For dealership management still skeptical about social media, Tom Gorham would like to share a few words: Take it on faith.

The faith he asks for is to believe social media will revolutionize dealership marketing the way the dot-com era did in the late 1990s.

This time around, the outcome will be something traditionalists understand well: word-of-mouth marketing, says Gorham, Internet sales and marketing manager at Apple Chevrolet in Tinley Park, IL, and a social-media and reputation-management blogger.

“Certainly the promise of social media requires faith today, just as dealers required faith at the dawn of the dot-com era of marketing,” he says. “The truth of social media is that it’s word-of-mouth advertising in a modern package. This is the new way dealerships get all-important referral business.”

In the past, sales associates joined civic and service clubs such as Lions, Rotary and Exchange, not to sell cars directly, but to network, he notes.

They believed socializing would eventually result in a customer or referral. Today, Facebook, YouTube and other social-media sites are where the modern dealership socializes – and where it will generate business opportunities, Gorham says.

“As a consumer, there is comfort in purchasing a product from a business that others have talked about in a positive manner,” says Rob McClurg, CEO of social- media marketer Stone Meta Media.

“In the past, we would hear business or product reviews while visiting family, going to dinner with friends or getting a haircut,” he says. “The same word-of-mouth reviews exist today, but social media has expanded the reach of our ears exponentially.”

Apple Chevrolet’s marketing uses various digital channels. These include banner advertising; YouTube; car-shopping sites such as Cars.com and Autotrader.com; search-engine marketing; and the dealership’s own website.

“Our overall strategy is to create a web – like a spider web – of interconnectivity with all of these connections, which link back to our website,” Gorham says. “Social media is part of this web, and social media’s currency is socializing. Because of this currency, it is a challenge for dealership managers to assign a return on investment to social media.” 

Dealers can measure the impact of such socializing by tracking how many people become “friends” on their Facebook page and by using web analytics to determine traffic to their website from Facebook and elsewhere, McClurg says.  

Whether at the local civic club or with a broader fan base via Facebook, the aim of attendance isn’t to sell something, but to socialize – with a long-view hope that the interaction will one day result in customers and referrals.

“Only 17% of people on Facebook are in the market for a car at any one time, so what do you say to the other 83%? You socialize with them,” Gorham says.