TINLEY PARK, IL –  For dealership management still skeptical about social media, Tom Gorham would like a few words with you: take it on faith.

The faith he asks for is to believe social media will revolutionize dealership marketing the way the dot-com era did in the late ‘90s. This time around, the outcome will be something traditionalists understand well: word-of-mouth marketing, says Gorham, Internet Sales and Marketing manager for Apple Chevrolet, located here, and an editor and social media and reputation management blogger for Automotive Digital Marketing.

“Certainly the promise of social media requires faith today, just as dealers required faith at the dawn of the dot-com era of marketing,” Gorham says. “The truth of social media is that it’s word-of-mouth advertising in a modern package. This is the new way dealerships get all-important referral business.”

Not too long ago, Gorham reminds us, sales associates joined civic clubs like Lions, Rotary and Exchange, not to sell cars but to network. They believed that socializing would eventually result in a customer or referral. Today, Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites are where the modern dealership socializes – and where it will generate business opportunities.

“As a consumer, there is comfort in purchasing a product from a business that others have talked about in a positive manner,” says Rob McClurg, CEO of social media marketers Stone Meta Media. “In the past, we would hear business or product reviews while visiting family, going to dinner with friends, or getting a haircut.  The same word-of-mouth reviews exist today, but social media has expanded the reach of our ears exponentially.”

Dealers attending NADA ’12 can learn more about Stone Meta Media at Booth #3356.

Apple Chevrolet’s marketing takes advantage of a variety of digital channels. These include banner advertising, YouTube, car-shopping sites like cars.com and autotrader.com, search engine marketing and the dealership’s own website.

“Our overall strategy is to create a web – like a spider web – of interconnectivity with all of these connections, which link back to our website. Social media is part of this web, and social media’s currency is…socializing. Because of this currency, it is a challenge for dealership managers to assign an ROI to social media,” Gorham says.

Any dealer can measure the impact of this socializing -- how many people become ‘Friends’ on their Facebook page and how much traffic comes into to their website from Facebook, using web analytics..

“So, here’s a measurement any dealership active in social media can take right now. Simply take note of the referral business coming into the dealership since the dealership got active in social media and what the historic rate had been,” Gorham says.

Whether socializing at the local civic club or to a broader fan base via Facebook, the aim of attendance isn’t to sell something, but to socialize – with the long view hope that that interaction will one day result in customers and referrals.

“Only 17% of people on Facebook are in the market for a car at any one time, so what do you say to the other 83%? You socialize with them,” Gorham stresses.

Gorham says his social media company, Stone Meta Media, helped him put in place this socializing strategy. He charges that company’s social media experts with handling the dealership’s day-to-day engagement activities, though Gorham engages the site daily himself.

He says the social media marketers’ social media strategy aligns with forward-thinkers. For instance, this from Alistair Rennie, IBM’s general manager for social business, writing recently in Forbes.com:

“We’ve always been social beings. Social media has just amped up these natural tendencies. When we apply social technologies and cultural guidelines to our companies, to business, that’s when massive change is going to happen.

“Like the PC or the mainframe or the Internet, these innovations will reshape work and customer experience. In the process, they will end up separating the winners from the losers,” Rennie wrote.

For instance, Apple Chevrolet’s Facebook page is a big proponent of building social networks. One way it does this is by displaying customers’ photos with the vehicles they’ve just purchased. Customers reply how much they love this recognition and that their friends often take note as well.

Gorham or one of his staff makes sure those images go up on Facebook almost immediately. His staff has created more than 1,600 YouTube videos, each presenting a personalized vehicle walk-around for parties having inquired through social media, the dealership website or other means. These videos, part of Google.com’s premium video channel, connect viewers back to Apple’s website www.applechevy.com

Stone Meta social media marketers help with sweepstakes and contests the dealership runs on Facebook. These engagement tools have helped the dealership rapidly increase its Facebook fan base to nearly 5,000; In October, its Facebook page conducted a Breast Cancer awareness sweepstakes, and to drive more local-area fans into engagement with the dealership page, conducts regular sweepstakes for local sports clubs tickets. By encouraging local fans, the site is more likely to create fans who’ll do business with or refer friends to the dealership.

Apple Chevrolet sells 2,000 new and used vehicles a year, of which 90% of those buyers have been brought into the store through some form of the dealership’s digital marketing. One recent Facebook giveaway for Chicago Bears tickets help Apple Chevrolet capture 85 new Facebook fans directly from their own backyard.

“We’re experimenting today with all sorts of ideas and I trust one day from all this that what we and other social media proponents at dealerships are doing will one day evolve into best practices…and what exactly is ROI in social media,” he says. “It’s measured in word-of-mouth, but this can take a long time to ferment into results.”

Adds Stone Meta’s McClurg, “We now listen to friends all over the world on a daily basis, make buying decisions based on their thoughts and brag about our purchase decisions with them, in person and increasingly online. I find it hard to believe that anyone would argue that word-of-mouth referrals are not great for business. So, why wouldn't we all want our referrals on social-steroids?”

For more about Stone Meta Media, visit www.stonemeta.com or call 815.333.3332. or visit at NADA ’12 in Las Vegas February 3-6 at  Booth #3356.