The Virtual Biker Bar: Online Networks to Build Your Brand

Taking cues from the ongoing, phenomenal success of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, motorcycle dealers are creating their own online communities, where they can glean valuable feedback from customers, promote their brand and keep an eye out for future staff amid the online message posts.

“It’s a good time to become a niche online community and do it right,” says Don Philabaum, CEO of Internet Strategies Group. “You have millions of people who have learned the value of being a part of an online community, and they’ll bring experience, enthusiasm, content — and their network — to your online community.”

Says Paul Gillin, author of The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to the New Social Media, “Blogs, discussion boards and other forms of interactive media are the most cost-effective customer feedback mechanism ever invented. You won’t get a representative sampling of your customers, but you will get your most passionate customers.”

Building Community

PowerSportsNetwork has been leveraging community to promote motorcycle dealers since 2000, according to Craig Cervenka, the company’s OEM relations manager.

The site incorporates a number of social network elements, including a wide array of discussion boards, online games, wallpaper downloads and classified ads, but the real gold for dealers, according to Cervenka, lies in the site’s consumer-generated reviews.

First-time and repeat motorcycle-enthusiast buyers, like most consumers on the web, are hungry for reviews written by customers like themselves, Cervanka says, and PSN is more than happy to provide. “We collect reviews from real people,” he says, which are then redistributed on the 2,300+ plus powersports dealer websites that PSN maintains for those dealers.

“Take Funwheels.com for example,” Cervenka says. “The reviews on that site come from Powersports Network.”

PSN further ensures the success of the marketing technique by only publishing and redistributing four or five star reviews. Plus, the new reviews keep piling up, he says, since every review entered on a specific dealer site can also be redistributed throughout the PSN dealer network.

Meanwhile, Dealer AF1 Racing’s Aprilia Forum takes a similar approach to social networking, nurturing a robust community of bike enthusiasts who regularly log onto its discussion board to jawbone, as well as post pictures, video and audio related to biking.

BigBikeRiders.com offers an easy alternative for dealers who are hip to social networking, but would rather not start one from the ground up. Instead, they can come here and advertise next to the forums where bikers hang out.

Perhaps the best overview of motorcycle dealer social networks can be found at MotorcycleGuide.net. This site features a comprehensive directory of some of the oldest and most established motorcycle social networks on the web.

Generally, industry online communities, like those already mentioned, break out into three categories. The most popular are the simple social hang-outs, which attempt to attract as many members as possible by replicating MySpace and Facebook, and offering as many community features as possible.

Other online communities are solely dedicated to market research, and often opt for an invitation-only model. Such communities generally result in smaller memberships and are, by design, more intimate. Users, generally valued customers who offer dependable insights, usually post more often and more regularly than those in purely social networks. Sometimes, specific discussion threads last for years.

The third genre of site is designed for one purpose only: to gather customer reviews on company products and/or services and publicize that feedback to future customers.

Online Population Boom

No matter which of these community genres appeals to you, it appears the continued rise of the industry-specific online community is inevitable. “Expect at least one-quarter of the Fortune 100 to announce online communities, in which they learn about and create higher levels of engagement with their customers and markets,” says Brad Bortner, co-author of Top Market Researcher Predictions for 2008, from the market research firm Forrester.

Open Social Networks

Not surprisingly, the ‘everyone’s invited’ sites often have more community building features than the smaller sites, and sometimes even have the overall look and feel of a MySpace or FaceBook site.

If you’re interested in starting an ‘everyone’s invited’ site, you’ll want to offer slickly designed tools like discussion boards, chatrooms, instant messaging, blogging, photo posting and similar services offered by the MySpace and Facebook.

Experienced company community builders also say you should jump-start the community’s nerve center — the discussion board — by posting commentary on a dozen or so industry topics and then encouraging visitors to offer their own reactions and opinions to the discussions you’ve started.

With just a little luck and perseverance, these discussion boards will take on a life of their own, with community visitors coming up with their own follow-up topics and others volunteering to moderate special interest groups they are passionate about. Some members will even volunteer to guard your forums for the occasional visitor who just shows up to make mischief.

Within these ongoing conversations or “discussion threads,” you’ll begin to glean valuable insights on how customers truly view your business, what’s working and what’s not.

In addition, you might be able to offer staff positions to discussion board posters who are obviously passionate about motorcycles and demonstrate the critical personality skills you’re looking for in a worker. In many cases, you’ll be able to learn a great deal about a potential employee by what he or she is posting on your company discussion board and how he or she is reacting to what is being posted.

Deeper Customer Connections

The second flavor of online industry communities — small, private, invitation only affairs — are the genre preferred by Communispace, an online community service provider that specializes in designing and helping companies run these meeting places.

“When a few hundred members are participating on a regular basis, the quantity and quality of the content is deeper and richer than from large public sites,” says Katrina Lerman, co-author of the Communispace white paper The Fifth P of Marketing: Participation. “For companies that truly want to connect with their customers, smaller may in fact be better.”

Under the Communispace model, private customer communities are generally branded, password-protected sites where an intimate group of members spends months and sometimes years together brainstorming ideas for a company, sharing conversations with other customers and essentially playing a pivotal role shaping the company’s future.

Review Sites

The third flavor of industry community — review sites dedicated to netting customer reviews on goods and services — are being used by some of the biggest names in business, including Dell, Macy’s, Petco, Sears, Charles Schwab and PepsiCo.

Keen interest in these types of communities is reflected in studies like the Social Shopping Study 2007, which found that 65 percent of active online shoppers visit online discussions where other consumers rate and post reviews of products they’ve purchased from a retailer.
Released last November by the etailing group, the study also found that an overwhelming 82 percent of respondents say they would rather get advice on a purchase from an online review or rating system than from a knowledgeable, in-store salesperson.

”In countries around the world, shoppers are increasingly embracing user-generated review content as a critical part of the research and purchase process,” says Sam Decker, Bazaarvoice’s chief marketing officer. “In fact, 78 percent of international consumers said they trusted direct recommendations from other consumers most when making product purchase decisions.”

Community Consultants

Fortunately, no matter what type of community seems right for you store, you’ll find there are a number of consultants and service providers ready to help you implement your choice. In addition to the industry-specific PowerSports Netowork, companies like the Internet Strategies Group, Zuberance, Genuosity and Affinitive can help you build a thriving online community for your dealership.

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