When was the last time you opened up a phonebook to search for a store, restaurant or place of business that you were trying to reach or wanted to visit? I couldn’t even tell you the last time I did. We don’t even keep one in the house any more — when delivered they go right from the front porch to the recycling bin. If I showed my kids a phonebook I suspect they’d be as stumped by what they were seeing as they were by the rotary-dial phone I once asked them to identify.

We are clearly living in a digital age where smart phones, tablets and online searches are simply the norm, and not just something for young people. They’ve become so prevalent in day-to-day life that for most consumers Google isn’t just a brand, it’s a verb. Need to find a phone number for a restaurant to make a reservation? Google it. Want to look up the location and hours of the nearest equipment dealership? Google it.

So why aren’t more rural equipment dealers making a better use of online tools? I’ve attended a few dealer meetings in the last several months and was struck by how many folks I met that had no online presence whatsoever. No website, no email and certainly no social media presence.

In the Rural Lifestyle Dealer “2012 Equipment Forecast & Business Outlook” survey that appeared in our Winter 2012 issue, we asked “Have the shopping habits of your rural customers changed in the past three years?” The prevailing sentiment was captured by this dealer’s response, “The Internet has made them more knowledgeable about the equipment they are looking for. It has also made it possible to look for equipment over a wider area.”

So, if the first few steps in the equipment buying process for today’s rural consumer involve online research and you don’t have an Internet presence, you don’t even have a horse in the race. In fact, you’re probably conceding the race before it begins to the big box store or a competing dealership that’s taking advantage of the communication tools your customers use day in and day out. In either case those are dollars that won’t be falling to your bottom line.

I’m not suggesting everyone needs to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on the richest, most dynamic website around, but there’s no doubt it’s a wise investment to have a landing page at a minimum to create some sort of presence. At least something with a picture of your business, phone numbers, a brief “About Us” introduction to the dealership, a list of the lines you carry and your hours.

The “dealer locators” on many manufacturers’ website are great, but in an increasingly competitive marketplace carving out some space that is solely for your dealership on the web can be a difference maker and will help give your dealership personality.

Many manufacturers offer webpage templates that are simple to use and are there for the asking — so ask that question of your suppliers and take advantage of the tools your customers are using.

It also doesn’t cost any more than a little bit of time to create a Facebook or Twitter presence for your business and both are excellent ways to create dialogue and strengthen your bond with current and future customers. Among other things, social media is an exceptional way to let area customers know about open houses, in-store events, specials you’re running, and most importantly it’s another touch point and a way to keep the conversation going with your customers.

Success in this industry depends largely upon the relationships you cultivate. The online world presents opportunity to have an ongoing dialogue and strengthen bonds with current and future customers to forge associations that will last a lifetime.