“Engage or die.” That’s the warning of leading social media expert Brian Solis. In fact, he

Sara Steever

predicts a major shift in the Fortune 500 list, based on how companies engage in social media.

Those are strong opinions, but there’s no denying social media’s impact on the way businesses and individuals communicate today. The real question for you: Do you need social media in your marketing program? Can social media help you reach your rural lifestyle customers and grow your dealership?

“Think about rural lifestylers as consumers. They are just as social as other consumers. They are hungry for information,” says Sara Steever, vice president of interactive and digital strategist for Paulsen Marketing. They’re finding this information online in social communities. They’re turning to other consumers for purchasing advice, she says.

“If you’re not paying attention as a company you’re missing out on what people are saying about you,” Steever says. You’re also missing out on the chance to interact and build a relationship with people who may be looking for what you offer.

Social media defined

What exactly is social media? Social media are online tools that help you establish a community and interact with them. The tools include web sites, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, online forums and more.

The technology is fairly easy to use and many tools are free, which has led to its explosion. Facebook, for instance, was founded in 2004 and now has more than than 750 million active users.

For business, it’s just as important to know what social media isn’t.

For business, it’s just as important to know what social media isn’t.

“Social media isn’t going to fix a bad marketing plan or bad product or bad service,” says Steever.

And, social media isn’t about selling, but engaging with your community. Steever advises an 80:20 approach, 80 percent of a company’s social media messages should be about information and 20 percent should be product or service focused.

Steever adds, “Social media is a marathon. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s long term. It’s not something you can turn on and off.”

“The tools are free, but it’s still a huge investment for a company.”

Testing the waters

Steever advises this simple first step when evaluating social media: “Begin with listening and learning. Listen to where the conversation is heading.”

Find out what people are saying about you online. For instance, do a Google search on your dealership’s name. Or, use Google alerts, a free tool to monitor online mentions of a particular topic. That topic could be your dealership’s name or a keyword, such as rotary mower, snow blower, or horse.

Look at what your competitors are doing on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Check out online ratings and discussion communities like Angie’s list or TractoryByNet.

Also, Steever says you can learn from others who are successful in social media, such as Monsanto’s America’s Farmers campaign, Ford Motor Co., and American Express’ OPEN Forum. Her company is launching a new program for Hubbard Life, so give them a look, too.

This listening process will help you better understand what kinds of information rural lifestylers need, and what brands and companies are filling the role of experts.

Online reputation management

Social media offers much more than a conversation method, says Steever. It’s a reputation management strategy, too. One international study showed that reputation is viewed as 63% of a company’s market value. In the same study, executives said it can take more than three years to recover from a damaged reputation.

Dealers know well the value of reputation in a local community, especially those whose customers may be neighbors.

“Social media is an opportunity to build trust. The people we trust are the ones we do business with,” says Steever.

That trust is critical when your dealership faces a crisis.

“If you don’t have an audience built up with good will, then when you do have a crisis you’re starting at ground zero,” Steever says.

Where do I start?

Before beginning any social media program, Steever advises a management strategy session. This session should address company goals and set measurable results that tie back to goals. For example, a measurable goal could be to build and connect with your community and gain 10 customer advocates by the end of the first year.

And, don’t scrap other marketing tactics and only focus on social media.

“If your expectation is that you’re going to put all budget into social media, that’s a big mistake,” says Steever. “Social media doesn’t stand alone well. It shouldn’t be the only tactic in your marketing plan.”

It is time, though, to get started.

“If you’re silent, that can be deafening, too,” says Steever.