Technology is a beautiful thing. All things considered, technology can make our lives easier and more productive. As you may or may not be aware, forums, newsgroups and blogs are some of the latest technologies utilized by both businesses and consumers. Whether you own, work for or work with an automotive aftermarket company, forums, newsgroups and blogs affect you. How? It's all about how your company is perceived in the marketplace and how you respond to positive and negative feedback. With just a few keystrokes, you can learn where your company’s' strengths and weaknesses are and where improvements are needed. You can receive instant feedback on the quality of your products, fit and finish, performance, customer service and how you measure up to your competition. You can even discover tremendous opportunities for new products that don't even exist yet. Forums, newsgroups and blogs can have an instant, lasting and monumental impact on your company's success in the marketplace and its bottom line. You might manufacture the best mousetrap on the market but you may have quality control, service or perception issues that can keep total success from your grasp. Many of you may not know how to operate or even turn on a computer. On the other hand, some of you are experts in programming PHP 5.0 and MySQL. Regardless, of where you are and what you know, I will explain how embracing forums, newsgroups and blogs can help your business succeed.

What Are Forums, Newsgroups and Blogs?

Forums, newsgroups and blogs are interactive, web based systems that allow the free, real time exchange of ideas and feedback between thousands of individuals all over the world in specific community settings. There are forums, newsgroups and blogs for every conceivable niche in the automotive aftermarket. Thus, a manufacturer or consumer can drill down to the specific area of interest that applies to them. Most require pre-registration with an e-mail account, user name, password, name and location. After that, you can answer technical questions, provide feedback, contribute articles, upload pictures, etc. instantly in the form of threads. Once a thread has been posted, anyone who is a member can respond in real time. You can even receive e-mail notifications whenever someone replies to your thread.

How Forums, Newsgroups and Blogs Are Utilized:

Consumers utilize forums, newsgroups and blogs for pre-purchase information, where they can receive the best deals and to provide feedback on their experiences with a particular product and/or company. It's also a place where consumers can be heard, provide helpful advice and in general feel like they are a part of something bigger than they are. Businesses utilize forums, newsgroups and blogs by promoting and test marketing new products, offering special introductory pricing, offering specials on closeouts, offering valuable feedback and in some instances, offering group purchases. Some manufacturers actually host their own forums, newsgroups and blogs but most are members of independently owned systems.

How Forums, Newsgroups and Blogs Affect Your Business:

Forums, newsgroups and blogs are tremendous sales and marketing tools. They can potentially reach thousands of consumers in minutes. Unlike e-mail campaigns, they are more interactive and provide a wider variety of feedback. Properly utilized, forums, newsgroups and blogs can instill brand loyalty and trust and consumer confidence.

What You Should Consider Before You Join:

Rules of Engagement:

Forums, newsgroups and blogs ARE the wave of the future and the future is now. They must be understood and embraced as a viable source of marketing and as a revenue stream

  1. Know the lingo (many people speak computer link in forums, blogs, newsgroups, etc. Please familiarize yourself with these terms BEFORE posting –

http://www.web-friend.com/help/lingo/lingo_basics.html  

http://www.web-friend.com/rooms/chattalk.html

 

2. Be nice, positive and upbeat (it’s hard to dislike someone who is)

3. Don't argue. Listen, read and understand to what is being said and respond very carefully WITHOUT arguing.

4. Don't slam or defame your competitors (talk about the positives of your company rather than their negatives)

5. Stick to the facts. Don't embellish your product or brand name, misrepresent yourself or state untrue information (it will come back to haunt you AND your company/.

6. Only promise what you can deliver (check stock AND availability BEFORE promising you have “X” quantity of something ready to ship or when “X” product will be available). Otherwise, potential customers will seek out your competitors and beat a path to “their” door.

7. Respond promptly (don’t wait several days or weeks to respond as the Internet is all about speed).

8. Check your post for spelling, grammar and technical accuracy BEFORE you post. We recommend typing your text in Microsoft Word (or equivalent) with the spelling and grammar checking turned on, then cut and paste the text. This will ensure you are always technically correct which builds respect from forum members.

9. Be firm but fair (stand your ground without giving away “the farm”).

10. Be honest and up-front (if you don’t know the answer, say something like, “let me check on that and I’ll get back to you.” Then, verify the facts as true and technically accurate before responding. Don’t hide behind an alias, register as a representative of your company. Also, many forums will let you have a signature or avatar (a small graphic banner with contact information – this should look similar to the main graphic banner on your web site and the text should have your mailing address, phone/fax, hours of operation and a statement, “specializing in …” with membership affiliations, all major credit cards accepted.

  1. It’s more difficult to qualify a sales lead on a forum. On the phone or in person, a good sales person should be able to qualify if someone is willing to buy now, buy with some technical information of will never buy within a matter of minutes. Still try to qualify your sales leads but know that people on forums are their primarily for community and technical information (pre-purchase or after the sale tech support or advice).

  2. Post group purchase, special sales, new product releases ONLY by following each forums rules. Every forum, when you sign up, makes you agree to certain rules. You’ll want to keep a copy of these rules in a folder (naming each file the name of the forum.txt, etc.). Some forums will let you post group purchases, specials sales, new product releases WITHOUT being advertisers. Some require you to be an advertiser while others strictly forbid it. PLEASE read the rules FIRST or you will be banned by the moderator from that forum. If you can’t advertise or promote, you can still answer tech questions which CAN lead to a sale.

Claims, Disclaimers & Legal Issues:

  1. Advertised claims: Let's say you manufacture a specific performance product that, according to your dyno testing, adds 100HP to the rear wheels. Your advertisement doesn't mention hp numbers can vary based on a variety of factors. Yet, someone purchases and installs your product and only sees a gain of 70HP. The net result is a difference of 30HP. Even more important is that you have an upset customer who "may" have access to forums, newsgroups and blogs. In just a few mouse clicks, an upset customer can let thousands of people know of their dissatisfaction GLOBALLY. Perception and reality need to come as close to matching as possible. All advertising claims need to be attainable, reproducible and have the appropriate disclaimers.

  2. Dyno tests/test results (hot/cold tests, variations, procedures)-Any test result is subject to many variations which can affect the result. It is therefore upon the manufacturer to ensure the test results are conservative, repeatable and adhere to accepted testing standards and procedures (where appropriate).

  3. Disclaimers (variations in performance results, vehicle modifications, photos, sizes, colors; emission status)-You MUST list disclaimers for legal protection.

  4. Sales, warranty and return policies-If you are participating in a group purchase or offering a special sale, mention the sales, warranty and return policies (via a link to your web site). If the policies are different and unique to the offer (i.e., all sales are final, limited quantity only, no rain checks, all sales final, products are blems, etc.), mention them in the offer to prevent

  5. Product liability insurance-If you are a manufacturer, you MUST product liability insurance

  6. Legal review and implementation-Make sure your legal counsel reviews your claims, policies and ensures you have adequate legal protection.

Quality Control:

Quality is probably THE most important product feature online purchasers look for. And, because the forums are like the Better Business Bureau, they provide real-time information (good and bad) about a manufacturer. Here are some quality control issues a manufacturer should address:

  1. Hardware-Consider including a 2nd package of hardware (in case the original package of hardware is missing a nut, bolt, screw or washer). This will help prevent an angry customer in the event of missing hardware.

  2. Instruction manuals-Ensure you include instructions with a copy of your warranty with every product shipped. Also, include a printable PDF version on your web site (in the event the customer loses the printed instructions or in case the instructions were not shipped with the product).

  3. Bill of materials-It’s a good idea to include a bill of materials that mentions every nut, bolt, screw and washer (mention sizes, diameters, thread counts, grade, and quantity and where possible, diagrams). This way, if hardware is missing, they can go to their local hardware store and get what they need.

  4. Quality control procedures (TQM, ISO 9000, QS 9000, etc.)-Essentially, these quality procedures set forth quality procedures and documentation for your organization that must be followed by every department from purchasing to shipping. It sets standards and ensures that you stick to them to maintain a high level of quality. Today, OEM vehicle manufacturers REQUIRE their suppliers to meet their quality standards. Instituting quality control procedures will help you maintain a high level of quality.

Customer Service:

  1. Who should respond – The person who responds should be computer literate and have a thorough technical knowledge of your product line. Ideally, it is a person who is an engineer who knows how to relate to customers or a sales person who is extremely technically savvy.

  2. How to respond – The best response is timely, accurate, honest and up-front. Register on each forum you participate in as a representative of your company (not a person hiding under an alias). DO NOT register as an alias (fictitious customer, etc.) and post untrue statements. Many (if not most of the forum moderators and owners) are computer engineers or I.T. experts as well as gear heads. They CAN track you through your I.P. address (like a digital fingerprint) which tells them what computer, city and state you are posting from. And, it’s difficult to keep everything straight and not make a mistake when posting misinformation so don’t. Try to answer all questions in a timely matter (the same day or within a few days if possible). Double check your answers BEFORE posting (for spelling, grammar and technical accuracy). NEVER flame or bad mouth your competitors (talk about the strengths of your product line and always be nice).

  3. What to do if you get flamed – Be honest, up-front and nice. If someone calls you on a mistake from a post, own up to it. If someone says your product arrived late and/or without hardware or instructions, own up to it. Try your best to make it right by being firm but fair. If the instructions or hardware were left out, overnight them at your expense. If the shipping was late, refund the shipping charge and give them a coupon for a discount on their next order. Always try to take a negative and turn it in to a positive. In some cases, you can privately contact the moderator of the forum to have negative or defamatory remarks removed. However, MOST forum moderators are champions of free speech and the free exchange of ideas (positive AND negative). Keeping that in mind be nice, up front and honest and they may be able to accommodate your request.

  4. How to turn a problem customer into a repeat customer-In the crowded field of customers, there are always the 1%’rs (the customer no one could ever make happy). Sometimes, it may seem there are more of them on forums and newsgroups than on the phone. In reality, many people hang out on forums to be a part of a community and in any community there are followers and leaders. MOST people on forums are followers and will easily follow trends from leaders or those they respect and admire. So, what’s a manufacturer to do? Identify who the leaders are on a particular forum and try to earn their trust and respect. If you do, most of the followers will fall into line and perhaps, buy your products rather than your competitors.

Researching Your Competitors:

Forums, newsgroups and blogs are wonderful tool for researching your competitors. First, you need to identify who your competitors are. Then, look for them on the forums where you’ll be posting. You can really learn a lot about them (positive and negative feedback, strengths and weaknesses, etc.). Pay attention here and you can turn your competitor’s weakness into your strength which can turn into sales. If their weakness is turnaround time, make that your strength. If their weakness is customer service, make that your strength. You get the idea?

Don't Forget Facebook and Google:

Wanna look about your competitors, look them up on Google and Facebook. You'll find a plethora of information about them...good AND bad. There are opportunities for your business everywhere...if you know where to look. You can turn your competitors negative qualities into your organizations' positives!