address, phone number, photos, videos and other information.

2. Use photos to generate testimonials: Take photos of sold customers and their new vehicle before they leave the lot and let them know you will post and “tag” them on the dealership’s profile page. Once the photos are uploaded and tagged, Facebook will automatically post them on the customers’ walls (i.e., profile page) for their friends to see. Take this a step further by having the salesperson add a complimentary comment about the photos. The goal here is to get customers to say something nice about their experience at your dealership in return.

3. Build your fan page: Now that the communication lines are open and customers have been directed to your fan page, it’s time to engage your fans by asking thought-provoking, open-ended questions. You may even want to stage contests and giveaways to keep them coming back to your page. And remember, the quickest way to get your fan page to go viral is by conducting contests that require your fans to create content to qualify.

Twitter

There is more to Twitter than sharing the mundane details of our lives via 140-character text messages. After all, it does describe itself as the “real-time information network,” connecting businesses to customers 24 hours a day. Dealers can “tweet” about their inventories, special promotions, rebates and anything else under the sun. The purpose is to generate conversation with customers, build relationships with them and gather market intelligence and feedback.

Basic Strategy

1. Build a following: Personally, I like to use Twitter as a catalyst, as a way to drive traffic to my other social networks. Use the advanced search feature at search.twitter.com to find Twitter users (or “tweeters”) in your local market. These are the people that you want to “follow,” as doing so is the best way to get them to follow you back. To remain within the site’s terms of service, you must follow 50 people or 10 percent of the total number of people who are following you. Every couple of days, use a service like Buzzom.com to identify those tweeters whom you are following but that aren’t following you back. “Unfollow” those people to once again ensure that you stay within Twitter’s terms of service.

2. Make friends: As your Twitter following grows, interact with as many different people as possible. Remember not to spam your followers and never talk about yourself. Additionally, ask your loyal followers to befriend you on Facebook. You can also direct them to your blog and YouTube videos.

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Foursquare

Foursquare is another business-friendly social media platform designed to reward users who visit local businesses with customized specials, such as discounts, gift certificates or even free services. Dealerships on the Foursquare platform have the opportunity to build relationships with customers and generate business while being able to gather real-time market data. You can also check in at different areas around your city and beyond to see what businesses your friends are visiting and whether they recommend them.

Basic Strategy

1. Create special offers: Foursquare recently unveiled a few new features that dealers should be excited about. One of those new features allows you to create special offers to anybody who checks in to your page. It could be a coupon for the parts department, a free oil change, or $500 off a new or used car. You can even create special offers for your most frequent visitors.

2. Check the traffic: When users check in, they have the option to send a “tip” to Facebook and Twitter, so encourage check-ins as much as possible. The best part is you can use Foursquare analytics to track who checked in, who broadcasted to Facebook and Twitter, and what time of the day they visited your page.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a social network designed to connect working professionals. It has grown to include more than 70 million members worldwide. For dealers, it’s an opportunity to connect with other dealers, lenders, agents, trainers and more. Dealers can find business partners to collaborate with, share business strategies, and post and distribute job listings.

Basic Strategy

1. Get connected: Connect with as many business types as possible, spend time in the local forums rubbing shoulders with the bigwigs in your market and refer others to them as often as possible. Remember, in order to get, you have to give. After reading your connections’ profiles and getting to know them a bit, you can start giving them recommendations. Odds are very good they will return the favor and send you one as well.

2. Be selfless: Make sure you don’t spend too much time talking about yourself. Your profile will tell others what you do, and, if you have built solid relationships, they will think of you, refer others to you and spread your good name. Remember, the true power of social media lies in influencing word of mouth. Who better to do that than other business owners?

Blogging

Blogs are Web-based publishing tools that allow people to share their thoughts, photos and videos through customizable templates. Dealers can use blogs to promote their brand, inventory, special promotions and more. Two of the more popular blog platforms are the Google-owned Blogger.com and WordPress.com. A blog serves as both the hub of your social marketing strategy and a way to establish yourself as an authority in your field. With that authority comes a great deal of influence. If you have a unique viewpoint and something to say, no other social platform carries more weight than a blog.

Basic Strategy

1. Find your voice: Develop a content creation strategy that showcases your expertise. Write about GAP insurance and service contracts, how to get stubborn stains out of leather and how to know when it’s time to get new tires. Showcase your authority by proving your expertise. Get all departments involved in creating content, or have a separate blog for service, sales and F&I. Show why you’re the obvious choice by crafting well-thought-out entries that add value.

2. Introduce yourself: All other social networks should lead to your blog rather than your dealership’s Website. When people click through to your Website from your social networks, they are often doing it to learn more about you, not necessarily to buy a car. Let them read your blog and be influenced by the wealth of information you provide.

If nothing else, I hope this primer has given you a taste of what social media can do for you and your dealership. Before you dig in too deeply, take the time to create a strategy, assign different tasks to key dealership personnel and, as with any marketing vehicle, manage your expectations. Above all else, remember that the less you pitch on social networks, the more you sell. Now go forth and multiply your car sales!

David Johnson is director of e-commerce for Next Generation Dealer Services, a firm specializing in special finance training. He can be reached at [email protected]

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