Keeping Up with Customers on Social Media

April 30, 2010
Director of user experience for Optiem, a Cleveland-based Internet marketing company

Linda Nawrocki spoke in January to a group of collision repairers at the Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes A-Plus Network Vision Group conference in Orlando, Fla., about different online marketing strategies to use during the customer life cycle. Sherwin-Williams is a client of Optiem, and Nawrocki was invited to share her online marketing expertise with the paint company’s collision repair clients.

Nawrocki works with companies to identify and implement an online marketing strategy that adapts to the changing relationship between a customer and a company. We caught up with her between client meetings to chat about social networking’s “Big Four” (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube), and to get her perspective on how collision repair shops can use each tool differently—or what to do if you’ve decided not to spend much time on them at all. (News flash: It’s ok not to post on Twitter!)

How did you end up speaking to a group of collision repairers in January?

Sherwin-Williams is a client, and I worked with Sherwin-Williams Automotive on their website. That A-Plus Vision Group Conference program was for owners, and they brought in industry experts, including me. A lot of the businesses had been around for quite awhile offline, and they had been doing marketing like sending direct mail. They had a lot of questions about websites and social media. I shared with them some best practices. As a small business owner you have time and financial constraints. How should you approach an online marketing strategy?

What kinds of questions were you fielding from the shop owners?

They asked a lot of great questions. Some didn’t even have a website, and some were pretty savvy. The biggest conversations were around social media. A lot of people just have a fear of the unknown. Should I be using it, or shouldn’t I? How do you go about building a website? What are the things that are important to have? Should I hire a firm, and are they going to give me the things I need to be successful on the Internet?

So what’s the scoop on social media?

One of the most important things to think about is, who’s your audience? Take Facebook as an example. Facebook is a more female-dominated social medium. So you’re in collision repair and you’re trying to appeal to female customers because maybe women are the ones bringing their cars in, and women are taking care of the family household. If I’m trying to appeal to women, then Facebook is a medium I need to be on.

Isn’t Facebook more about connecting with friends than with business contacts?

Facebook is a more social medium. But you know, people have had great experiences getting business through being on Facebook personally. Maybe a friend of your wife sees that you own a repair center, and she contacts you because she knows your wife and wants to give business to her friend’s husband.

Let’s talk about Twitter, because I think a lot of us are just confounded about how to use this thing effectively.

With Twitter, a year ago, I would’ve told you something different than I’m telling you now. Twitter has grown so much, and the way people use it has changed. In the early days of Twitter, it really was just individuals having conversations with each other. Now, people are using it to stay up on the latest news. It’s more a newsfeed than a conversation.

So does that mean that if I’m going to be on Twitter, I have to constantly write little 140-character news updates about my shop, or my life? That seems like a time vacuum, and who really cares about the daily goings-on of my shop?

People don’t need to feel like they need to be out there saying stuff on Twitter. Most people out there are reading Twitter, they’re not posting anything. You may not want to invest your time in being interactive, but you can use it as a newsfeed by following people who are doing interesting things in your industry. But I think it’s worth getting on there. There are all these great tools on Twitter, an unbelievable amount. It’s worth exploring some of those tools.

Ok, what about LinkedIn? Seems pretty straightforward for people in white-collar office jobs, but how can a body shop make good use of LinkedIn?

LinkedIn is more business-oriented. LinkedIn is a good place to post a shop’s qualifications, so potential customers can see them. It’s also a great tool if you as a collision repair shop want to go after a corporate client and you’re wondering how to make a connection at that company. Maybe you have a contact on LinkedIn who knows someone at the company and they can make an introduction. Using LinkedIn that way very much shows that you understand the value of networking with people as a way of trying to get new business. It’s a very strong tool. Maybe you’re trying to get a [DRP at an insurance company]. If you’re connected to [local] people in that company, they might be able to connect you to people at the larger firm. Or maybe you didn’t even realize someone you knew switched over to that firm. You can keep track of that on LinkedIn.

What if a shop owner decides he wants to be on LinkedIn, but doesn’t see a big use for Facebook or Twitter?

Even if you’re not active on a social medium, you should still have a presence there. You want to protect your name so someone else doesn’t go out there and grab it. Even if you don’t use it very much, that’s ok.

The other social media we’re always hearing about is YouTube. Is it all celebrity spoofs, music videos and teenagers pulling stupid stunts? Or is there a business use for it?

One of the best ways to use YouTube is to tell people things they don’t want to read about. For example, when there’s a change in insurance laws in your state, posting a video [on YouTube with a link to your site] is a great way for shop owners to explain what those insurance law changes mean for their customers. People don’t want to read 15 paragraphs on insurance law. But a shop owner can make himself the voice of authority on a topic like this.

Sounds like a good way for a shop operator to build trust with customers.

That gives customers confidence that when they bring their car in to get it fixed, you’ll do all the right things as far as insurance claims go.
Something else we’re hearing about is search engine optimization (SEO), where you use certain techniques to improve your website’s ranking with search engines like Google, so it’ll appear closer to the top of a search list. How important is SEO, and how much do you really have to invest in it?

Well, you can pay boatloads of money to make sure your site is at the top of a search page. But there are other ways [to get good search engine placement]. There’s a lot of power in local search. Google, Yahoo! and Bing all have local business platforms which allow you to register your business with them.

How do those platforms work, and more importantly, how much do they cost?

When people type in “collision repair” and the name of the town they’re searching in, a little map with links will come up. Google even has a listing that allows you to have coupons on there. It’s a great way to optimize your website, because a lot of those searches are probably local. And it’s free.

Is it easy to sign up?

Signing up is really simple. For Google, for example, it asks you your business name, and either you send them a business card or they have other ways to ensure that you’re a real person.

When you spoke to the collision repairers, you talked about Internet marketing throughout the life cycle of the customer relationship. Tell us more about that.

People don’t always need to have their car fixed. When someone has an immediate need, they’ll search and find your website. Once you talk to them, they’ll tell you some of their contact information, you can get their email address and follow up with them. Then, after you’ve worked with them on that immediate need, you can send them an email once a month with different things going on at your shop, like specials, customer appreciation days and other events that are happening. It’s a good way to keep your shop top-of-mind.

How does a shop guard against customers getting irritated with promotional emails?

That was one of the questions I was asked at the conference. It’s important to define for customers what you’re going to be sending them, and let them know how often. Will it be every other week? Will it be a newsletter? A promotion? When you’re straightforward, it works best.

What happens if you overdo it with promotional emails?

If you don’t tell customers you’re going to be contacting them and you send out an email every two days, you’ll get reported as spam. Getting reported as spam hurts your ability to send emails to new customers because after a certain amount of people report you as a spammer, your email address will prompt spam filters to automatically classify your email as junk mail. Or they’ll just block you from sending emails to, for example, Hotmail accounts, and all your messages will bounce back. So you want to be cautious about how much information you send, and make sure it’s good information.

What’s the next hot Internet trend shop owners should be watching for?

What everyone’s been talking about is mobile. So many people have smart phones, whether it’s an iPhone or a Blackberry. Phone companies have those programs where every two years, you can get a new phone, and those new phones are going to be smart phones. So more and more people are using their phone for things they used to do on their computers. They’re not going home and using the computer to search for things on the Internet. They’re using their smart phone. So a good question to ask is, “Does my website look good on a mobile phone?” You could lose viewers if your website doesn’t work on a mobile phone.

What are some considerations for making a website smart phone-friendly?

It’s important to keep your website simple. Make sure that the website you built can grow and you can add a lot of stuff overtime. It should be flexible and have a very simple design. There’s a tendency to want to have a whiz-bang cool design, but those don’t look good on mobile, and that look ages really quickly.

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