How Social Marketing Helps Dealers: A View from Outside the Marine Industry

Let’s see how the auto industry handles social media and take some lessons away from another market that was “forced to change.”

By Gary Druckenmiller, Jr., co-founder, TheOpenSea.com – Within the last few years, social marketing has become completely mainstream. Connecting our world like never before, it has become an incredible, vast network. With a reported 67 percent of the global online population now visiting ‘member communities,’ including social networks/blogs[1], it is no surprise that social media is proving to be a powerful business tool.

With that, marine dealers still have big humps to overcome in this space.  Let’s see how the auto industry does it and take some lessons away from another market that was “forced to change.”

Dealer Collaboration: The market has certainly caused rampant change on how dealers operate with other dealers. Gone are the days of overt territoriality and in are collaborative physical mechanisms and best practices when it comes to the exchange of inventory, knowledge sharing, and joint customer events. The Top 100 Program and the MDCE Best Ideas Program are killer showcases that highlight marine dealers’ willingness to share their proven strategies and learn from others’ over the past few years.

Auto dealers haven’t responded much differently, but they are now beginning to take strides in improving their identity by sharing what they learn in open online B2B communities, as well as their efforts tangibly “offline.” In the auto segment, most auto dealers have gone niche, away from general social sites like Facebook, etc., focusing more on networks that are purely addressing the auto segment. Drivingsales.com is a good example of a B2B professional network that auto dealers use to become better educated and share knowledge. The difference with this site's approach is the collective wisdom of a crowd that addresses a very specific need. In this case, how do I make my auto dealership better? Plain and simple. Nothing else gets in the way. Everyone in this site is a car dealer. Every marine dealer should be considering a method like this as a daily part of their routine. Find the most promising professional network in the marine industry (see what I do for a living) and get busy talking with your peers.

Geographic Limitations: Marine dealers routinely struggle to market beyond their immediate location (town, city, etc.) in a cost-effective and efficient manner. In some instances, a dealer may by contract “own” a regional area of several hundred square miles. That’s a lot of land to cover regardless of how big or small you are. Social networking is that one vehicle that has the innate ability to singlehandedly "connect" geographically disparate parties (business & customer) in a way that previously was never possible. Auto dealers will tirelessly explore auto networks for business opportunities within their contractually obligated sales arena, setup shop and then hang out for a while. This process takes time, but can have large long term rewards once positive word spreads of your businesses existence in their immediate area. The key is having a social networking solution that can inextricably link the distance prohibitive boater and boat business and allow them to share, communicate, privatize and explore each others’ worlds in a manner that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of upfront legwork.

Vendor/OEM Relationships: Most dealers have more than one vendor. This can be a struggle when it comes to harnessing what they all have to say and trying to adhere to each of their business philosophies. Here’s an example of how an auto dealer made it work for him. “With all the forums and postings (I’ve been involved in), not only was I able to get more educated about vendors in general … but I was able to obtain precise vendor ratings which gave me an invaluable industry reference point on how each vendor was performing with other dealers and who I should be talking to more closely,” says Matt Haiken who runs a Volvo dealership.

Let Your Customers Talk: Your customers are not just instantaneous blips on the radar screen. Today’s customers (yours included) more than ever want to be heard. Many auto dealers are allowing more and more customer generated content into their sites or are taking advantage of it via 3rd party social sites and networks. “One of our industry’s biggest challenges is consumer trust, and our high volume of positive customer reviews provides us with tremendous credibility. Because of things we’ve learned online at automotive blogs and forums, our web traffic has increased by 40 percent, we’ve nearly doubled our monthly sales, and are having one of our best months, when the industry is experiencing one of its worst,” says Andrew DiFeo, a GM at a large Hyundai dealership.

The auto industry is on average about 2 – 5 years (depending on who you talk too) ahead of marine when it comes to sales and marketing. With many of these examples having already passed through that threshold, the moment for marine to activate against them is upon us. Learn from what bigger but similar markets are doing. Take heed in the approaches and tactics that are being implemented at a now fluid rate with business professionals just like you. At the end of the day, it’s nice to know that many of these social marketing functions are working for your auto dealer counterparts.

[1] Nielsen Research Report 4.2009

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