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The Power of Word of Mouth in the Internet Age

By Andy Van Horn

Why social media works
It used to be that if you wanted advice within the parking industry, you would have to pick up the phone and start calling people or travel to a trade show that happens once a year and ask questions. In either instance, your responses are limited to whom you call or manage to talk to. It was limited by your ability to connect with others. The Internet has totally changed all of that. We have information coming out of our ears. Type in the word “parking” in Google and you get 211 million possible pages. The Internet has not given us better information; it gives us access to more information. So the problem now is what information is correct or “whom do we trust.”
Most people still do what they used to do when it comes to whom they trust in regards to receiving information. Most people talk to those they know. We all do this. What is a good Italian restaurant, what hotel should I stay at, or what revenue control system do you use? In the final case, most people listen to individuals like themselves (if a person runs a city parking organization then he or she tends to ask someone in a similar position for advice). What social media does is make this process easier. It allows for people to stay in contact with more people at the same time.
Platforms
The use of social media started out very simply (I will be focusing on the Big Three): Facebook was a way for college students to keep in touch; Twitter was a way for news information to be disseminated in a simple and straight forward manner in times of emergency; LinkedIn was a way for people to be connected in a business setting. But as with any invention, no one knew where it would lead. (See sidebar on what Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are.)
Now these forms of social media have exploded. Facebook has more than 410 million users (that is more people than live in the United States). Twitter has morphed from a news-content agency to a focus on social interaction (what this famous person is doing now). LinkedIn has held most true to its original business model by focusing solely on business relationships. Instead of writing a letter, making a phone call or sending an email, I can update my Facebook status with which event I will be attending and see if anyone else wants to go and reach literally hundreds of people with the click of a button.
Why should I care?
The question is, “As a business, why should I care about social media? Isn’t it just a way for my teenage daughter to follow what Lindsay Lohan is doing?” Well, actually, no. Social media is a powerful tool. Why should you care about social media? Hearing about trends within the industry, what people are talking about, what issues your company can address in the marketplace. Some of the issues can get very specific.
The following examples actually happened, in the parking industry.
A person sent a note to a social media site that stated: “I use X piece of equipment made by company Y and it keeps failing. Does any one have a solution on how to fix?”
A couple of people responded that they had the problem as well and never got any help from the company that made the product. Others suggested a rival company. That was it. The site has more than 1,000 subscribers.
Another time a similar note appeared (on the same social media site) but about a different company. Within six hours, there were three responses (from other individuals), all stating that they had a great experience with X product and that the person should contact the company that made it.
By the next day, the person who originally complained about the product said that they had been contacted by the company and the rep was coming out to help sort out the issue and they appreciated the customer service they were receiving.
One company was active in regard to social media, and another ignored it.
The basics
One of the first things that your company or organization should do is look around at what is happening in the world of social media in your immediate area. There are two areas that you would want to look at: parking specific and those related to your specific job. (For a list of the current parking-specific social media sites, look at the side bar or go to www.parkingtoday.com/links.
Does the city or college, etc., that your parking department supports have a social media presence (Facebook accounts, Twitter program, etc.)? Make sure that a member of your staff monitors that site. There might be a wealth of information about how people view your parking department or about how members of your staff are viewed by the public.
Set up a Facebook or Twitter account for your staff to follow. It is a good way to get information to your staff. There are a multitude of uses for this account (training, feedback on staffing issues, or a new idea forum). This also is a good way to help train your staff on how to use these services, because there will come a time when many of them will need to be able to use them.
Set up a public Facebook page or Twitter account. These can be used to communicate with your customers in a variety of fashions. You can tell your customers of parking lot closures and where they should redirect to; changes in rules or regulations; possible savings opportunities, etc. While not every person has a social media account or checks it frequently, it takes only a couple to make a difference.
At a college, if a parking garage were closed due to an emergency repair and 15% of the customers knew ahead of time and could redirect their routes, it would save the parking department a lot of energy. (To find out more about how a public Facebook page or “fan page” can be helpful to your organization, click here.) Get set up on LinkedIn and connect with other people in your industry. This can assist you in finding high-quality recommendations for products and services, as well as help you find high-quality individuals when your organization is hiring.
When you see a Facebook or Twitter link from a person or a professional organization in your industry, follow it. Once you begin following, you can find out if that organization or person puts out good or bad information, and then you can decide what to do. The benefits can be tremendous.
The worst thing in business is to not be informed, and social media is a great way to keep up. Not being involved in social media can be dangerous to your business.
Andy Van Horn is Operations Director at Parking Today and in charge of its Social Media activity. He can be reached at Andy@parkingtoday.com.

Sidebar:
Social Media Sites in Parking
These social media sites are in no way exhaustive but try to hit a broad cross section of what is out there. Not all platforms work for every individual, so find the one that works for you and use that to get (and give) the information you need. For more social media sites, go to www.parkingtoday.com/links or www.parkingworld.com/links. You can also submit your links there as well.
E-mail-based mailing list
An electronic mailing list software application – usually referred to by the trademarked name ListServ, or simply list serve – consists of a set of e-mail addresses for a group in which the sender can send one e-mail and it will reach a variety of people. So if there is a parking list serve and you join it and send an e-mail question, it is then sent to the entire group. Then each member of the group can respond or not. One of the first social media parking applications is a list serve called CPARK-L, which now has more than 1,000 members, you can learn quite a bit there, as well as get some great answers to your questions.
CPARK-L: www.lsoft.com/scripts/wl.exe?SL1=CPARK-L&H=LISTS.PSU.EDU
LinkedIn is a business-oriented social networking site. It exists to help you make better use of your professional network and to help the people you trust in return. Once you join LinkedIn, you can send messages to connect with your professional network. You also can join active groups in the parking industry. For starters, use the Search function with the following names and ask to join: Parking Today, Parking Network (for Professionals), International Parking Institute.
Facebook started out as college student-only networking site, but now has more than 400 million users worldwide. It is a social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and co-workers. Different organizations can create Facebook “fan pages” to keep in touch with individuals around the world. Become a “fan” of the following pages, for starters, to keep up-to-date with the world of parking:
www.facebook.com/parkingtoday
www.facebook.com/pages/Parking-World/144562520459?ref=ts
Twitter is a real-time information network that allows for only 140 characters per “tweet.” It is a simple tool that helps users connect more meaningfully with the right audience at the right time. Businesses and organizations of all shapes and sizes are now able to stay connected to their customers. You can join Twitter and then begin following all types of people to hear what they have to say. Try these for starters:
http://twitter.com/jvhpt
http://twitter.com/IntlParkingInst
http://twitter.com/NatParkAssoc

Article Abstract from July, 2010




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