Online Social Networking Can Build Brick-and-Mortar Sales

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Use social networking tools to get customers physically into your store

THIS MONTH I'M GOING TO diverge from using social networking to strictly sell online to using online social networking tools to get people through your physical doors and hopefully help you sell more stuff over the counter. Of course, doing all these things will also dramatically help your online sales, because content is content, and people and search engines both love content.

This online/offline thinking is the as-yet undiscovered frontier. To date, most of the social networking fuss has been about online activities — chatting, bookmarking, reading, ranking and commenting on news and entertainment sites, etc. A new wave of Internet-enabled social networking is all about using online tools to get people offline and into the real world. In our case, that's onto the back of a motorcycle, scooter or PWC and, more importantly, into your dealership.

Our goal is to take disparate social networking entities and create a plan that unifies and leverages their capabilities to establish, strengthen and utilize relationships with your local customers, and then connect them all to your site and with each other.

A great example of a dealership that's done something similar by leveraging old-world, non-Internet methods is Rick Fairless' Strokers Dallas. Rick realizes that it's really, really, really not about the bikes, or even the dealership. It's about the relationships between the dealership and the customer. The bike is the vehicle that initiates the relationship. All the other stuff (Rick's bar, tattoo parlor, events, TV show) strengthens that bond. Fairless has been able to leverage the force of his personality to drive this through the use of the mainstream media and by word of mouth. But note that, as far as I can tell, he's not doing a lot of the Web-based stuff I'm talking about. (I did find a profile on Facebook, but there's no integration, or even a link as far as I could tell, on his shop's site.) Maybe he just doesn't need to?

You might be thinking that Fairless' operation is light-years ahead of you. He's on TV, he's famous. There's no way you could emulate that. And you may be correct if you are talking on a national or global level. But what about on a local or regional level?

The old media that made Fairless' operation (and of course Fairless himself) famous is playing less of a role today. The Internet is bringing about an open stage that anyone can use to secure his or her own form of fame — albeit on a smaller geographic scale, but you never know where it might take you.

INTEGRATION-HAPPY

So how do we go about doing this? First, keep this caveat firmly in your mind: This is all very new (like bleeding-edge, don't touch-the-wet-paint new.) — from the sites and tools themselves all the way down to the very concepts that I'm talking about. Switch on your right brain and think creatively about what's possible, what you want to do, and how you want to do it.

At the highest level, you need to create accounts for your dealership on various established social networking sites, and then create an integration among them on your dealership's Web site. More social networking sites are trying to open up a bit and are providing APIs (application programming interfaces: ways for multiple, disparate computer programs to talk to each other) for developers to use. You're even starting to see things from the established sites like pre-built widgets that allow you to embed part of their functionality on your site or other social networking sites.

Here's an example of how this might look in practice:

  • Establish a primary social networking hub site. This is the primary place where you create the social relationship linkages between your dealership and your customers. Sites like Facebook and MySpace are good choices. Most of the other elements of the social networking ecosystem have plug-ins that allow loose integration with these big players.

(Note: It's dawning on everyone that a potential upcoming "killer" application is going to be the social networking hub or aggregation site. Currently the biggest hindrance to it is the "walled garden" approach that big players like Facebook impose with their social graphs: the maps/graphs of all the connections between the user and his or her friends and connections. Initiatives like OpenSocial and Google's Friend Connect may help open this whole thing up.)

  • Because our big goal is to get people offline and out riding — and ultimately into your shop — you need a way to set up and publicize what's going on. To allow your customers to participate in or even organize their own rides and events, create an account on a site I recommend called MeetUp (www.meetup.com).
  • Take videos (or, better yet, have customers take the videos) of rides and events, and share them on YouTube (www.youtube.com).
  • Do the same with flickr (www.flickr.com) for still pictures of rides, events, customer's bikes, and other shots.
  • Now, embed all the various widgets and plug-ins the social networking sites offer into your dealership's own site(s). Make sure that there are links to your dealership's site on each of the social networking properties, and that all of the various social sites link to each other. Yes, conceptually it's a bit messy, but a clean execution will hide most the mess (see diagram on the previous page).

A vital step involves customer education and facilitation. If a customer (or a prospect) is not already on or aware of these sites, you may need to help him or her set up accounts, add your shop as a "friend" where applicable, and so on. It would be a good idea to have one primary point of contact at your business to handle this community-building activity. Read more on the community relationship management aspect on my blog: www.radicalpowersports.com/?p=62/

This piecemeal method of using social networking has the advantage of being cheap and fairly easy. The disadvantage is that it's pretty messy. Next month I'll talk about how you can clean it up by bringing all of the functionality under your own roof.