Why is it important for my dealership to have a social network presence? Because that's where your customers are going.

Much like Internet websites exploded onto the marketing scene in the late 1990s, social networking websites have become a dominant component of online activity, seemingly overnight.

A recent Pew Internet-American Life study shows a staggering increase in both the number of people using social network sites, as well as a significant upward shift in the average age of the users.

One of the more interesting facets of this study is that it debunks the myth that people who use social media don't buy cars. This study confirms they are.

What do you need to do to have an effective social-network presence?

Our AIT focus groups, when asked to evaluate some dealership social network sites, were generally critical of most of the current offerings. Among the most common criticisms were that they suffered from a lack of interesting content, contained information that wasn't useful and hadn't been regularly updated.

A dealership's social network site needs to be created correctly. First, it needs a design that is consistent with the dealership's traditional marketing image.

Also, dealerships need to be aware that there are different types of sites within each of the social media platforms, and they need to use the format that is appropriate to their objectives — namely attracting new customers and enhancing their relationships with existing customers.

Social network sites can be created to take advantage of opportunities to “cross-post” the information dealerships want their customers to see. This way, information posted to the dealership's Facebook site will automatically appear on their Twitter and MySpace. This makes it much easier to keep the sites updated.

Once a dealership is properly represented on the various social network sites, it need to reach out to current and potential customers, and convert them to friends, fans and followers.

As members of your social network, these individuals will be instantly connected to your dealership's announcements, events, sales, new inventory, glowing customer reviews, and other messages.

These “active” relationships have proven to be effective, especially among young adults who are establishing their first dealership relationships.

There are a variety of organic marketing strategies to build the dealership's social network. These techniques include email marketing campaigns, in-dealership promotions, offers and contests.

Dealership employees can help spread the word by encouraging their own social network members to join yours. We've seen these kinds of efforts attract followers at the rate of hundreds per month.

The final challenge for dealerships is to meet the challenge of creating and posting relevant and interesting information on their social media sites.

This content will help build the dealership's network, maintain the loyalty of the existing network members, and engage the members to purchase the dealership's products and services.

Each of the various social media sites has particular strengths with particular customer types. For example, Twitter is a great medium to present service specials. Customers can use Twitter-delivered coupons by bringing their smart phones to the dealership.

If you choose not to work with a vendor to help maintain your social media websites, be sure to do a couple of very important things.

Pick someone from your staff who's probably not going to be your typical first choice for management-like responsibilities. You want someone who knows enough about the dealership and its staff and is comfortable working with them to get information to post.

Integrate your social media sites into every facet of your marketing. We've seen nearly 80% click rates from Facebook links included in Internet lead replies.

Kathy Dillon is vice president of Contemporary Media Automotive Internet Technologies. She is at Kathleen.Dillon@autonettech.com

Questions or comments about this column?

Send us an e-mail at Dealers@wardsauto.com.