Throwing an online “party” can be a dealership’s best social-media investment.

“That’s right, a party, on Facebook; a hosted party that gets the different personalities there mingling and talking – and not necessarily about you,” says, Rob McClurg, CEO for Stone Meta, a social-media firm.

News of a good party spreads. People drop by, then tell their friends, relatives and associates who soon join in, too.

This is the kind of excitement a company’s Facebook page should generate, and it’s the kind of ever-expanding fan base a dealership should strive to make its social-media investment successful, McClurg says.

Individually, people active on Facebook and other social sites visit their own profile pages or those of friends, families and those they follow – including businesses – off and on throughout the day.

Many dealers learn this and conclude social media is a new form of billboard advertising or a place to list car inventory for sale.

But success in this newest of media requires a different mindset, say experts. It requires ongoing involvement that creates excitement for those who visit the dealership Facebook page.

“This gets your Facebook activities going viral, spreading word of mouth about you faster and faster,” says McClurg.

“When it comes to social media success, a dealer’s ability to create and respond to postings on those sites – and to provide intriguing content that keeps fans returning regularly so as not to miss items of value to them – is everything,” he says.

Apple Chevrolet in Tinley Park, IL, tries to keep them coming back by using Facebook-fan-only coupons and sweepstakes, such as Chicago White Sox ticket giveaways, says Tom Gorham, the dealership’s Internet sales and marketing manager.

“The strategy is to keep our fans paying attention to our site,” he says. “They have to be checking out the page often if they want a chance to win promotions like these tickets.”

While Apple Chevrolet understands the importance of a broad fan base, it is able to market directly to local fans through coupons and service specials.

It is not necessarily the number of “Likes” your dealership’s Facebook page collects that makes it an effective marketing tool, but rather the number of people who continue to drop by for conversation and to see what’s new.

Chuck Brymer coined the term “swarm and herd strategy,” in his book, The Nature of Marketing.

Consider a swarm of people interested in social media. The strategy is then to herd this swarm into the dealership by using social media coupons, games, contests and other fan incentives.

As these efforts capture more fans, the dealership Facebook page becomes fluid, alive with engaging conversations, monthly promotions, special coupons and local links.

A direct pitch for customers could get a dealership un-friended fast. But a post about what happened during last night’s big game can get the conversation going.

“Like any other cocktail party, it is only appropriate to talk about your services when asked,” McClurg says. “These conversations are your best shot at getting asked about your services.”

A quick response to postings to develop ongoing conversation keeps site visitors engaged. Only then should marketing efforts be initiated and incentives such as coupons and service specials be used to herd local fans into the dealership, say Apple Chevy’s Gorham, who uses this approach.

“This is a delicate situation, herding people to the dealership,” he says. “The effort cannot be obvious or it will turn people off. It has to happen in a special and careful way, which is why we use coupons.”

The dealership now is experimenting with Groupon on group discounts for service-department work and to “get people in on word of mouth,” McClurg says. The goal is to “win them over and make them lifetime customers.”

Chevy Chase Acura-Nissan of Bethesda, MD, uses contests to win iPads and other popular electronic items as a way to engage fans and encourage their participation on the dealership’s Facebook page. A recent effort, which quickly went viral, netted 500 new fans in one weekend.

Similar practices by Apple Chevrolet have contributed to an increase to 3,400 Facebook fans from 300 in three months.

After Gorham last spring posted a comment about paying $4.36 a gallon for gasoline and asked what others were paying, site activity jumped. To capitalize on this, he then posted a gas-card sweepstakes giveaway.

It got the party going.