Tampa — It's not officially been determined just how important social networking is to a 21st century dealership's advertising plans, but one thing is for sure, it can't hurt.

Jeff Kershner, eCommerce manager-Mile One Automotive and founder of DealerRefresh.com, says it's easy and cheap to brand your dealership through social networking websites.

Mile One Automotive is one of the top-10 dealer groups in the country, and the website he created was the first “blog” dedicated to the Internet sales professional.

A “blog,” or web log, for those that are technology declined, is a type of website that's maintained by a person who provides “entries” through commentary, describing events or providing additional material with video or graphics.

“It's important that (the messages) all come together. Social networking is moving fast,” says Kershner during a session entitled “Creating Your Own Brand” at Ward's Automotive Spring Training Conference here. “Who would've thought we'd be talking about Twitter three years ago?

“Social networking isn't the magic pill; it's a platform for interaction and a free platform for branding your dealership.”

Kershner points to social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Myspace, along with popular dealership review sites such as Judy's Book, Yelp and DealerRater.

Kershner says Twitter is another way to build transparency and another easy way to brand a dealership, he says.

With free-access social networking websites, individuals add friends, send instant messages and upload photographs.

Judy's Book has over a million nationwide write-ups and reviews, and Yelp reviews what's great and what's not great in a local area.

Twitter is a micro-blogging service, where members “Tweet” by sending and reading other users “updates.”

“I think it absolutely has a spot, dealers just have to find the sweet spot,” Kershner says about social networking. “But you are missing the boat if you are not on (dealer reviews). All you want is an opportunity.”

He says dealers are going to get an occasional bad review, no matter what they do.

For instance, a customer might feel he or she didn't get enough for a vehicle trade-in, even if the dealership experience was perfect and even though, all things considered, the trade-in deal was fair.

“(Social networking) is easy and it's a cheap to brand your dealership, but don't put all your eggs in one basket,” Kershner says. “It's important because everyone is talking about it, but you have to decide if it's for you.”

The branding aspect of a dealership “is huge,” he says, “especially free branding.”

He says 61% of vehicle buyers say they checked online reviews, while 2007 statistics show 21% of online shoppers changed their dealership selection based on a review.

“With Google Maps, claim your dealership, clean it up and put up photos and videos,” he says. “Dealers receive a huge spike in phone calls from Google Maps. (It) is a great, free-branding element that builds transparency.”

Three years ago, dealers were asking Kershner if they should take more than five photographs of their used cars for online displaying. Now, providing as many photographs as possible can be the determining factor in a used-vehicle purchase.

“You should get involved with social networking,” Kershner implores dealers from across the U.S. attending the conference, “rather than sitting on the sidelines waiting for the competition to react.

“But, it has to be right for you. Don't go into it half way. Is there a spot for this in the dealer community? You have to decide.”

One easy way to get images of your dealership out there, Kershner says, is through www.animoto.com and www.youtube.com. They help dealerships upload video. Both of those avenues also help dealerships get their URL's noticed.

“Also, if you can blog, it will help drive traffic to your website,” Kershner says. “It's hard to measure (the return on investment for your time), but you definitely have to write content. You can feature industry events, display ‘how-to’ videos and explore your fixed-ops side.”

“If you want to find more ways to sell cars, get more involved on the web,” says Matthew Belk of E-Valuation Inc, a firm that mystery shops to determine how dealerships handle Internet leads.

With a $150 point-and-shoot camera, a dealership sales staffer can produce a 2-minute video highlighting features of a new or used vehicle, and send it to a customer through e-mail, he says.

“You can produce a homemade video from your dealership, and help build your brand,” says Belk, who was with Hendrick Automotive Group for 11 years, leading its eBusiness initiatives. “Customers will think you did this personally for them. It doesn't just get an OK response; it's something that blows them away. It has a wow factor.”

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