Facebook. LinkedIn. MySpace. Twitter. If you’re familiar with these websites, chances are you’re working on a strategy to incorporate them into your internet sales process. According to a recent study by The Neilsen Company, time spent on social sites and blogs now accounts for 10 percent of all online activity, ranking ahead of personal email in terms of popularity.(1) And as more people use these networks to stay in touch with friends and colleagues, many dealerships are looking to tap into them to reach prospects and drive sales. But the question remains: How can you effectively leverage social sites to reach customers?
“For an industry like automotive retail that is built on relationships, social networks seem to be a particularly well-suited tool,”
says Kathy Kimmel, a manager of automotive consulting and dealer training at Cars.com. “Consider how much you rely on repeat and referral business, and you can begin to see the potential opportunity of social networking tools that can keep you connected to and engaged with customers and prospects.”
But there are still many questions about how to integrate social media into the sales process, notes Kimmel. “As I talk with dealers across the country, there is a lot of confusion about how to approach social networking sites. Most are experimenting with these new tools to find out what works for their store.”
Kimmel says that regardless of which communities you engage in on the social web, there are a few general guidelines you should keep in mind. Let’s take a look at some tips to consider as you begin to leverage social media at your store.
* Build your network:
As you talk with ready-to-purchase shoppers and close deals, invite these people to join your network. Every person you add produces a multiplier effect that expands your visibility and creates new chances to connect with prospects in your market.
“Success in sales depends on your ability to get in front of buyers,”
Kimmel says. “If you have 50 friends on a social networking site and each of your friends also has 50 friends, you’re now reaching an audience of 2,500 people for a minimal investment of time and money.”
To help start your network, Kimmel recommends that you look for friends, family members and previous, satisfied customers and invite them to join you online. The presence of these people brings immediate credibility and creates a sizable community within which you can have a meaningful dialogue and ongoing conversation.
You can also use your website and email campaigns to promote your social presence and build your network. “A simple icon letting consumers know they can find you on Facebook or Twitter is an easy way to build your following,”
* Engage with car buyers.
Remember that social media is not a one-way street. The key to success in social media, says Kimmel, is engagement and interaction. “You can’t just be pushing out information,”
she notes. “You need to listen, respond, discuss and add value to the relationship. A series of self-promotional posts won’t accomplish much in this medium - it will simply turn off your network.”
Instead, she suggests that you offer timely and relevant information that your followers can find value in, such as recall information, safety tips or information on a hot new car on the market.
* Reward Your Community:
A great way to encourage people to participate and remain in your community is to offer them something of value for being there. Offer your Facebook friends and Twitter followers special service offers like discounted oil changes and free car washes, recommends Kimmel.
“Consumers need a reason to connect with you online. Special offers can be a great incentive for them to keep following you,” Kimmel says. “This is a great way to let them know you value their participation and can also provide a boost to your service business.”
* Showcase listings, specials and events. “Most sites allow you to post pictures that your friends — and their friends — can view,”
Kimmel says. “When you get a unique car or have aged inventory you want to move, upload a few photos and describe the vehicles’ condition and features. If you’ve built a responsive network, your contacts may help you turn a quick sale by passing the links along to people they think may be interested.”
Using a site such as TwitPic, for example, you can upload a photo of the vehicle for use with your Twitter account. The site provides a link that you would then include in your post, technically known as a “tweet”: “2005 Honda Accord EX, Red, Excellent. $15,250. Pics at [URL].”
Many social networking sites also allow you to post calendar listings of upcoming events. Kimmel suggests promoting, for example, tent sales, special finance or lease offers and other incentives that typically encourage in-market shoppers to contact you for more information.
* Monitor your image.
As you expand your presence into social media, be sure to keep track of what’s being written about you and your store. In this open environment, your customers are likely to share their honest opinions about their dealership experience - even if they didn’t make a purchase. This information can yield insight on the strengths you’ll want to promote and the weaknesses you’ll want to correct.
There are several free tools that can help you to monitor what is being said about your brand. For example, on Twitter you can use applications such as Monitter, Twirl and Twitter Search to stay on top of conversation. Regardless of what is being said, be sure to join in the conversation, Kimmel says. “Comments about your dealership on social networking sites are a great opportunity to start a dialogue. Embrace positive remarks to thank consumers for their praise of your store. Negative remarks are an even more powerful opportunity. You can actually resolve conflict and improve your reputation when you start a conversation to resolve complaints.”
“Also be sure to check out what people are saying about your competitors,”
Kimmel says. “As you see issues emerge and gain traction, you can adapt your sales processes, inventory mix and marketing messages for competitive advantage.”
For more tips on managing and monitoring your reputation, see “Online Word of Mouth: Managing Your Reputation.”
Whether your store maintains a presence on a single social networking site or several, Kimmel recommends that you develop employee guidelines. Having a process in place avoids confusion about whether they should maintain separate personal and professional pages, for example, and ensures your brand is well represented. Proper guidelines remind your staff to follow the same procedures as they would on your dealership’s website or through third-party listings.
“Maintaining good boundaries is critical with social networking sites,” Kimmel says. “While it may be OK to welcome some customers into your life outside of work, others will appreciate a strictly business relationship. They’ll gladly stay current about goings-on at your store, but they may not be as enthusiastic about your political opinions and pictures of your latest vacation.”