I'VE INTRODUCED THE IDEA of social networking on the Internet and have given you a brief overview of what social networking is all about and how it can play a role in the promotion of your e-commerce operation ("Selling Online," January). Now I'm going to give a 40,000-foot overview of the different types of social sites out there.
Of the general, high-level social sites, the best examples right now are MySpace (www.myspace.com) and FaceBook (www.facebook.com). These act as a sort of catch-all home for people on the Web. People can create profiles and host content with basic blogging and content management tools. They also can upload other types of multimedia content, such as pictures, graphics and video. If you're going to participate on these sites, the key marketing point is to create a compelling persona for your dealership, and then participate and contribute constantly to keep the activity level high.
While these high-level sites like MySpace and FaceBook are currently getting most of the attention when it comes to social networking, there are many other types and subtypes of social sites.
Forums are the oldest form of social networking. They are the modern incarnation of the old-fashioned BBS (bulletin board system) from the pre-Web dark ages. Successful forums primarily exist around a singular aspect of life that has a large enough population that cares about it (so you get enough participation), but that is narrowly focused so that it's actually about something. A perfect example of an amazing forum is advrider.com. An interesting aside that shows the value of mixing together various social networking sites or technologies is how tightly the social photo site SmugMug is integrated into Advrider.com.
Forums are a great place to participate at the dealer level because most of the stuff posted on them is ill-informed, third-hand information that may or may not be intentionally misleading just to mess with people. That's just the nature of the Internet a lot of the time. However, if you clearly post as a trusted and knowledgeable source of information, you will be loved.
Here's another advantage: Typically you can place a link to your site in your signature on each of your posts, so it acts as a bit of search engine fodder. Just remember to only post valuable information, and try to avoid arguments or "flame wars," as those are pretty much no-win situations that will just make you look bad.
Groups are the modern incarnation of UseNet Newsgroups, not that Newsgroups have totally disappeared. They are typically hosted on a larger site like Yahoo!Groups (groups.yahoo.com) or GoogleGroups (groups.google.com). Groups are like the gated community version of a forum. Due to their somewhat closed nature they are almost not in the social network ecosystem; however, they are worth mentioning.
A blog, which is short for a Web log, is basically an online diary or newsletter. There are standalone blog sites where you can set up a blog for your shop, such as Google Blogger (www.blogger.com), TypePad (www.typepad.com) and WordPress (www.wordpress.com). You alternatively can install and run your own blog on your own server, or you can take advantage of the bloglike features of the high-level social sites like The Wall on FaceBook. If your resources are limited, I suggest creating a profile on a high-level social site like FaceBook and use The Wall instead of spreading yourself too thin across multiple sites.
Two good examples of video sharing are YouTube (www.youtube.com) and MetaCafe (www.metacafe.com). These types of Web sites exist as 1) a destination where you can watch, upload and comment on other people's videos, and 2) a platform you can use to distribute your own videos. While a standalone site like YouTube may in itself be pretty cool, it's the ability to embed your YouTube videos on other sites that makes it a truly killer application.
There's great marketing potential if you can create what's known as a viral video. A viral video is one that's so cool, so funny or otherwise so catchy that hundreds of people watch it and send it to their friends.
The biggest player in the shared photo space is Flickr (www.flickr.com). A site that's a distant second but that I like a lot more is SmugMug (www.smugmug.com). These sites mostly work as the video sharing sites do, except they focus on images (obviously). Flickr offers many ways to leverage your posted images on other sites and in other applications. For example, you can create a photo album on Flickr and then embed a little slideshow plug-in on your Web site.
StumbleUpon (www.stumbleupon.com) and del.icio.us (yes, that's a real URL) are sites where people can publicly create, share and tag (that is, provide a series of keywords that describe the bookmark to make them easier to find) sites. You want to have a site that is valuable enough, or at least gets enough attention, so that a lot of people share the bookmark to your site.
SOCIALLY DRIVEN CONTENT AGGREGATION
The big daddy here is Digg (www.digg.com). Content aggregation sites are like social bookmarking sites on steroids. These sites are basically news or "what's cool"-type sites. They are not driven by an editorial team, but are instead driven by users submitting a story with a link to a site; then, all the other users of the site vote on the submission. Submissions that for one reason or another are deemed interesting will get more votes and move up in the rankings.
Your goal is to get on the front page of these sites. If you are fortunate enough to get on the front page, be prepared to watch your Web server break into flames from what is known as the "diggeffect" — where the sudden barrage (upwards of a 3,000 percent increase, in a lot of cases) of traffic brings your poor dealership's Web site to its knees. Of course, that's a good problem.
Literally hundreds of other categories, mash-ups and sites are out there in the social networking space. Wikipedia has a fairly complete list of social networking sites if you want to dive in a little more. Log on to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites.
Next month I'll go into more detail on the pure social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook, and why you should care about them (or not), and how you may be able to use them.