“Community engagement” is a buzzword in marketing these days, but what does it really mean? Should your dealership do more of it? If so, how can you use community engagement to drive new and repeat business?

Answering these three questions will get you on the road to community engagement that gets results. But first: What, exactly, is community engagement?

A “community” is where people have enough things in common that you see them as a group. Yes, a city is a community (people share the same ZIP code). But you may also think of your customers as a community. After all, they share common characteristics (drivers, earn enough money to buy or finance a car, employed, live within a reasonable distance, need transportation, they shop at your dealership, etc.).

“Engagement” is really about the two-way flow of action and information in a relationship. One-way action and communication is not engagement. So, for example, a salesperson rambling on and on about features is not engagement. A salesperson asking a customer about her transportation needs is engagement. He is asking questions and she is answering.

So community engagement is really about your dealership building two-way relationships with customers.

You know it’s working when you and your customer are getting equally and giving equally in the relationship. When both of you feel like you’re getting the better end of the deal, you will keep coming back to the relationship again and again. That means your customer is enjoying a better life because of the cars she buys from you and her experience buying them from you. It means you are enjoying more profits and more referrals and repeat business. That’s the magic of community engagement.

So how do you do it well?

Start by asking these three questions and the answers will write a high-performance community engagement plan for you.

Question #1: What community are you trying to engage?

This should be the easiest question to answer and the answer should always be your customers. Here’s a harder question: How well do you know your customers?

Let’s say your dealership serves a city of 50,000. How many qualified car buyers live and work in your city? What characteristics do they have in common? What do you know about their age, commuting patterns, family situation, hobbies, income, gender, occupation, religion, etc.? You’re looking for the “communities within the community.” As you take a really close look at your customers and at your marketplace, try to narrow it down to two or three groups (“communities”) that stand out as the easiest to identify and as the most qualified to buy cars from your dealership.

Question #2: What are the most common values in your community?

This is another way of asking what people in your community care about most. Exploring this question does not need to be scientific. The people who work for your dealership are likely to be members of your community and they serve your community every day as part of their jobs. Simply ask your people: What do people in our community care about most? What are their dreams? What do they value?

For example, maybe your dealership serves a community where young children live in most households. What do their parents dream? What do they value? Don’t make the mistake of going straight to thinking about car features like fuel economy and safety. Think about the world from a parent’s point of view. Most parents who are raising young children want to live in a community with great schools, safe streets, and with plenty of things to do with their kids. These things are on their minds a hundred times more often than what car they drive.

When you can list the top two or three things people in your community dream or value, you can start to think of ways that your dealership can support those dreams and those values long before anyone is actually shopping for a car. If your community values great schools and safe streets, make sure your dealership becomes a leader in supporting those things. Don’t stop at mere sponsorship of sports and yearbooks. Ask yourself if your dealership can offer something that nobody else can offer. For example, you could host “safety town” for kids at your dealership a few times a year (which would draw the parents, too).

In summary, think of how your dealership can give something that nobody else can give to what your community values most.

Question #3: What are the most common problems people in your community are trying to solve?

This is where the magic happens, but you have to be willing to take a big step back from thinking about cars. What are the problems people in your community are trying to solve every day?

If you can think about those problems and how your dealership can help solve them, you will be well on your way to community engagement and market domination.

For example, let’s say your dealership serves a community where the news is that households are struggling with lower incomes due to the economy or underemployment. You know that the need for a car does not go away when people are struggling to find jobs that pay well. In fact, the need for a car may be even greater when people are looking for better jobs.

But in this example, people in your community are not thinking much about buying a new car; they’re thinking about the problem of how to earn more money or find a better job. How can your dealership help?

Think beyond selling cars to everything your dealership does well. For starters, you may be the best in your community at figuring out how to increase income, how to market and sell yourself, how to run a business. These are skills people in your community need. What if your dealership started teaching these skills to people who need them? Now you’re solving a problem that people in your community are thinking about every day.

You’re also getting them to engage with you long before they need to buy a car. Who do you think they’ll call when they’re making more money and ready to make a purchase?

In sum, community engagement is about building a two-way relationship between your dealership and your customers. Asking three questions will make a community engagement program that gets results:

  1. What community are you trying to engage?
  2. What does your community value most?
  3. What problem is your community trying to solve?

Answering these questions and thinking about how your dealership can meet community needs before and beyond the need to buy a car will boost your profits, referrals, and repeat business over time.

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