By now, you’ve probably heard of Facebook and Twitter. You may even be familiar with YouTube and LinkedIn. These platforms are part of what’s popularly called “social media,” the latest Internet age phenomenon.
Millions of people use social media to e-mail one another, swap photos and share what’s happening in their lives.
But there’s more to this pop culture trend than merely keeping in touch with family and friends.
Businesses, from small companies to huge corporations, have started to use Facebook, Twitter and various other social media platforms to directly interact with consumers.
Through social media, companies are establishing “two-way street” dialogues with the people who buy their products and services. And there are plenty of social media users out there.
eMarketer Inc., a firm that tracks and analyzes digital and social media trends, estimates that more than 18 million people will communicate via Twitter, one of the most popular social media platforms, this year.
Perhaps the most popular social media service, Facebook, has more than 200 million registered users. (Twenty-six to 44 year olds comprise the fastest growing segment of Facebook users, according to eMarketer.)
Initially dismissed by many as a fad, social media is here to stay. The question is: How can you leverage it to benefit your business?
There are dozens of social media platforms, with more being introduced every day. In terms of sheer number of users, Facebook is at the top of the list.
Established in 2004, Facebook allows users to create electronic pages, or “profiles,” on which they share personal information, all at no charge. Users also can create profiles based on common hobbies or interests, as well as link into “groups” that center around a common interest.
Once you’ve established a Facebook profile, you can communicate with friends and/or associates through e-mail or by posting updates about yourself.
Facebook also allows users to upload photos and video clips, and post links to other Web sites.
Information, including updates from friends, is posted on what’s called a “wall,” essentially your profile’s electronic bulletin board. You also have the option of communicating with individual friends privately. In this case, only you and the other person can read the messages you exchange.
All of your Facebook friends comprise what’s called your Facebook “network.” Unless they’re part of your network, they cannot communicate with you, nor can you “talk to” them.
You control who joins your network, usually by accepting a “friend request.”
Facebook also allows companies and businesses to create their own profiles. Interactions here are generally the same as with personal profiles, except people who are in your business’ Facebook network are called “fans” instead of “friends.”
Once a fan, you can post messages on a company’s Facebook wall. And you can view everything on, or in, that business’ profile.
Posts have the potential to be seen by everyone in your private network. (Ardent Facebook users have hundreds — sometimes thousands — of Facebook friends.)
Sound confusing? It can be, if you’re not familiar with the platform’s many features and functions.
However, the idea of using computer technology to communicate with other people is nothing new.
And from an independent tire dealer’s standpoint, the philosophy behind social media simply reinforces the old adage “word-of-mouth is king,” says John Taylor, president of JTMarCom.
The company, based in Nashville, Tenn., helps firms incorporate social media and other digital marketing strategies into their overall marketing programs.
“Word-of-mouth has always been important to tire dealers,” says Taylor. “Social media has expanded the power of word-of-mouth exponentially.”
Facebook and other social media platforms enable consumers to share opinions about businesses and companies with their online “friends” — all with the click of a mouse.
Sometimes comments aren’t always positive, he says.
“The balance of power is shifting from companies to consumers. Before, companies had more control over their brand image. They had the power of the media and advertising to dictate what their brand is about.
“But if you’re a tire dealer and you believe your brand is about outstanding customer service, yet people are waiting in your showroom for hours and go home and talk about it online, that’s really what your brand is about. Technology has enabled this shift in power.
“People are talking about you online. Do you know what they’re saying? Do you want to be engaged in those conversations?
“People are going to talk about you regardless. We recommend getting involved in the discussion.”
Building a community
When used correctly, social media platforms also allow you to control the message you send to your customers, says Shawn McKenzie, vice president of marketing for Summit Tire of Mass. Inc., a Brockton, Mass.-based wholesale distributor.
“In the entire history of advertising and marketing, independents have been at a disadvantage to the large chains and big box retailers. I think that’s about to change.
“Through social media, you have the ability to be in touch with your customers constantly, and at that point, the tables are turned.
“Since the dawn of time, we’ve cast this gigantic fishing net into the ocean that’s (comprised of) newspapers or radio, and have pulled that net back toward us and were satisfied with a 2% or 3% return on our investment,” he explains.
“Now with social media, you can set up a page on Facebook and build your ‘fan base’ that way.
“People spend an average of 20 minutes a day on Facebook. People don’t spend 20 minutes a day going through their junk mail.
“And how much money do you want to spend on radio ads when people are on their cell phones, iPods and laptops?”
McKenzie calls Facebook and other social media platforms “word-of-mouth on steroids. Seventy percent of people still buy from independent tire dealers even though dealers are clearly outspent by bigger companies. That’s because dealers dominate by word-of-mouth.”
McKenzie has helped several of Summit Tire’s wholesale customers set up their own Facebook pages.
Other dealers are catching on. Kevin Kraft, co-owner of Marlborough, Mass.-based Kraft Tire & Auto, created a Facebook profile for his company after establishing a profile for himself.
His goal was to build a “community” of Kraft Tire fans by opening a dialogue with them.
He posts updates about what’s happening at the dealership and also discusses events taking place in his community.
“Yesterday I posted an article about a local kid who plays college hockey.”
The article generated several responses, all of them favorable.
“We try to post things that people will relate to. It’s being part of the community — being a good citizen. The more people you can get in front of, the better. It’s a word-of-mouth network.”
Kraft also has posted humorous comic strips and automotive-related video clips. He avoids controversial topics like politics “because you can’t alienate people. You have to remain sort of neutral. But you can comment on current events, like the Haiti earthquake disaster.”
Kraft goes out of his way to avoid pushing products and services on Facebook. “There are other avenues for that. If every post you send out promotes your product, people will get tired of it” and will tune you out.
“Social media is about building relationships,” says Taylor. “That’s what it’s all about. I was looking at a tire dealer’s Facebook page the other day. He had 150 fans, which was good. But everything he posted on his page was about specials — an oil change special this month, a tire special next month. That was all he was posting.
“He didn’t have any interactions with his fans. He was using Facebook as an advertisement, sending information one way. He was not engaging his customers.”
However, there’s nothing wrong with using social media to promote your capabilities and what you’ve done for people, according to McKenzie.
“Let’s say a customer comes in and shows you a $3,000 estimate from a car dealership. You do the same repair for $1,800.
“You could say, ‘Hey everyone, if you get a very large estimate for a repair, get another opinion. Come in and see us.’ That would be a fantastic post.”
He cites a party supply store in the Brockton area that created a Facebook profile last summer as an example of a company that is using the platform effectively.
“They’ve posted pictures of their products, like balloon arrangements, and they’ve received comment after comment about them.”
The business has hundreds of Facebook fans. “Whatever they put on Facebook, every one of those people will see. Consider what they would have had to spend to reach hundreds of people” using traditional advertising methods.
“One of our dealers uses social media. I saw a customer post a very nice note on his page, saying, ‘Thanks a lot. I appreciate you taking care of me even when I didn’t have an appointment.’ All of that customer’s Facebook friends saw the note.”
Spencer Carruthers, owner of Kenwood Tire Co. in West Bridgewater, Mass., is another Facebook enthusiast. He set up a Facebook profile for his dealership more than a year ago.
“A lot of people (on Facebook) like to hear you moan about stuff,” he laughs.
Kenwood Tire recently had problems with its natural gas provider. Carruthers provided regular updates about the situation on his store’s Facebook page.
He’s kept Kenwood Tire’s Facebook fans up-to-speed on positive happenings, as well.
Carruthers recently decided to expand his shop’s service bays. He used Facebook to keep customers in the loop as the project progressed, even posting photos at regular intervals.
Around Christmas time, he posted several pictures of a holiday display — a Christmas “tree” made of stacked tires — in his showroom.
More recently, he posted a note to Kenwood Tire’s Facebook wall, announcing that he was in the market for a new snow blower for the shop. He asked for recommendations. Several customers chimed in with suggestions.
Carruthers has posted safety-related articles about a spray-in flat tire fixer (“Most people don’t know it’s hazardous,” he says) as well as the importance of placing two new tires on the rear of the car instead of the front if you can’t afford to replace all four tires.
The latter post elicited a number of positive comments. “It’s amazing how few people know that. And I’ll post it again because it’s so important.”
He also posts video clips. “I’m really into old tire commercials. Some people get it, some people don’t,” he says with a chuckle.
“A traditional marketing person probably wouldn’t see any value in this at all. But it’s so anti-traditional that I like it.”
Like Kraft Tire, Kenwood Tire eschews using Facebook to push particular products and promotions.
“We’re not putting coupons on there that we can track,” says Carruthers. “It’s more of a subliminal thing. People will go home, check their Facebook page and see that we’ve made a post. It keeps them in the loop.”
There are plenty of ways to make members feel like they’re part of your online community, according to JTMarCom’s Taylor.
“Some dealers post photos of customers and customers’ cars,” he says. “Another example would be highlighting a customer’s birthday or highlighting an employee’s accomplishment.
“If one of your customers runs a local business and they just celebrated their 25th anniversary, you could post (an announcement) on your page. You’re putting a human face on your company.”
This strategy appeals to two groups, in particular, he says: women and people in their teens and 20s.
“There is a good percentage of tire and auto service customers who are women, and they tend to be dealer-reliant. When they find a dealer they trust, they’re going to stick with that person. They don’t want to visit 10 different tire manufacturer Web sites. They want to go in, hand someone their keys and say, ‘Do what you think is best.’”
The influence of social media on young people cannot be discounted either, says McKenzie.
“Nineteen- and 20-year-olds are entering the market and have never not known the Internet,” he explains.
“They don’t remember a world without the Internet. For them, relationships trump transactions. They want to have a relationship with the people they do business with. And they share information with their friends all the time.”
“This is still a new thing, but it’s the way kids communicate,” says Carruthers, who adds that social media is to today’s kids what the home telephone line was to kids of previous generations. “My daughter, who’s 13, has 350 friends on Facebook. Five years down the road, she’s going to have a car, her friends are going to have cars, and they’re going to know she’s the daughter of ‘the tire guy.’”
Controlling the content
The downside to the Facebook platform is that for every virtual “high five” there’s the potential for a verbal “thumbs down.” People can be particularly harsh thanks to the anonymity that e-mail provides.
Both Carruthers and Kraft report they haven’t received negative comments, but they realize that it could happen.
“You want to be open to discussion, both positive and negative, but you don’t want rogue people coming in,” says Kraft. “You don’t want malicious comments.”
“I think people are very leery to put (their gripes) out there,” notes Carruthers. “People complain the old-fashioned way. They know I run Kenwood Tire and if they have a problem, they can call me. They don’t turn to Facebook.”
“We’ve come across business owners who say, ‘If I open a dialogue online, then I’m opening myself up to criticism,’” says Taylor. “You have to get beyond that. If someone criticizes you, respond to them. If they’re out of line, people will recognize that and see you as the hero.
“They’ll respect you for commenting back.”
Facebook enables profile owners to delete unwelcome messages, posts or comments.
“You always have control over your page,” says McKenzie. “You can always delete a negative message.”
Thanks to certain privacy settings, you also can “ban” fellow Facebook users from accessing your company’s profile.
He and Taylor agree that one thing a Facebook profile cannot do is mask underlying problems at a tire dealership, including bad service, shoddy products or poor customer relations.
“If you don’t do a good job and you have a lot of people leaving unhappy, you don’t want to do this,” says McKenzie. “You can’t wash out bad customer service with social media. It’s certainly not for everybody.
“But that’s another reason why I think the advantage goes to the independents.
“I don’t think some of these large chains want people to post comments.”
Like Web sites 10 years ago
If you choose to get involved with social media, “you’re going to be judged on the quality of your content,” notes McKenzie. “You want to provide content that’s useful. It’s about sharing information,” which flows both ways.
“You don’t have to talk to everybody but you have to listen to what people are saying about you.”
Designate someone at your dealership to be your social media point person, says Carruthers.
“Ideally, it should be you,” but that’s not always possible.
The time investment doesn’t have to be burdensome. Kraft says he devotes about 15 minutes a day to his company’s Face-book profile.
“Play around with it,” says Taylor. “Learn the ropes. Carve out some money (from your marketing budget) and devote some of those funds to a social media campaign.”
He calls the use of social media “a trend that will only accelerate as more and more people connect on the Internet. Ten years ago, tire dealers were debating if they needed a Web site or not.
Now pretty much every dealer has a Web site.
“You wouldn’t think of having a business without a Web site. Social media is where Web sites were 10 years ago. You should get involved in social media now.” ■
Social media 101-- A look at other platforms
With more than 200 million active users worldwide, Facebook continues to gain momentum. Here’s a quick look at three other growing social networking platforms:
1. Twitter is a “micro-blogging service” that enables users to send and read short messages called “tweets,” which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters. Tweets are displayed on the author’s Twitter profile page and are delivered to people within the author’s network, who are commonly called “followers.”
2. LinkedIn is a business-oriented service that allows professionals to communicate with one another. Users often post resumes, work histories and other professional credentials, and solicit recommendations from current and former business associates.
3. YouTube is a video sharing service that allows users to upload and watch clips. Users can create their own accounts and “channels,” and can post comments about what they have viewed.
All of the above platforms currently are free of charge.
Realistic expectations -- What social media can (and cannot) do for you
Here’s what social media can — and cannot — do for you, according to John Taylor, president of JTMarCom, a Nashville, Tenn.-based agency that helps companies incorporate social media and other digital marketing strategies into their overall marketing programs:
What social media can do:
1. Establish you and your employees as trust agents. “If done correctly, like posting 10 comments about someone else (such as your customers) to every one comment about your own company, you will build trust, an increasingly important commodity in today’s business world.”
2. Help you build a loyal customer base. “You want loyal customers who depend on you and will provide good word-of-mouth, not someone who will abandon you because the guy down the street has tires for $5 less. Social media can help you build new, loyal relationships and establish stronger ones with existing customers.”
3. Help you compete with the big boys. “Do you think mass merchandisers and warehouse clubs are Tweeting about performance tires? Tire dealers have always done well by establishing one-on-one relationships. Social media takes this to an exponential level.”
4. Improve your Google ranking. Google and other search engines are “placing increasing weight on social media. The more you Tweet, post on Facebook, etc., the higher you will score in Google page rankings.”
5. Reach female consumers and a younger demographic. “Women are sharing recommendations on local businesses via Facebook. Young gearheads are asking questions about the best tire/wheel combos. You want to be part of these conversations.”
What social media cannot do:
1. Substitute for a marketing strategy. “A Twitter campaign or a Facebook page that announces weekly specials is not a marketing strategy.”
2. Be viewed as a short-term project. “Social media is all about building relationships and trust, both of which require time to bear fruit.”
3. Succeed without top management buy-in. “Some executives may fear the loss of control, but if consumers are talking about you online, good or bad, don’t you want to be part of the conversation?”
4. Quickly fix a tarnished reputation. “If your customers are complaining about your service or facilities, fix that first. Social media can tell you how bad your reputation is, but will not fix your underlying problems.”
5. Be done on the cheap. “It is possible, but just because your grandson knows his way around Facebook doesn’t mean he has the marketing experience to make it work. Consider hiring a consultant to at least get you set up.”
“If you’re a multi-store dealer with a decent marketing budget, carve out some funds to hire a firm that specializes in social media marketing,” says Taylor.
Social Butterfly takes flight -- New service helps dealers link social media profiles together
Shawn McKenzie, vice president of marketing for Summit Tire of Mass. Inc., has launched a social media “content management system” for independent tire dealers.
The system, Social Butterfly, enables dealers to link their own Facebook pages, Twitter profiles and corporate Web sites to a central online location.
Dealers also can upload photos, videos and other content, as well as engage customers in online conversation.
The system’s format lets dealers control their own content and make changes at will. For more information, see www.socialbutterfly.pro.