A full-circle power shift is under way. Thanks to easy access to the Internet and the growth of social networks, people can now communicate (for free) with people living anywhere in the world. And this direct, daily contact between customers means that buying decisions once again have a social component, a development that could mean big things for a department where dialogue is critical.

This new age of communication simply means there’s more sharing, engaging, informing, advising and, yes, even gossiping. Minus the gossip, these are activities F&I managers engage in on a daily basis when presenting products to customers. But be careful. Social media has freed today’s consumer, which means they won’t consume everything you push their way. Yes, marketing is still about creating awareness and generating leads, but the rules have changed.

The reality is, consumers are bored with the message marketers are pushing, and they have zero tolerance for being browbeaten by old-school advertising. To put it simply, we must stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in. Social media simply represents a platform for doing just that.

Shift Happens

Many old-school advertisers fear the new freedom social media has bestowed on consumers, but that’s because they don’t get it. Yes, social consumers can eat you up with negative reviews and online rants, but there are dealers out there who are working hard to win their customers over. These are dealers who understand the value of cultivating raving fans. With social media, it’s just a matter of communicating those experiences to customers.

So, what does today’s social customer respond to? Simple. They want good, trustworthy information. The hard part is meeting customers where they are and engaging them during these decision-making conversations. So, let’s take a look at three ways your dealership and F&I department can get in front of customers when it comes time to buy.

Social Media Marketing: The first thing you need to do is create a Facebook Welcome Page. Once it’s established, you need to figure out a way to entice potential and past customers to “Like” your page. If you’re looking to supplement your strategy, try using Facebook “Engagement Ads” to get traction and increase your fan base. Just be sure to provide an opt-in lead-generation form, and to keep branding and marketing messages consistent.

Also keep in mind that engagement is the meat and potatoes of social marketing, so status updates are the key to showing up on other pages. They can also help establish your store as a credible entity. Just remember that engagement begins and ends with the right content, so converse, solve, support and listen. And make sure not to talk about yourself too much.

E-mail Marketing: There is a huge, untapped opportunity for F&I with e-mail marketing. This powerful tool allows you to leverage your established network: your customer database. E-mail campaigns also are a good way to support and build your social business and online reputation. Here’s an effective, step-by-step process for attracting shoppers and buyers:

• Create hounding curiosity with the subject line: Think about your audience and what will compel them to open that e-mail. Asking a question or offering something for free or at a discount is usually an effective strategy.

• Create an enticing, welcoming e-mail design: Your look should be pleasing and inviting; just be sure to stay away from e-mail templates. They don’t convey your store’s brand message and tend not to work too well.

• Tell the customer what’s in it for them: People want to know up front what they’re going to get for taking the time to read your e-mail.

• Direct them with a call-to-action message: Ask yourself what you want your customer to do. Once you have your answer, use a call-to-action message that gets them to do just that.

• Test and retest: Every marketing campaign’s success depends on how the audience reacts. Utilize testing and analytics to measure results. The information you glean will tell you what works and what doesn’t.

• Ask for permission: Since you’ll be marketing to current and past customers, you’ve probably already asked them for permission to stay connected via e-mail. Just be sure you have an unsubscribe option at the bottom of the message, and make sure it’s easy to locate.

The bottom line is that your content should be irresistible, whether it’s Facebook ads or e-mail marketing. You have to give people a reason to pay attention. One way to do that is to reward customer loyalty by offering VIP perks that add value. Discounts on F&I products also work. Just be sure to include a deadline with your offer, as it creates urgency.

Accessory specials also are great for targeting the 18- to 25-year-old demographic, so work with parts on special offers. Cross-promotions with other businesses are another great way to market your store and F&I department, as is supporting a local cause. Just make sure you provide links to your social media profiles on whatever you’re doing.

Build a Reputation: Asking for online reviews is one of the most powerful ways to earn more business. With 84 percent of people saying that a recommendation from friends and family influences their purchase decision, a repeat buyer can be a critical advocate for your store’s credibility.

It’s important to note that, as the last point of contact for customers, F&I managers have a unique opportunity to capture online reviews. The key is to create awareness. An easy way to do that is by making sure signs containing links to ratings sites are conspicuous. Whatever you do, be proactive, and make online reputation management part of your process.

Just remember to convey how much it matters to you when asking customers for an online “referral.” Getting grassroots participation from all staff members also is important, so set goals, motivate, recognize and reward staff for meeting those goals.

Social media is drawing a new wave of buyers into dealerships and F&I. Technology has given us an opportunity to create a bond with the customer that had never before been possible. But you have to be willing to embrace what is a very lucrative tool for driving business into your store. Social media affords you an opportunity to build a community of sustained relationships where members support and buy from each other.

So, don’t be afraid to tap into these resources to celebrate your store and foster a community. It’s social business, and it’s ready for the taking.

Kathi Kruse is an automotive social media expert, blogger, speaker, coach, author and founder of Kruse Control Inc. E-mail her at [email protected]